July/August 2020

The Collaborative Change Model: A Map for Schools through COVID-19

By Doug Bolton

SEL Umbrella and Return-to-School ModelThe three elementary school principals were aligned in their squares on the screen of my laptop. Remote learning had just begun and we were working together to create ways to support their staff, students, and families during COVID-19. 

“What are teachers struggling the most with?” I asked. The first answer surprised me. It wasn’t about the disease, or the remote learning or financial stress. “Many are worried that they won’t be able to complete the school year with their classroom. The end of the year is such an important time for all of us.”

A week later, a parent told me, “I wish schools could open for just the last two weeks of the school year so that Jack could say goodbye to his middle school before moving on to high school.”

Endings Are Important
Schools are places of routine. The rhythms of a class period, school day, and school year provide comfort and predictability. Classes often begin with an opening activity (a bell ringer) followed by a lesson, followed by a closing activity (exit slips). The school day begins and ends with a homeroom or advisory period, an opening and closing of the day. There are bells to signify beginnings and endings as students and staff flow from one place to another, a symphony of choreographed movement. The school year itself has its own rhythm. There are traditions to open the school year, months of learning, followed by traditions to end the school year.

Beginnings, middles, and endings matter. These rhythms of the school year are sustaining, essential, and enduring. They provide direction to help us navigate the class period, school day, and school year.

But this year is different. Because of COVID-19, all of the rhythms of our school year came to an abrupt ending. And this disruption in our routines has an impact not only on this year’s learning but it also will have an enduring influence on the learning of years to come as the trauma and disruption lingers in our collective history. By understanding and honoring the importance of this rhythm, we can reduce the impact of our schools closing and capture important learning opportunities when our school doors do reopen.

Therapists as well as teachers know the importance of beginnings, middles, and endings in building relationships and challenging people to do their best work. Mary Jo Barrett’s Collaborative Change Model has helped therapists make the most of therapy’s natural cycles and rhythms. In this time of pandemic, we can adapt her model to help our learning communities rise to the challenges of change and disruption.

Stage I: Creating a Context for Change
In Stage I the teacher helps create a context of safety and hopefulness in which the students in the classroom can reflect on their strengths and weaknesses and take the risks required for learning. In this stage teachers build a collaborative classroom community in which everyone works together toward common learning goals. Students feel connected to their teacher and to one another. We move into Stage II when the students and teacher have developed a safe and connected classroom community that is committed to the learning goals.

Stage II: Challenging for Learning
The teacher and students creatively engage in a challenging curriculum to learn new material. The teacher uses multiple instructional strategies to push students to expand their understanding of the material so that they can grasp increasingly complex and sophisticated concepts. This stage is often looked at as the “meat and potatoes” of education. Each student develops the skills and insights necessary to progress on to the next stage of learning, consolidation.

Stage III: Consolidation
The teacher and students consolidate their learning so that they have a solid foundation to successfully meet the expectations for future learning. Students reflect on prior learning as a way to prepare for future learning. Education is an evolving process and teachers work to help students make plans for the future so that their educational journey continues to be positive and hopeful.

There are three important and nuanced aspects to this model.

First, this is not a linear model. Students move between stages frequently and our awareness of which stage we are in with our students gives us the greatest leverage for growth and learning.

Secondly, this model is cyclical, meaning that consolidation naturally leads to the need to create a context for the next cycle of new learning and growth. Teachers use the consolidation of one lesson to prepare students for the next lesson. They prepare students at the end of one day for the next day. And as the year comes to a close, they work to prepare them for the following year.

The third unique aspect of this model is that it is a fractal model. Fractals are recurring patterns that occur in different scales within the same overarching design. A geometric example of a fractal is seen in the design of a snowflake. Each of the smaller shapes are arranged so that they form identical and progressively larger forms of the same shape.

Schools are organized in a fractal way as well and the three stages can be found throughout each fractal of our educational system. Each school year is a fractal. Every school day is a fractal. And, every class period is a fractal. Each of these units of time has a beginning, a middle, and an ending. Each has a Stage I, Stage II, and Stage III. This model tells us that we need to be intentional and thoughtful about each of these different fractals in school (the class period, the school day, the school year) in order to capture the opportunities we have to help our students grow and learn, especially in this time of disruption and uncertainty.

