The 180 Podcast: Christina Theokas, Ph.D. — The Well-Being Index

Christina Theokas on The 180 Podcast.

Listen to the episode on Turnaround for Children’s website. Also available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher and Podbean.

How do teachers know how their students are doing? Grades? Grades measure how much students have learned. Attendance? Attendance measures whether they show up.

But as the science of learning and development shows, how well children learn depends on how well and how safe they feel. So it’s important for educators to have a true picture of the whole child.

And, of course, the urgency and challenge to understanding how children are doing has only increased during the pandemic.

That’s why Turnaround for Children has developed its Well-Being Index. This series of questions helps children describe how they are feeling and functioning. By taking these measurements on a regular basis over a period of months, teachers can learn not only what their students might be facing on the inside, but also how to help.

How does the Well-Being Index work?

Christina Theokas, Ph.D. is Turnaround for Children’s Chief Applied Science Officer. She oversees the teams that translate the science of learning and development into resources and tools for educators — including the Well-Being Index — and teams that partner with educators to design schools that are organized to support whole-child development and learning.

Learn how the Well-Being Index is working in classrooms today in the next episode.

Complete Transcript

Chris Riback: Christina, thanks for joining me. I appreciate your time.

Christina Theokas: Hi Chris. Thanks for having me. I’m looking forward to the discussion.

Chris Riback: I am, too. And let’s begin with the Well-Being Index. What is it?

Christina Theokas: The Well-Being Index is a brief self-assessment designed to capture a holistic view of each student’s sense of their own physical, emotional and social health. It is a set of simple, positively-worded statements that can be administered quickly, giving educators a sense of how a young person is feeling and functioning through an asset-based lens. It’s interesting. Well-being is something that we all care about, but we often don’t measure it. Or if we measure it, we often measure it from a deficit-based perspective, looking for problems in kids, trying to remediate problems. So this is really trying to take an asset-based approach by asking positively worded items, hearing directly from kids about what they’re thinking and feeling about themselves instead of those assumptions that can be made.

And this school year, it’s even more important than ever, because teachers don’t have some of those other times with kids in the hallways, in the doorways, chatting with kids informally, where they are collecting a lot of informal data.

Chris Riback: For any parents who are listening, what is an asset-based lens?

Christina Theokas: So folks know, or parents know, kids are often asked to complete surveys that are trying to find problems. There’s one called the risk youth behavior system. And it asks, are you smoking? Are you drinking? And sort of asks about all sorts of negative behaviors, whereas the Well-Being Index asks kids, how well did you sleep last night? How are you getting along well with others? How are you thinking and feeling about things? So it’s trying to frame things from a perspective of the goals and skills that we want kids developing. And the idea is by asking kids and framing it in this way, that it’s actually very empowering to kids. It’s helping them to tell their story, valuing what they think and feel, and then reacting positively to that.

So when you get the data, you see a profile of strengths and weaknesses in kids or experiences in the moment. And we know that all kids have unique strengths and needs and they vary over time and they’re expressed differently. So this is an opportunity for kids to reflect on themselves and then for educators to see that profile and say, “Okay, here are the strengths. Here are things that we can capitalize on to really support this young person’s learning and development. And maybe here are some areas where we can bolster supports, either through changes we might make to the environment and/or direct changes we might make to how we interact with that student to support them.”

Chris Riback: Why was it created? Was the Well-Being Index created purely because the school experience has changed? Or is this something that has been underway and is useful beyond just a pandemic situation?

Christina Theokas: I’m so glad you asked that question. So I feel really strongly this is something useful in an ongoing way. We developed it quickly in response to the pandemic and what was going on. We heard so many teachers saying, “I’m not sure how my kids are doing.” Kids’ experiences, as we know, were really disrupted. Their learning was disrupted. Systemic racial oppression and the collective trauma and COVID-19 were just really ever present on people’s minds. And people knew that this was having an impact on kids. So we rallied pretty quickly to develop this tool and to get it into the hands of educators. So it was really important now, but it was something that we’ve been thinking a lot about anyway at Turnaround and something we were wanting to do. So this sort of accelerated our work on it, to get it out there to meet this need that people were really expressing and talking about.

But our real hope is that using the Well-Being Index is something that becomes a routine in classrooms and it is just something we do. And it helps us to have a different way of thinking about kids, that asset way of thinking about kids, in understanding that each student is unique and that it’s important to look at students holistically and plan forward from that point.

