Improving Mental Wellness in Schools

Aspire to Lead, Maria Barrera, Clayful, Mental Health

This is the transcript of the episode, “Improving Mental Wellness in Schools” Featuring Marria Barrera of Clayful

Joshua: I would love for you to share with my listeners a little bit about yourself, your educational and leadership journey.

Maria: Alright, so I started as an educational leader, back when I was a high school student teaching actually middle schoolers Italian, the middle school next door. To clarify, I am not Italian. So I was learning it off their teaching today feel like something that a lot of teachers go through. You know, that lesson has carried me through a lot of my career to this point. And then after college graduation, I, throughout college, I had a tutoring company and really supported students with mostly math and science subjects. So veered off the Italian there for a bit, ended up joining was about to go into the classroom, and then ended up meeting the founder of Nearpod, at the Stanford d school where I was getting my master’s degree. And I was so impressed by the ability of technology to have a huge impact in the classroom. And the fact that we can, you know, at its core Nearpod was a pretty simple technology, right? It was, at that point, it was PowerPoint on steroids. And, but it helped solve a really big problem, which was like, Hey, we have all these devices in our customers, what are we gonna do with them? They’re on PowerPoint, they don’t on Java? And we don’t know, and kids know how to use them better than we do. Obviously, we’ve come a long way since then, by those lessons of hey, how do you leverage technology to solve big problems and education have, again, carried me through my career in a pretty powerful way? And it’s the reason I started click well, about a year ago.

Joshua: Yes, and I we’re definitely gonna talk about Clayful, which is a phenomenal program. And I want to talk to you about that shift, because you went from that company to starting something completely different. And I know that you identified a really big need, which was student mental health and wellness. I think there’s such a ginormous topic, and one that every educator is seeing right now is something that needs to improve. So what was behind you starting this company? What is your company doing for education, and then also kind of what is the future of student mental health?

Maria: I mean, it’s so powerful to even hear you say that, because a year and a half ago, when I was first thinking about this problem, we were just starting to talk about, okay, that might be a crisis here. But there really wasn’t a lot of conversation around what what schools role in addressing mental health was, and that’s conversation has shifted dramatically over the last year and a half, right, like we were at a superintendent about last week and mental health is their top priority. It’s the thing that’s keeping them up at night the most. And it’s just been really rewarding as an entrepreneur and someone who, you know, a year and a half ago said, Hey, I think there’s a big problem here. And I think there’s ways that I can help to now see that conversation shifting and people realizing like, “Oh, yes, there is a huge problem here”. And schools have a ton of both potential and ability to make an impact in a way that we didn’t think about before. So I’ll walk you through the the quick story of how it started. After Nearpod, I got the opportunity to join another early stage startup, I love building things from zero to one, so cool and crave that like, you know, the chaos that comes with building things from scratch. So I joined a company actually in the HR space, and that was in January 2020. And you can go while Uh huh. So you can imagine what’s coming there. It was a fascinating rollercoaster and like, you know, what HR is not doing when they’re dealing with a global pandemic is picking up the phone and allowing you to sell your product to them. But it turns out that our product was key, or both, like scaling companies and companies are quickly changing. What as I started seeing, what are the trends in the market, which companies are growing, which companies are quickly having to adopt? I saw a lot of mental health solutions popping up. And it also became a recurrent theme when we were talking to HR companies thinking about how are we better can support our employees, and what are the ways that we can provide support during this time, and hopefully beyond that, too. So I started to see all these companies come up, and he didn’t see anything for kids. And when I started to do research on my Well, the pandemic affected all of us in some way, shape, or form, but we’re kids, it’s not just you know, that social isolation and anxiety of what’s going on in the world. But it’s also a lack of structure, right? It’s a lack of like socialization, it’s not being in the environments that you’ve been used to being and completely changing your routine. And so much of that is key, and the social aspects of it are key to cognitive development, and helping students sort of mature and grow. And, you know, taking school into zoom boxes was was really hard. And it was really hard for a lot of families are really hard for a lot of students. So after I started to do some research on it, and the sort of inflection point was when I saw an article in The New York Times about the rising suicide rates in eight year olds, and the article changed my life. Because at that point, I cried a lot. And had this sort of awakening, I realized, like, Oh, this is the problem, I need to go address, I need to go be a part of this. And I feel very lucky that in my career, been able to work with educators, when work on the technology side, and really sort of see a lot of different ways in which we can address big problems. And I felt that I could support education through our students through this big challenging process, given my expertise. So I ended up literally that night, it was 2am on a Tuesday, because what does one do when there can’t be can’t fall asleep? You just scroll through Twitter? Well, yeah, obviously. And I emailed my boss was like, I got to talk to you, I have to go. And I didn’t know what it was gonna look like, I just knew I need to do work on it. And I spent a lot of time talking to people figuring out what a solution could be, and eventually landed on what we’re building now. But it was, you know, a hard process because it’s such a complex problem. And there’s so many sort of inputs and outputs to think about. But at the core, our main belief and the thing that I wanted to sort of build war was a bar I want to build and we are building for families without disposable income. And I wanted to build something that was preventative and not just focused on reaction and not just helping kids pass the breaking point, but helping them avoid ever getting to a breaking point. Because my point of view is you can’t address the crisis by only helping those in crisis, you have to avoid the crisis to begin with, right? That’s what we’re doing. And it was a long journey to get there. But now we’re very supporting you know, we started we ran our first pilots a year ago and now we’re supporting 1000s of kids across four different states and growing and it’s it’s taken off

