Lauren Cikara is the Director of K-12 Initiatives at Active Minds. Prior to that, she worked for the Colorado School of Public Health School recruiting schools to participate in the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey (HKCS), Colorado’s Youth Risk Behaviour Survey (YRBS), and Smart Source. She is a strong advocate for LGBTQ+ inclusive school board policies and ensures the work she is a part of has an equitable and intersectional lens.

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Show Highlights

Must hear student campaigns that expand the generational lens surrounding mental health.

Peer to peer approach for mental health education school’s can easily adopt.

Active Academy students create policies that take control of their mental health.

Build a student coalition for moving through the system.

Be a “youth champion” to provide life skills, support and tools to children.

Change the conversations and destigmatize mental health with this next step.

Rethink your learning environment with “Stressless Weeks.”

“For the students, I would say speak your truth and say it louder for people in the back. We don’t sometimes listen to the stories that our youth are telling us, their experiences and how they advocate for their lived experience. For the youth champions, the adult stakeholders, listen to students.”
- Lauren Cikara

Madeline Mortimore

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Read the Transcript here.

Active Students, Active Minds

Daniel (00:02):
The funny thing about expectations is that students will rise or fall to the level of expectations that you have for them. So if you don’t think they can do anything, they’re not going to. But if you expect them to change the world, they just might. Hey, it’s Danny, Chief Ruckus Maker over at Better Leaders, Better Schools. You’re gonna love today’s conversation, which starts off with a moment. A moment where students are like, “I can do this in life. I can get paid for making a difference like this.” And it’s certainly something that you might want to try out in your school. This is The Better Leaders, Better Schools Podcast, a show for Ruckus Makers, which means three things. You invest in your continuous growth, you challenge the status quo, and you design the future of school now. We’ll be right back after some messages from our show sponsors.

Daniel (01:05):
Learn how to recruit, develop, retain, and inspire outstanding individuals and teams to deliver on the vision of your school in Leading People. A certificate in School Management and leadership course from Harvard. Get started at BetterLeadersBetterschools.com/harvard. School Leaders know that productive student talk drives student learning, but the average teacher talks 75% of class time. Give your students more opportunities to learn in class by monitoring the talk time for teachers and students. Check out Teach FX for yourself, and learn about our special partnership options for Ruckus Makers at teachfx.Com/Blbs. All students have an opportunity to succeed with Organized Binder who equips educators with a resource to provide stable and consistent learning, whether that’s in a distance, hybrid, or traditional educational setting. Learn [email protected]. Hello, Ruckus Makers, you’re in for a treat. Today I am joined by Lauren Cikara, who’s the director of K12 Initiatives at Active Minds. Prior to that, she worked for the Colorado School of Public Health School, recruiting schools that participate in the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey. Colorado’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey and Smart Source. She’s a strong advocate for LGBTQ+ inclusive school board policies and ensures the work she is part of as an equitable and intersectional lens. Lauren, welcome to the show.

Lauren (02:48):
Thanks, Danny. I appreciate you having me on this morning.

Daniel (02:52):
I wanna start with a story where you had some students participate in the Mental Health Advocacy Academy, and I think it was you, but correct me if I’m wrong, there was a moment where you’re like, I could get paid for this. So will you tell us that story?

Lauren (03:11):
Active Minds hosts a mental health advocacy academy for high school students who are BIPOC and LGTBQ+. And just to ensure that folks understand what BIPOC means, it’s black, indigenous and students of color. It’s specific to these populations of students because we know that they experience the highest health negative health disparities. It’s a paid opportunity for these students to participate in the academy. We give them all the tools and resources to develop an advocacy campaign that they will facilitate in their school community to really change the conversation about mental health. While we were chatting, we brought in a number of state and federal mental health policy experts. It was pretty early on into the academy. There was like this aha moment for these high school participants. They were like, “Wait, I can do mental health advocacy as a job. I can get paid to do this.” And everyone was like, “you can.” And it was just a great moment because I think that most of the students didn’t realize that their own passion for mental health and having conversation about mental health was something that they could actually do for a living. So it was very cool to like being part of and have them realize that the work that they were doing, their investment in becoming and continuing to be a mental health advocate, could be a career path for them.

