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Skip the pastries, Keep the coffee ...

by Michael Royal

Focus groups now? With masks? Socially distanced? How is that going to work?

Strangely, or maybe not so strangely, as humans we do nothing but adapt. People want to communicate and are willing to change as we adjust to our current circumstances. FirstDay Learning was looking for feedback from mental health professionals. We wanted help to better understand how our content for teachers, coaches, administrators, and parents could best serve the communities in which they live and work. And wow! We got what we needed and so much more.

Lynne List was kind enough to host our focus group outdoors, on her back deck. We had a great group of professionals from Maryland and Washington, D.C. All came ready to give us feedback, assistance, and directional advice on how to best help families in their communities.

First up, social distancing. It wasn’t as easy as you’d think. How do you utilize the space and keep 6 feet between chairs? Are the chairs comfortable? Are the participants going to feel safe? It was in the mid-nineties in July, were we prepared enough? Luckily the answer was yes, with lots of water, coffee, fruit, and pastries!

Next came masks. How many of us had given presentations or trainings with masks on our faces? Neither of us on the FirstDay team had presented with masks on before that day. It was hot, and difficult at times for our audience to understand what was said. Masks not only muffle the sound a bit, they hide expressions. As a couple of people used to talking with their hands, and with gestures, it is a quick lesson in modifying communication on the fly. Thinking of mask protocols, when you are thirsty, do you lift the mask up or down? Are there protocols? It was a lot of pressure…

Luckily for FirstDay Learning, our participants were amazing. The chairs ended up in the right spots, the water was welcome, and the coffee even more so. To top it all off, our participants proved invaluable.

We walked them through our strategies, training modules and theories. They listened, they took notes, and were incredibly generous with their experience, wisdom, and advice. What did they share?

  • Keep it simple

  • Provide language that was helpful to teachers

  • Empathize with the pressure they are facing not just today but with “back to school” and “the new normal” rushing towards August and September

  • Understand that the plans we make are only good until the proverbial doors open and then all plans will need to be adjusted

As we listened to responses and answered questions, we scribbled notes on cards, on the printouts of PowerPoint slides, on napkins, and on everything else we could get our hands on. The conversation continued to build over the course of the morning. The participants spoke individually and collaborated with one another on particular points that spoke to the entire group.

We knew our day was a success when Pascale Caballero commented, “You are doing some amazing work for a population of essential professionals who are usually under served.” Those words coming from a Clinical Social Worker with extensive experience in program management, clinical supervision, psychotherapy, and foster care/adoption, had us feeling like we were on the right track!

We were able to commiserate around all of the unknowns surrounding us as things change day by day. But more importantly, we were able to connect, to work together to strive for something better. After a long morning, all of the participants volunteered to come back the following Monday for an additional feedback session. Skip the pastries, keep the coffee!

Michael Royal is Senior Vice President, Operations for us here at FirstDay Learning. Michael has many years of experience running service and delivery operations in the early childhood world. He can be reached at michael.

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