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A Lesson from the Redwoods: Tools for building a root system of support across initiatives

By Megan Gildin, Ed.M. - September 20, 2022

Have you ever seen a forest of redwood trees? To me, they are the most magnificent trees and a great source for life advice. While Redwoods can grow to be hundreds of feet tall and have trunks that are 20 feet or more in diameter, their roots only go about six to twelve feet deep. These shallow roots extend up to 100 feet wide, interconnecting with the roots of their fellow redwoods to support their immense height and general well-being. Redwoods rely on each other for support and understand the power of connection.

That power of connection and support is the goal of Region 9 Comprehensive Center’s (R9CC) capacity-building work with the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) Wellness department. This year, we focused on building the capacity of staff to understand and maximize the value of student wellness initiatives to ensure all districts and schools across the state of Illinois receive the resources needed to create safe, healthy, and welcoming learning environments that meet the unique academic, social, and emotional needs of every student. The Wellness department is responsible for over a dozen initiatives that help build inclusive systems that support the strengths and needs of every child. The Wellness department sees that their work is interconnected both within their department and across agency departments. The Wellness department especially sees a connection with the initiatives under the Student Care department, a separate department in the agency.

With so many initiatives related to student wellness, it can be difficult to ensure that staff across departments and community partners are aware of all the initiatives and how they can align their efforts with these initiatives. It is also a challenge to identify and align data across initiatives that can help with monitoring the reach and impact of an initiative. To help address these challenges, R9CC supported the Wellness and Student Care departments in developing a set of tools, including a series of program profiles and a data inventoryThese tools were designed to build shared understanding and alignment across the two departments. They acted as new redwood trees, supporting the forest canopy of student wellness initiatives, so to speak. A program profile is a one-page summary that captures the key components of an initiative, organized in a way that is easy for the program staff to fill in, and easy for any reader to digest.  A data inventory is a tool to capture key details of data collection methods. It can link to the program profiles or be used as a standalone tool. Program staff can easily view and assess all the data collection happening within and across program with the data inventory.

Initiative leads in the Wellness and Student Care departments worked with the R9CC team to develop a profile for their program. They captured their work in an easy to understand way for different audiences, including ISBE staff members leading other initiatives or community partners. Initiative leads also added to the data inventory, listing the different data they collect and how it is used to monitor programs. Initiative leads also examined their strengths and areas for growth as they filled in the tools.

Once the program profiles were finished, R9CC worked with the Wellness and Student Care departments leadership to plan a two-session staff convening for both departments to explore all the student wellness initiatives happening across departments. The convening was a jumping off point for the two departments in using the program profiles and data inventory to build shared understanding of all the initiatives, identify ways they align, and ways to improve.

The following includes lessons learned from this process that will guide you in using the program profiles and data inventory as tools to build an interconnected forest canopy in your school or organization.

Create a shared vision/goal

Given how redwoods support each other, I imagine redwoods have a shared goal of thriving. Creating and communicating a shared vision helps staff align and move towards the same goal.  For the ISBE Wellness and Student Care departments, sharing the purpose of the profiles was a key first step in asking initiative leads to complete the program profiles. For the convening, the Wellness and Student Care directors looked at their two separate mission statements to come up with a combined vision statement. They shared this vision with their teams at the beginning of the convening, giving staff the time to reflect on the statement, provide feedback on what they might like to change or add, and consider how their individual initiatives contribute to this shared vision. As a result, staff were able to build a shared understanding of the larger goals of their departments, and how their initiatives contribute to and interconnect in achieving these goals. This set the tone and a pathway for the rest of the convening sessions in building towards cohesion.  

Make time to learn from each other and align

One of the most interesting things about redwoods is that their interconnected root system allows them to communicate and share nutrients to support each other. Creating ways for staff to share about their work and connect with each other is vital for building an interconnected system for support. This could include regular time in staff meetings, a central message board to share information, or weekly emails for program updates. The Wellness and Student Care department teams kick-started this interconnection through a two-session convening where staff learned about each other’s initiatives. Each initiative lead shared their program profile and a quick summary of their initiative. Staff identified ways their initiatives align and differ, ways to improve alignment, and strategies that may improve the impact of their initiatives. Staff also learned about tools, resources, and services provided across initiatives that could be helpful for the communities they support.

Interrogate your data

Redwoods have learned how to respond to and adapt to their environment to improve their rate of survival over time. Put simply, they collected data and found ways to improve. Creating a data inventory can allow your organization or school to better understands the strengths and gaps in your data collection. The Wellness and Student Care departments created their data inventory to explore the different types of data used across initiatives. Staff brainstormed ways to better align data collection and collect data that helps show impact. Staff continue to use the data inventory to identify strategies to improve their data collection.  

Share across departments and communicate widely

Redwoods rely on other species of trees and shrubs to survive. A multi-layered forest canopy supports the growth of every species, with each species playing a critical role. It can be easy to get stuck in our silos and miss out on opportunities for collaboration that can improve our ability to reach a shared vision or goal. For the Wellness and Student Care departments, working collaboratively across initiatives, departments, and in partnership with communities builds a multi-layered canopy of initiatives to support student wellness across the state. The goal in creating the program profiles and data inventory was to improve communication and understanding across agency departments and with key stakeholders. The Wellness and Student Care departments started this with their two departments and can use this process as a model to share more widely with others to find ways to align and work together.

While the Wellness department continues to use the profiles and find new ways to align their work within and across departments, consider how your organization or team can act more like a community of redwood trees. What would it look like to intentionally use practices that build connection, alignment, and systems of support? How can the program profiles and data inventory tools help in that process?  We’d love to hear how it goes.

If you are curious about what else you can learn from trees, consider reading Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest  by Suzanna Simard.


Megan Gildin, Ed.M., is a technical assistance consultant at the American Institutes for Research (AIR) and serves as a project lead for the Illinois Wellness Initiatives Inventory and Analysis project with the R9CC. Megan’s work at AIR centers around whole child development, working with educational leaders to effectively integrate social emotional learning and build supportive school communities. In addition to her work with R9CC, Megan has contributed to the development of adult social emotional learning eLearning modules, designed and facilitated professional learning opportunities with the U.S. Department of Education Student Engagement and Attendance Center, and provided support to districts in implementing educator practices to support social emotional skill development.  She has also developed resources for the National Center of Safe Supportive Learning Environments.  

Photo by Mike Krejci