Daniel (04:36):
Yeah, that’s the best. You’re opening doors, the light bulb is going off for students that you’re serving and they’re thinking, “Wow, I can do this. Could align your passions with how you’re gonna be paid and put food on the table, this is a very good thing. I think some students worked on different campaigns and that kind of stuff. Can you tell us about one of the campaigns the students developed?

Lauren (05:02):
One of them was wanting to really start sort of like a program for middle school students and ensure that they had the resources to talk about mental health and middle school’s an interesting timeframe because they’re going through puberty, and also they don’t have a health education clause. And so this particular student really wanted to ensure that middle school students had an avenue to talk about mental health because there wasn’t an opportunity in the classroom. And then they wanted to ensure that there was sort of like this peer to peer approach that you could have a bunch of high school students working with middle school students to kind of just check in, have conversation about mental health talk about, hey, what’s next, what you’re going into high school, those kinds of things. So that was a cool example of one of the AC academy campaigns that a student developed.

Daniel (05:58):
Nice. I think some students thought about mental health in a generational lens as well, and the trauma that they experienced. What did those students find out?

Lauren (06:07):
Yeah, that was a great one because a lot of our black and brown families and communities have a lot of generational trauma. One of our students in particular wanted to interview their grandparents and then their mom and kind of get a sense of, “Okay, so during, when you were growing up and for your generation, what was it like to talk about mental health? What is it like today to even talk about mental health?” Because the shift has just changed tremendously with this generation of youth and young adults really wanting to talk about mental health being passionate about it and not shying away from it. It was a very cool idea where they interviewed their family members and then wanted to turn it into a podcast to sort of normalize the conversation about mental health.

Daniel (06:54):
I love this idea of normalizing too. I remember my dad struggled with mental health for sure and to be honest, he must have had some kind of event, but or breakdown because he left a job where he was an incredibly successful lawyer for a bank. He is probably doing all right. He ended up living on the streets in his car and not even he had to get a car too, like, so there’s a lot going on to get from there to living on the street. But I remember talking to him about, like, what’s going on? That kind of stuff. And he is like growing up we just didn’t ask for help.

Daniel (07:34):
He figured it out. It was really heartbreaking to see him figuring it out, which would just be like suffering, you know what I mean? It was like suffering and he never really corrected the course corrected, so to speak. And it’s too bad. I love that you’re making this push and like you said, normalizing talking about mental health and that kind of thing. Speaking of mental health, a new idea that you introduced me to is just getting excused, like excused mental health policies. Never heard of that before. What are Academy students doing to create a policy around this opportunity?

Lauren (08:11):
Currently there are about nine states across the country that have state level policies that allow schools to have excused mental health absences. A lot of that movement has been because of youth and young adults saying, “Hey, I should be able to have a day off because I need it for my own mental health, just like we have it for our physical health and when we have a cold and et cetera.” And so there’s been this big push by high school students to really work with their school administrators to say, we don’t want to be penalized when we need a day off, or we need a break so that we are able to take care of our own mental health. It’s been really cool. There are a couple of academy students that also worked on campaigns to advocate for those changes.

Lauren (08:57):
They are working with principals, school board members doing some research about what happened in the nine states that actually passed that legislation. What are some school board policies really look like and how to implement and also educate folks about it. Illinois was one of the first states to pass such a law. And it’s been interesting sort of to watch the evolution of that because I think a lot of our adult perceptions are, students are just gonna take advantage of this and they’re just gonna take a day off and bunk school. And that’s not the case. They really do need some time either to catch up on school or just to physically take that break and just shut off. Just like we do as adults, right. We don’t allow our students, we don’t listen to our students when they say they need a break and they actually need to take care of their mental health. We’ve said, is this ready mental health? Are you using this as an excuse? But more and more students are advocating for that, and I think administrators are listening. If there’s anything we’ve learned through the pandemic, it is that people are paying attention to mental health now.