Chris Riback: And take me through, literally, how does it work? First of all, what age students, what grades? Do you differentiate within those grade segments if you will? How does a teaching staff, or a school, then translate the findings, the data, into particular action?

Christina Theokas: So there are two versions of the Well-Being Index. There’s an elementary version. It has six items. And then there’s a secondary version which has 12 items. So you can see, as I mentioned before, it’s short. So it’s meant to be able to be done really quickly to get that snapshot of how a kid is doing. So we really value educators really deeply understanding their context and finding a way to fit it in to make it a routine in their classrooms. One of the things that we recommend is that they do it with a trusted adult. They can do it during their community meeting or an advisory time. So a time and a place they already have set up where they are sort of stopping, pausing, really working on relationships, telling kids they care about them, respecting and valuing them. That’s a nice place that an educator could fit into their classroom.

And because it’s so quick to do, they can do it on a regular routine basis. So we have a version that’s a paper and pencil version that kids can fill out and get back to a teacher. We also have an online platform with Qualtrics where they can do it electronically. Again, it’s sort of based on what is most easily available and readily available for a teacher to be able to do. And then they get the data back and they can see a profile of scores for each of their kids. And I say each of their kids because that’s really the intention of the data is to look at each individual kid one at a time and really sort of explore and think about how that student is doing.

We hope the first step after looking at the data is that a teacher actually has a conversation with the student. So it’s, as I said, it’s sort of like empowering the student and it’s saying, “I care about you.” And it’s taking that one step further and talking about it and empowering the student to say what it is they need or want instead of us assuming, “Oh, I see this in the data, so I’m going to do this for this student.” But to really hear from the kids because they often have different solutions than we might have as adults. So we really wanted to initiate that kind of process with the students.

And I want to go back one quick second. I was saying each student. Oftentimes the data that teachers get is average data. So they’ve done this with the 20 or so kids in their classroom and they get average results back and they look on average, what does this say about their classroom? For this data, we want them to look at each individual kid first and say, “Okay, what are the students in my classroom telling me about themselves?” And then they can go a further step and say, okay, are there some patterns across the classroom to help the teacher think about like, “Okay, maybe I need to spend more time on relationship building because the kids are feeling disconnected from me, from each other. What could I do differently in my classroom that will support all of the kids?” But the first step really is to look at each individual student to see how they’re doing.

Chris Riback: What questions are the kids being asked in the Well-Being Index?

Christina Theokas: The idea is to get a holistic picture of a student. So, there are items that are sort of foundational outlook on life items. So, there are those things that we know about kids’ days and how successful they’ll be. So, like I’ve been getting enough sleep, I’m waking up feeling rested, I’ve been active. So, those sort of foundational aspects to their development, and how their day will go.

After that, we also have some things around outlook in life. I’ve been in a good mood. I’m hopeful about the future. And then, there are the remaining items are things about being engaged, valued, and connected to other people. So, I’ve been feeling cared about by others. I’ve been feeling heard by others. So, the idea is to be comprehensive, and to get both those sort of foundational aspects of well-being all the way up to sort of more mental health, psychological aspects of their day.

Chris Riback: And does the questionnaire literally make those statements and then, for the student, is it yes/no? Is it scale from 1 to 10? How do they give their answers?

Christina Theokas: Exactly, they’re really short phrases, as I just said. I’ve been active, like it’s a really short phrase. And then, students respond on a scale. For the younger students, 1 to 5, for the older students, 1 to 10, and they get to say how they’re feeling. And it’s like, what is their perception? And kids are really pretty good at this. They’re used to doing surveys like, “Yes, I’m above the mid-point on that. Am I all the way up to a 10? Am I halfway there? And they use a sliding scale to kind of put where they feel they are doing on that item.

Chris Riback: And do you have enough data, at this point, to start having thresholds, having benchmarks that you can measure against, or are you not at that stage?

Christina Theokas: That’s a really great question. And we’re not at that stage yet. And we’re really looking to look at all of the data to make some decisions about that. But the idea of this, as I’ve mentioned, is really about looking at each individual student and their perception. So, for a student to answer, I’ll just use an example, I’ve been active, that is variable for kids based on the opportunities and experiences that they have. And you can also see with the context, right now, how the context might reflect how active they can be. So, if we have to stay home, maybe there’s less opportunity for activity now than there might be when they’re going to school, and they’re on the playground, or they’re walking to school, they’re having gym class. So, it’s quite relative to context.