Joshua: I want to talk about a couple things that you mentioned. One, the lack of structure that occurred during the pandemic with students and, obviously, the educators have seen that in the classroom now but then also socialization just looked different. I think everyone, students and adults, all really leaned into social media in regards to connecting with other people. However, there’s also been an adverse effect to that and with student mental health, so I’m just curious on what your findings were and what you’re doing to help students through what has occurred over the last couple years.

Maria: Yeah, I think like the isolation piece is such a core part of all this because I mean, we’re humans, we’re connected people like aren’t we are social creatures by default, right. And by design, when you talk to especially like younger kids, like we’ve now embedded sort of a fear of others in them right, in a way that creates a lot of anxiety and social anxiety and anxiety by going outside and getting sick and die, right, there’s, there’s a lot of fears that came with having to live through a global pandemic. And at the core, when I was talking to people, like the thing that we missed the most was a human connection, you know, I get a lot of questions around like, well, is this an AI bot? And can you do this with AI? And, you can do it. There’s other companies out there tackling mental health using AI. But for us, it’s really like, how do we keep human connection at the core? And how do we help students connect with people who are caring and loving, and are good humans and like, show that the world is fundamentally good, even to what you were saying so much of what social media has become, it’s just like, polarizing, because by design, it’s meant to have the the, the algorithm that will, you know, keep you watching, are the things that are going to get you the new heat at the most. And I think our kids deserve to see that the world is good. And the humans are good. So that’s, that’s a big part of what we’re doing on the social media front. I think we’ve been obviously, we’ve seen a lot of interesting things happen and like Seattle Public Schools out saying the social media companies, and I think I’m really intrigued by how that conversation continues to evolve, there’s been some conversation on my wall, should social media be only available to kids over 18? And I’m like, Yeah, well, like jewel is only available to kids over 18 doesn’t do any good, that doesn’t stop them from getting it, right. So I am a huge believer that that not restricting the use, but rather like helping them figure out how to best use it and giving them the tools to manage themselves online and, and deal with, you know, mean, people that might come up and build that resiliency, it is more effective, because they’re going to have to do that in the future anyway. And one of the big, you know, I’m biased to because one of our big products that we worked with at Nearpod was a partnership with common science on digital citizenship. So that’s been sort of embedded into my brain and the importance of digital citizenship. And, and I think that there’s more that we can do to help kids build the knowledge to be able to deal with those things and behave appropriately online, instead of trying to take it away.

Joshua: Yeah, social media is not going anywhere. That’s definitely not the answer. I couldn’t agree with you more Maria. So you had talked about student loneliness. And obviously, a lot of people were feeling that regardless of your age, last couple years, because that human connection being lost. So I know a lot of educators are wondering,  how can we help now, now that we’re moving past that piece, and everyone’s back in the building? What are we going to do to work through all of the trauma that occurred and help students with the lonely feeling that they had?