Daniel (10:06):
I was talking to a principal in New York and a former principal in New York, but she was just mentioning she was doing mental health stuff like 10, 15 years ago and they slashed her budget by a quarter of a million dollars because she wasn’t focused on student success. And now there’s gobs of money being thrown at schools to figure out mental health and oh, how the times have changed, right. So she was definitely a Ruckus Maker in the trendsetter in this respect. And really had to navigate the challenges of policy and budgets and that kind of stuff. We’re talking about policy and students’ change in policy. When I think of policy, I think of older folks and maybe older white men, but not always. And how do you get students a seat at the table especially to discuss these important things like policy?

Lauren (10:57):
That’s a great question. When students are able to build coalitions with their peers and other educators or administrators that can all come to the table and actually like, hear their ideas, that’s where a lot of the magic happens. We actually provide tools and resources to Active Mind students to develop coalitions because they need to have a group of other people around them also speaking the same language, advocating for the same thing. When you’re able to build a coalition that’s really powerful. And with that coalition building comes the practice of how to really advocate. Tell your story about how to communicate effectively. Like you don’t just write an email, like a text message right? When you’re emailing, say, a school board member or a principal. So we really are trying to ensure that students have the adequate skills and tools they need to be successful in that.

Lauren (11:54):
We start with getting your peers around a table, get like-minded folks that you think are gonna help move the needle and then find an educator, an administrator who is equally as passionate about mental health or helping you change a policy. And then we kind of have to learn about life, maneuvering through the education system to get to the school board. School board meetings are public. There’s always that two minute public comment time, then go there and just say the things that you need to say, spark people’s interest, and then see where it takes you while you’re still building a coalition in a framework for moving through the system.

Daniel (12:37):
You have a lofty goal over at Active Minds. You’re currently wanting to work in a thousand schools in a thousand days. Can you describe your ideal K-12 school and who you would love to work with?

Lauren (12:51):
It is a lofty goal, but we have some cool stuff in store and in place for schools. Our ideal school would be a school that is very open to changing the conversation about mental health. And that would be with what we call youth champions, our parents, our caregivers, our educators and administrators, because they are the decision makers. They are the ones being able to help inform school policy, navigate school budgets in a way. And they also have their own mental health. If we’re not providing the space for them to talk about their mental health, we’re not gonna get anywhere either. Then parallel to that is also working with the K through 12 students. Does a school have an Active Minds chapter? A student-led mental health club or extracurricular program where students can come around the table, have conversations about mental health, host events, fundraise just like a normal every other student club essentially.

Lauren (13:53):
But the chapters are really a great opportunity for students to help lead that conversation. We have a curriculum that student chapters can use as the primary programming model for the chapter. And from there then ch the, the students will be very interested in creating like these events. So they can bring a speaker in. We have a speaker’s bureau, we have a number of speakers that speak about a variety of different mental health topics. Then they can host just information sessions where they share their own stories. And so it kind of just snowballs. Once the school starts a chapter, an Active Minds chapter, then there’s a lot of really cool things students can get involved in to really change that conversation. Ideally we’re looking for schools that are open to bringing in speakers, to bringing in starting a chapter and then also ensuring that parents, like I said, the youth champions, those adult stakeholders also have the resources and tools to change the conversations and destigmatize mental health.

Daniel (14:54):
Wonderful. We’re gonna pause here real quick for a message from our sponsors. When we get back, Lauren, I’d love to hear if you could think about what was maybe one of those favorite events that you saw some students put together. And I’d love to ask you also how a Ruckus Maker watching or listening can enroll their school in Active Minds. Learn how to successfully navigate change, shape your school’s success, and empower your teams with Harvard certificate and school management and leadership. Get online professional development that fits your schedule. Courses include leading change, leading school strategy, and innovation. Leading people and leading learning. Apply today at BetterLeadersBetterschools.com/harvard. Teach FX helps educators see how their instructional practices lead to student talk and learning in both in-person and live online learning for any subject at any grade level. See Teach FX for yourself and learn about special partnerships and the options for Ruckus Makers@ teachfx.com/blbs.