And we want to allow that to be the case. And we want folks to really look at what did this student say, what is their perception of that? So, active for one student might be a lot more than for another student. So, what a seven means for one student versus another student might be different. And that’s okay because the data is supposed to be about that individual student and having a conversation with that student about their development.

That being said, I’m interested to see, once we have lots of data, if there are certain threshold and benchmarks we can see, are there patterns across groups of kids that help teachers be able to analyze and understand the data better in the future and more guidance that we can provide to them to be able to do that?

Chris Riback: One can imagine how it can become an incredible data set.

Christina Theokas: Yes. The researcher in me is incredibly thrilled with this really, really rich data set, where we can explore individual development of kids, explore patterns across past kids that really help us understand how kids are doing and what we, as the adults and educators in their lives, can do to better support kids and put them on a positive developmental trajectory.

Chris Riback: And as a PhD and Turnaround’s chief applied science officer, I’m sure you won’t mind me asking: What’s the science behind it?

Christina Theokas: Thank you for asking. So equity and thriving has been denied to many students with practices like labeling and tracking and faulty assumptions about the scarcity of talent. And we know from the science of learning and development that all kids have boundless potential and that it’s our job as educators to unleash that potential in students. So the Well-Being Index really comes from that place of wanting to change these long held patterns around deficit thinking about kids, about certain groups of kids and what their potential is and stopping and saying, “What can we do to recognize and personalize experiences for students, remove barriers to learning that the system, in the way the system has been set up with structural inequities, and create the conditions for students, for each student to thrive?”

So it really is really trying to change these patterns that we’ve had in the system for so long. And this is a tool to help people see kids differently, think differently. And it’s often very natural to teachers. Teachers want to do this, but we often don’t prioritize it and/or measure it. So this is a way of making some implicit assumptions about what educators want to be doing to support the thriving of kids and making it explicit with data and empowering kids and teachers to move forward together.

Chris Riback: How did you get connected with P.S. 340? That’s where the Well-Being Index is being used at the moment or at least one of the places. Why specifically are you working with them?

Christina Theokas: P.S. 340 is a long-term partner of Turnaround for Children’s. They are folks that we have worked with over the years who are really committed to healthy whole child development learning and thriving. And they are excited about trying new things, innovating on the practices they have and getting better at them. And much like many other schools, when the pandemic happened and we were really now thinking about the wellness of kids and kind of broke that pattern of just really thinking about academics and end of the year tests, they were folks who reached out to us and continued talking to us about what we were working on. And when we put the Well-Being Index out there, that’s something we really want to try. We really want to integrate it into the work we’re doing. So we’re continuing to partner with them to support them in making use of the tool.

And also they’re helping us to learn about the tool. How can we make the tool better? How can we make it more accessible, more easily embedded into the classroom? What guidance can we provide to them in terms of looking at the data and thinking about how to take next steps with those data? Does it point in certain directions? Are there other tools and resources we have at Turnaround that they could access to continue down that path of really designing their school around a whole child approach to their kids, that healthy holistic development.

Chris Riback: And have there been any early lessons or still too soon to tell?

Christina Theokas: So I think the first reaction from 340, as well as a number of other folks that we have talked to, is the first reaction is, “Oh my gosh, this is exactly what we needed. We’ve thought about this for a long time. We weren’t sure where to start. So thank you for like reviewing all the research, creating a tool that is accessible and able to be done in a quick way in school.” So there was sort of that immediate positive reaction. And just as an aside, we also, as part of the development of it, pilot tested it with some secondary students and we didn’t really give them any information about it. We just had them take the survey and asked them, why do you think a teacher might be asking these questions?

And kids’ reaction after doing it was sort of two-fold. The first was, “Oh, teachers want to see the health of the students and how the education system could be more beneficial to us and not detrimental to us. And if a teacher asked me these questions, it’s telling me that they really care about me.” So there was sort of that reaction that was really confirmatory about the benefit of doing this and that it really met the moment, but it is something that teachers were looking for.