This model provides a map and compass to help us find the most effective way to help students learn and grow. It also helps us find our way during those times when we are feeling lost as educators. Let’s say that we create the context for a math lesson by doing a bell ringing activity, reviewing past lessons, and previewing the day’s lesson with the learning targets clearly visible on the whiteboard. Your students begin the lesson and are highly engaged with the healthy struggle of learning new concepts, indicating that they are in Stage II. However, as the lesson becomes more complex, the students become frustrated. They begin to shut down or have side conversations. This is the time to return to Stage I to re-create the context for the learning by helping them regulate emotionally, identify why they are struggling, and try different methods for teaching the material. The same can be true for Stage III, Consolidation. The students grasp the concept and are able to apply it in some situations but then struggle to generalize the math concepts to word problems. That is a time to go back to Stage II so that a more sophisticated and nuanced application of the learning can take place before reaching Stage III again where this newer learning is consolidated. Teachers often move seamlessly through these stages throughout their school day, using the rhythm and flow to capture learning opportunities.

As the rhythms and routines of our lives and our schools have been profoundly disrupted by COVID-19, the sudden end to the school year and the shift to remote learning has left all of us feeling disoriented. The Collaborative Change Model can be an essential tool to help us find our way through not only the rest of this school year, but also to guide us as we face unique challenges that the next school year will bring.

The Collaborative Change Model and Remote Learning
If we apply the Collaborative Change Model to our “new normal” of remote learning, we need to create the context for this new way of learning (Stage I), engage students in fruitful instruction (Stage II), and bring closure to the school year (Stage III) with an eye toward creating the context for our next school year (Stage I). In most schools, in the first weeks of remote learning, teachers and administrators worked hard to create a new context for learning in the most challenging of times. Schools adopted remote learning platforms, consulted lawyers and technology specialists, adjusted curriculum, communicated with parents and students, and began the process of teaching remotely.

We have done the best we can, given the hand that we’ve been dealt.

Reestablishing the relationship with students under new conditions and assessing how they are coping emotionally is the most important part of creating a new context. Teachers doing group lessons need to find ways of connecting with students individually as they create their virtual classroom community. This can be as simple as having students rate how they are doing on a scale of one-to-five, with a one-sentence description in a Google form at the start of class, or by holding up fingers to indicate how they are feeling in a video conferencing lesson. Younger children can use feeling charts. Quick, daily, emotional check-ins send important messages to students. “Your feelings are important. Our ability to understand our emotions gives us the opportunity to regulate them. Emotional regulation is essential for learning. And, most importantly, I care about how you are feeling.” For teachers, this assessment is critical because students who are struggling emotionally will be unavailable for instruction. Given how rapidly we all cycle through our emotions during this time, this check-in should happen daily. Many students never left Stage I during the spring of remote learning. And that’s ok. The more work we do to help them with Stage I will enhance their ability to engage in Stage I when the next school year begins.

Stage II is when we engage students in the challenges of instruction. Because they are emotionally available and they have the space and the tools necessary for learning, they can participate fully in the rigors of instruction. If they hit a roadblock emotionally or instructionally, we may have to go back to Stage I and revise the context. Before remote learning, you could notice the subtle cues when these emotional or learning challenges arose and you had ways to address them. Teacher and student need to find new ways of navigating these struggles together in this new virtual platform.

Stage III is also filled with unique challenges. Every teacher has their way of concluding the school year through assessment, reflection, and rituals. Unfortunately, many of those traditions were unavailable. There is still time to think of how to consolidate the experiences of the past school year for individual students and classes. Having students work on a project together to capture their experience of this unique time in history is one idea. Having each student draw a picture or take a photo that represents this time and combining them into a classroom “quilt” that they can see when they return to the school building is just one idea of a collective and reflective project. They could each write a stanza of a class poem or students could create a collection of essays that are bound and sent to them. The theme is to create a collective and enduring product, integrating this challenging time rather than ignoring it, even if the normal timeframe for such activities has passed.

These are the ideas of a retired school psychologist. Imagine the ideas that your creative teachers will develop. 