Daniel (16:01):
Today’s show is also proudly sponsored by Organized Binder or program, which gives students daily exposure to goal setting, reflective learning time, and task management, study strategies, organizational skills, and more Organized Binders. Color coded system is implemented by the teacher through a parallel process with students, helping them create a predictable and dependable classroom routine. You can learn more and improve your students’ executive [email protected]. And we are back with Lauren Cikara, the director of K-12 initiatives at Active Minds. Lauren, I mentioned, I’d love to hear about maybe one of your favorite events that students sponsored and put together. What was one of those?

Lauren (16:47):
I’m gonna share two because I can’t pick. We had a student who was part of our academy who was also one of the leaders in their Active Minds chapter. And what they really wanted to do was kind of get a sense of what students need in order to be supported and successful while they’re in school. So they go to a school that is predominantly with Asian students, and what they have found just by sort of having an opportunity for their students to just come together and chat with each other, they ask their peers what’s lacking? What do you want your parents and caregivers to know about mental health, about how you are navigating your school? It was a pretty cool conversation for them to have because from there they were able to give each other sort of the boost that they needed as students themselves to have conversations with their parents and caregivers, and also to help sort of change the narrative.

Lauren (17:47):
What we’re seeing and hearing from some of our Asian students is that there’s a lot of pressure from their parents to be academically successful. And what that ac that pressure sort of like folds into and how it affects them on a daily basis is something that they are really wanting to try and navigate and overcome. So that was a very cool experience that they had in one of their chapter programs. And then the other, one of our other students in the academy, had something called Stressless Week where they hosted with their school administrators. They got their school administrators to pay for everything. They had a hot chocolate bar. They had coloring in stations. They had an entire week leading up to their finals just to decompress and allow students the space to kind of, not feel so frantic about going into finals. Right. And so that, that was really a cool way and the administration really got behind it and committed to doing it for the following semester as well. because it went so well,

Daniel (18:55):
For sure. I love that. Sign me up for stress last week. I mean, who wouldn’t wanna do that? We’re recording this live. And so it would be fine to sayI’m, I’m leading a Challenge 60 challenge right now called the Maximize Your Margin Challenge. But that’s about bringing down the stress for leaders and things that they can do that are super practical and that kind of thing. Somebody wants to sign up, you go to BetterLeadersbetterschools.com/margin. I want to also give a shout out to D Money. And D Money is a principal in San Ramon, California. And he brought me to his wellness like Center for students, Lauren. And it had a similar vibe. I didn’t see Hot Chocolate, but they had teas and stuff like that. Little games, like lots of comfortable seating. I never would’ve guessed this, but it was so cool. There was a student who actually had a meeting planned with him ironically that they were preparing for. So they went to decompress right before that meeting. And what did she get out knitting? Just like something to do with your hands and that kind of thing, but to let your mind wander as well and to bring the stress down too. That’s open 2024- 7 while school is going on each day. So I just wanted to add that it seemed relevant to what we’re talking about.

Lauren (20:12):
That’s really cool when students have those spaces to decompress. We have to rethink what our schools look like and our classrooms look like because not everybody learns the same way. So that’s very cool. Props to them.

Daniel (20:25):
Shout out to you D Money and you know, Lauren, I’m sure a lot of people are really excited about the work you’re doing at Active Minds. And so if a Ruckus Maker’s, like, I really wanna take mental health seriously and especially for our students what’s their next steps in terms of getting in touch with you or potentially like enrolling in a program, in becoming a chapter, I think you called them.

Lauren (20:49):
Active Minds does things a little differently in that we center youth and young adults, so we give them the schools, okay. The tools to actually lead the conversation.If a Ruckus Maker is really wanting to move the needle, it’s about connecting with us to find out what programs we have. Our teams are open to chat with any school administrators or educators, parents and students alike. But I think one of the things that we sort of push on is that educators need to create space for youth to lead in the sense that our curriculum is all student led. So it’s facilitated by students. We provide a facilitator guide for the adults in the room just so that they’re in the know, but it’s really providing them with the space to change this conversation for them to use their own voices without the adults sort of like saying all the things and leading all the things.