Mariah: Yeah, here’s the thing. You don’t go into education for the money, right? People go into education because they care. And every teacher I’ve ever met, just like, You care so deeply, and you care so much about your students, and you’re thinking about them day in and day out. And I think that that’s what’s so beautiful about this profession. And it can be exhausting as well, right. And like we’ve put our teachers and our admins like through the wringer over the last couple of years, and we’re been doing things that have never had been done before and learned new things, approach new situations in ways that we never thought we would need to. And, you know, it shows how resilient this profession and the the people who make up this profession are. And it’s also broken a lot of them. And understandably so. Because it’s been really, really hard. So when I think about like, how do we, one as educators, like support our students, but also support ourselves, it’s a tough balance, right? And we know you always hear that, like, put your mask on first, like, fill your own cup so you can pour into others. And these are great sayings. We love them. But actually doing it is harder than it seems. It sounds great. But it’s not always possible. And especially when you when you are highly empathetic and care so much you’re like, Well, no, like, I’ll just give you my mask. It’s okay, I’ll be fine. I didn’t maybe you won’t be. That’s another sort of big angle that we think about. It’s like, okay, how do we support teachers and counselors and admins, and they take on a lot of trauma themselves, right, like second hand, and they’re taking on a lot of the situations that students are going through, how can we be an additional support where they don’t feel guilty? Sort of passing it off, right? It’s like, Hey, I see you’re having a really tough day. Why don’t you talk to your coach about that, and you know, go in a corner and blob on and talk and it’s not that you’re not making space for that. Students, but it’s more that like, you’re you’re setting a boundary to and help giving the student the support that they need while also being able to support the other 30 students that are in your classroom. Right. So that’s something that we’re, we think about a lot, and, and helping also give educators strategies, because a lot of the cognitive load comes from like, well, I don’t know what to do in this situation. Right? Or I don’t know, you know, students coming to me with why, like, what do I, how do I respond? So we’re thinking a lot about what does that whether it’s like, professional development, what are those strategies look like that are more, you know, piecemeal are like just in time, what could that look like to again, reduce that cognitive load, know that, like, Hey, you’re responding and sort of, you know, boom, quote, like, right way, like research based way, while also not having to, you know, take all of that weight on you.

Joshua: I want to talk about resources, because my listeners know, I try to provide as many resources to them as possible, especially ones that are vetted and I believe in, and obviously, Clayful is one of those. So I know schools are lacking resources, especially in this area, when it’s in regards to mental wellness and mental health. If you turn on the news, there’s so many terrible things going on and we have to understand that our students are surrounded by this, and they’re coming to school the next day with all these adverse situations, what can Clayful do to help schools, especially those that are lacking resources in this area?

Maria: You’re totally right, that there’s sad news literally every day, and it’s devastating. It’s also really hard for a school to be able to, you know, at the drop of a bucket, like, hire 20 counselors, or bring on a crisis team, that’s really difficult, right, like getting more people is specially in rural communities as an example. It’s extremely difficult. So part of the way that we work with schools is we are an extension of their team, right? So we don’t replace a counselor, we don’t replace your school psychologist, rather, we are an extension of the work that they do by providing that tier one and sometimes tier two support to students. So that means that students can come to us and talk about like, Hey, I’m really stressed out about a test. And the test is tomorrow, what do I do, and we’ll talk through that, and it doesn’t need to be a big thing. But it could also be the student that like, if we didn’t talk to that out, they could break down in class tomorrow, right, they could break down during that test. So it’s helping decrease going back to, again, avoiding those breaking points. That’s key. And that way, the counselor can focus on the students who need them the most. So when we think about some of the things that are happening on the news, a lot of students feel like, oh, just because I’m upset about something. So like, that’s not big enough. Like it doesn’t warrant me like going to the counselor’s office, it doesn’t warn me taking up one quote someone else’s time, because students are actually like, incredibly conscientious and like, amazing. But that means that providing them with the support just like hey, we’re here to talk about anything like what to talk about the toasts, great wonder like playing game, we’re all we can also do that want to talk about the TV show you’re watching, right? We make it really accessible, especially going back to that loneliness conversation. And a lot of kids don’t have anyone to talk to the talk to about their TV that they’re watching. So we can be that, that support for them. And then eventually, we get to like, here’s how to make friends. And here’s how you get here are ways that you can, you know, go up to someone at lunch and make that connection. But when these national tragedies or any sort of natural disaster happens, were able to because on our side, we’ve scaled our people, right? It’s all through text through that the app right, we can very easily manage the demand and support schools without having to you know, hire 20 more people. I think that’s really powerful to be able to provide that school with the just in time support. We’re we are just launching with a school out in Michigan, a day after the Michigan State shooting and students are coming in, they have their siblings at that school there. They have a lot of family around the area and being able to just like, have another person to talk about it is one research based strategy that you know, just talking to someone makes you feel better, but then getting some strategies to like how to deal with that anxiety and how to how to not worry about going to the grocery store every time you step outside. Like is is an important part of life too. And going back to the connection piece, it’s like now what now that we’re so connected, we know, way too much in the fray.