Collaborative Change Model and Preparing For Next Year
The cyclical nature of the Collaborative Change Model requires us not only to think about closure for the unique and challenging school year, but also to make sure that we are creating the context for when students return to school in the coming year. Every school will find its own way to manage these transitions. By thinking now about the challenges that our students will face when schools have reopened, we can plan for a consolidation of this school year that will help create the context for the next school year. Every student and every school community will be impacted by this global crisis in their own way but there are some predictable challenges that we can begin planning for now.

Many students, parents, and colleagues will have been impacted by the trauma of losing loved ones and the financial distress of a staggering economy.

Mental health issues have spiked across the country since the stay-at-home order began. We can predict that our students, their parents, and our colleagues will be experiencing new or intensified mental health issues often accompanied by increases in behavior problems.
Given the nature of a pandemic, things that were once safe may now feel threatening in a way that they never have before. School communities are built on shared resources, proximity, and collaboration between students and staff. People and spaces and tools, once safe to the touch may be seen as carriers of the virus. Social distancing efforts in schools, while they may be necessary, will also undermine the collaborative and community spirit that defines the healthiest school communities. Students, families, and staff will be impacted by this change in social contact and feeling of safety in school.

To the extent possible, it’s vital to provide a Stage III for the 2019-2020 school year and using this consolidation as a way to jump-start Stage I of next year. Creating a context for the next school year is particularly challenging because there is so much that is still unclear about what the school year will look like. That does not mean that we need to wait to begin our planning. It does mean that it will take unprecedented levels of empathy, creativity, and flexibility from every member of our school community to create the context for our next school year.

The following questions can help guide this planning.
  • Does remote learning provide us with opportunities for connecting students who will form our new classroom virtually before the school year begins?
  • Can we be even more intentional about checking in with our next class of students and families over the summer to assess the stress in their homes and assess readiness for learning even before the school doors open?
  • Knowing that our school communities have experienced unprecedented stress, can we be sure to have systems in place to understand their behavior problems through the lens of trauma? Rather than punish students when they struggle, can we make sure that students feel emotionally and physically safe, relationally connected, and have tools to self-regulate?
  • Given the educational disruptions of this year, students will likely have more gaps in their learning than in previous years and, given the stress, will be less available for instruction. Can we be flexible about the scope and sequence of our curriculum and adapt our instructional methods to align better with student’s ability to access your teaching?
  • Given that emotional dysregulation is a product of stress for all of us, can we add more regulation breaks into the school day and have our classrooms better equipped with regulation tools to help our students when they are struggling to cope with their stress effectively?
  • Given that this stress impacts entire families, can we be thoughtful about the homework demands that we place on students so that it does not interfere with important family time or create greater family stress?
  • Can we be more intentional prior to the school year to assess the stress in families and to create new ways to support families who continue to be in crisis?
  • In order for students to feel safe in school, the staff need to feel safe and secure. How can administrators use the time over the summer to make sure that school staff feel physically and emotionally safe? What additional psychological supports might they need before walking into the building and leading a group of students? How can we collaborate with them to address any concerns that they will have about the safety of the physical environment?
  • Knowing that many school discipline policies and practices exacerbate the impact of student stress and trauma, can administrators review their policies and practices over the summer with their school boards so that they can bring maximum flexibility in our response to students in this unique moment in our history?
The Collaborative Change Model allows us to be intentional about this planning. Understanding the interconnectedness of the three stages, being willing to return to a previous stage to be sure that we can more fully be available to the next stage, and being able to see how the stages flow through every aspect of our educational process can help us to better meet the needs of our students and create a healthy school community during these uncertain times. Many students need school to be a sheltered port during the storm of this pandemic. COVID-19 requires us to be more intentional and creative in our planning than ever before. Schools have a great responsibility and a powerful opportunity to guide our children through the greatest global challenge in generations. The better that we, as schools, can provide thoughtful and effective transitions through this time of remote learning and into the new school year, the better our students will be able to cope with these unique and profound stresses.
Doug Bolton, Ph.D., is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist with Formative Psychological Services in Chicago. In addition to his private practice, Bolton provides consultation, supervision and professional development to parents, educators, and clinicians throughout northern Illinois on building children’s resilience, mental health issues in schools, and creating trauma-responsive school communities. Resources mentioned in this article can be accessed starting at