Active Minds really has been around for 19 years because we have centered those youth voices and they have really changed that conversation and moved the needle. I think we have to stretch ourselves just because you have heard an idea from a young person maybe five years ago, and then you hear the same idea now doesn’t mean you have to shut the door on their ideas. Our students are different within that five year span. Their passion is more their access to technology. Just life is different. I would say check us out. We would be happy to get you started with a chapter. All you need are three students and an advisor to start an Active Minds chapter. And then if folks are interested in joining our Mental Health Advocacy Academy, the application will be dropping in early spring of 2023. We’ll be hosting the Academy in the summer for a week long at Academy. Check that out.
Daniel (22:45):Wonderful. Thanks Lauren. Let’s go to the questions that I asked all my guests here at the end of a conversation. First one being, if you could put a message on all school marquees around the world for a single day, what would Lauren’s message be?

Lauren (23:00):
I have two because I wanna break it into parents and then the youth champions. For the students, I would say speak your truth and say it louder for people in the back. I think we don’t sometimes listen to the stories that our youth are telling us, their experiences and how they advocate for their lived experience. And so that would be a message for students. And then for the youth champions, the adult stakeholders I think would listen to students. I think it’s sort of like this two-prong approach as far as the ticker taper.

Daniel (23:36):
I appreciate that. Lauren, if you’re building your dream school, you’re not limited by any resources. The only limitation is your imagination. How would you go about building your dream school? What would be the three guiding principles?

Lauren (23:51):
I love this question. Thank you. Thinking about it. I think first and foremost, if money is not the object, then let’s pay our educators that. First and foremost. We put a lot of stock in our education, but yet we don’t put our money where our mouth is in the sense of paying those folks who go into the education field. And that’s a complete and utter disservice to the system at hand. The other piece I would do is sort of get away with, move away from this grading system. I think it should be competency based. And because that, and also self-directed in the sense that students thrive in a way that doesn’t fit sort of that square in the mold that our education system is. One of the things that I think is we have to center mental health education or just mental health, like we do physical health.

Lauren (24:41):
We have mental health as maybe like a week long thing in a health education clause. But we should provide really good spaces for youth to explore things outside of the proverbial normal conversation. Or I should say set up in the classroom that we provide space to like the decompression rooms. Like getting out your knitting or going to a coloring station. It’s all connected to mental health. I would really advocate for a system that centers mental health alongside academic achievement. They have to go hand in hand. If you don’t have a healthy student or a mentally healthy student, you’re not gonna have an academically sound student.

Daniel (25:25):
Lauren, we covered a lot of ground and talked a lot about mental health and Active Minds and the great work you do in there of everything we talked about today. What’s the one thing you want a Ruckus Maker to remember?

Lauren (25:38):
I want Ruckus Makers to remember that students have cool ideas and that they need to be part of the decision making process. That they are great champions for their own health and wellness. They have cool ideas to fix some of the problems that we’re seeing and ways to kind of elevate conversations in schools, especially about mental health. Taking the time to ensure that when you are thinking about new programs or bringing in speakers, or thinking about even your budgets, that you are asking students for some input in how you’re making those decisions and bringing new things into the school.

Daniel (26:22):
Thanks for listening to The Better Leaders, Better Schools podcast Ruckus Maker. If you have a question or would like to connect my email, Daniel better leaders better schools.com or hit me up on Twitter at @Alienearbud. If the Better Leaders Better Schools Podcast is helping you grow as a school leader, then please help us serve more Ruckus Makers like you. You can subscribe, leave an honest rating and review or share on social media with your biggest takeaway from the episode, extra credit for tagging me on Twitter at @alienearbud, and using the #BLBS. Level up your leadership at BetterLeadersBetterschools.com and talk to you next time. Until then, “class dismissed.”



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