Joshua: That’s good, though. Everyone needs someone to talk to. Like you said it’s therapeutic. It’s something that we need as far as connection. I think that’s probably the thread that It connects this conversation is that we do need those connection points. So I’m just thinking about the administrators and the counselors that are listening to this episode. And, as they have seen, which I saw also in the last couple years on our campus, it’s just the increase in anxiety increase in these harmful thoughts and where students were either thinking of taking their life or harming themselves in some way. And you said it before, it’s an overwhelming topic. And sometimes we don’t even know where to start. So if we are seeing this increase, you know, what can be some first steps for a campus to kind of help our students in such tragic times?

Maria: We’ve actually put together a little kit, there’s different resources that we can use for both like anxiety or suicidal ideation. You know, depending on the acuity, we’ve put together some resources that we can share. And then if you want to talk more, we actually have some pilot spots left for this spring, there are a lot of schools are piloted, and will pilot like one or two schools that are high need for the rest of the school year to Then roll out for the following school year, we have some spots left for this community, actually, we put together a little link that you all can reach out to us at it’s And we’ll put that in the show notes as well, so that you’ll have access to it. And definitely mean reach out to me right Maria at playful, we have a ton of resources and like the same strategies that we use on coaching, we can share with you to help for those students. Because there are a lot of simple things we can do even like breathing exercises, right? Like, we have this thing called the triangle breathing, like breathe in for three, fold for three, breathe out for three, simple, it resets your nervous system, and it helps you calm down. And it’s it was a ton of research based on that. And even just having a poster that says that in your classroom could help a lot of students. So definitely reach out. And we’re happy to share any resources that we have specially when there’s, again, we’re trying to be preventative as much as possible, but specially for those acute needs that where students need additional support, we have some some good resources for that.

Joshua: For aspiring and current leaders, if there’s one thing they can do tomorrow to amplify their own leadership journey, what would you recommend?

Maria: I mean, we’ve talked a lot a lot about connection. A lot of you might be in a school building with your people, a lot of you might have new team members that you’ve met, that you haven’t really forge strong connections with because they were hired during the pandemic or I think going back to connection in I think of myself as very much a relational leader where I want to understand how my team members feel how they best work and how, how to best support them. And I’ve seen a lot of success with that. And I highly recommend that any leader make the time to connect with their people, because I think it can go a really long way, especially during challenging time.

Joshua: And can playful help with teacher mental health. I mean, we talked about students, obviously, but I’m wondering about for our adults.

Maria: Oh my goodness, it still plays a question we get a lot we think about it also a lot. The current focus is on students because we feel and in talking to teachers, a lot of the challenging problems that teachers are facing is due to student mental health. So it’s like okay, let’s solve the cardinal the problem. And it’s something we think about a lie. And Melissa, my co founder she’d like her dream is to have a teacher wellness retreat and to support educators and in their own mental wellness journey. So I’m sure we will come up with something soon. Not yet. But soon.

Joshua: All right, sorry, listeners, you heard it. If you want a wellness retreat, you got to reach out to Maria and make that happen.

Maria: Yeah, if we get lots of interest, we’re gonna have to make it happen.

Joshua: Maria, I want my listeners to be able to connect with you, in addition to just this episode, so how can they reach out and follow you on social media?

Maria: Yeah,  I’m on LinkedIn Twitter, it’s Maria Barrera, but I think there’s an underscore somewhere in there somewhere we’ll put that in the show notes do didn’t think about that when I made the name and you can follow playful holiday as well on like Instagram and Twitter. We share a lot of resources on there too. A lot of we take centrally the lessons that we create for you to and a mini version of those on our Instagram specifically. So yesterday we we published one around connection and how to help students both like Foster and find connection. So really good many strategies on there that you You can benefit from that we can all benefit from was like, oh, I should do this. So to your point, a lot of the strategies we, we learned about for kids ended up helping us and helping our community. I noticed that in my I’m a better friend, I’m a better sister, I have a better daughter, like all these things, because I’m using the same strategies across my whole life. So that’s pretty powerful way of having ripple effects, as well.

Joshua: Maria, I am just so honored to know you be connected with you. And you know, with all of the fantastic things your company is doing with mental health, mental wellness, I just can’t wait to see how you grow and impact more students each and every day. Thank you so much for what you do in education and for being a guest on Aspire to Lead.

Maria: Thank you so much for having me. I hope it was helpful for everybody and I’m excited to share any resources. Please do not hesitate to reach out because we have lots and we we’re here to make an impact.

About the author, Joshua

Joshua Stamper is the Training and Development Specialist for the Teach Better Team and manages the Teach Better Podcast Network. Prior to Joshua's current position, he was a middle school Administrator, classroom art educator, and athletic coach.

In addition to being on the Teach Better Team, Joshua is the author of Aspire to Lead, podcaster, leadership coach, and education presenter.