Chris Riback: Let me ask you on the contrary side, maybe there’s a skeptical parent or teacher or student who would say, “I’m tested enough. You already have insight into how I’m doing because you have grades. I have grades. And I already get tested. Why do I need another test?”

Christina Theokas: I think it’s always about how you introduce it to students and families about why we’re doing this. And it does. It feels like a test. We do a lot of testing of kids, formative assessments, end of the year assessments. We do a lot of surveys. We want to learn about the climate in the school. So we have to always be careful and balanced in asking students to do these things and take precious time in the school day to do it. And we really feel like this is additive to what is happening in schools. And it’s intended to compliment the other things that they’re doing and to compliment essentially measures of academic mastery to create a more holistic portrait of a student. So they may have data about reading and math skills and where they are on the trajectory of their development towards competency of grade level standards. But that’s not all we care about with kids. And we actually care about a more holistic picture of kids.

And oftentimes we sort of falsely separate their academic development from their social development, their emotional development, their cognitive development. But really what we know from neuroscientific research is those skills and competencies grow together in an integrated multifunctional way. And by adding this data into the other data they have, teachers can start to see and think holistically about kids and maybe not falsely separate. We do academics at this time and we do social, emotional learning at this time. But really it’s we want to approach what we’re doing in schools in an integrated fashion. And we feel like this data can really compliment other data that teachers have, creating that holistic portrait of their students.

Chris Riback: That’s such a powerful statement because as a lay person, as I have been researching this and learning more about it, I’m sensing that it’s almost a roadmap. It gives the ability for a roadmap for the teachers. Teachers have all of these students on the one side. They have all of these tools in their repertoire on the other side. And yet, perhaps it’s not always evident which teacher tool should be used with which student at what time dependent on what that student is going through not just academically, as you’re pointing out, but socially and emotionally And it feels almost like a roadmap where the teacher can apply in a more sophisticated and impactful way the tools in their repertoire. Is that a fair way to think about it?

Christina Theokas: Yes, absolutely. Teachers are always trying to differentiate instruction for students, trying to reach students in that zone of proximal development — that’s what’s going to push their development academically. But this helps teachers pull their perspective out and look at students holistically. So it’s not just academic development, but is there a comprehensive picture of their physical health, their mental health, their emotional health, their social health. And then say, “Okay, how do I approach it?”

So oftentimes what can happen in schools is that we layer on a program for this, a program for this, a program for this, and treat things in an isolated fashion. But this is a way of saying, “Here’s the holistic picture. How can we approach this in an integrated way and differentiate and personalize experiences for students across all of those domains of development?”

Chris Riback: And looking forward, what’s next?

Christina Theokas: So we’re really excited about the partnership with 340 and really getting that on the ground experience with the tool, seeing what barriers they face in implementation, what’s the right cycle. What’s the other guidance we could provide to really help make meaning of the data? Are there other resources we could integrate into our package of materials that really kind of support that looking at the data? Because this is really a very different way of looking at data for educators. So we really want to support them in that process so it does become a routine that they have over the long term. So we are really looking forward to that and improving the materials based on what educators are telling us.

So I’ll say one of the questions that we got from folks when we put it out there is, “Well, what about early childhood? What about parents? What about all other people who really care about this and would love to have a measure that measures what they really care about?” So we’re also thinking about that as well. And thinking about, is there a parent version of this? Are there other versions that we could create that could meet that need at other levels of school and for families as well? And we’re continuing to include these measures in some longitudinal research that we’re doing so we can really look at the relationship between students’ holistic development and the context, what’s happening in the context. How are we seeing that influencing their wellbeing? So we can continue to deepen our understanding of how changes in the context can really support and put students on a positive, healthy, developmental trajectory.

Chris Riback: Well, I’m relieved because I was very worried that you would have nothing else to do. So I’m really heartened to hear that you’ve got plenty still to do.

Christina Theokas: Absolutely. Plenty still to do, and really excited about all of it and taking that research knowledge and synthesizing that with lessons from the field and creating more applied resources for educators to do the things that they really want to do with their kids in their classrooms.

Chris Riback: Christina, thank you for your time. And thank you for telling us about the Well-Being Index.

Christina Theokas: Thanks, Chris. It was great to talk with you.

Turnaround connects the dots between science, adversity and school performance to catalyze student development and academic achievement. www.turnaroundusa.org

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