Conversations from the Field: Meet Aiko Sato

Aiko Sato cares deeply about the quality of afterschool and out-of-school time programs. She attended an afterschool program as a child. Today, she is a program manager for Champions in Portland, where she helps to oversee thirteen programs that serve more than 600 children and youth in the Portland area. Aiko leads staff training, mentoring, and coaching — and provides program observation. From this vantage point, Aiko helped pioneer the Mizzen by Mott app in its beta phase, and she has continued to share input on app content, features and Pro Tips.

Amid the pandemic — and wildfires in the Pacific Northwest — she and her colleagues are finding new ways to support families and help ensure that students stay connected to learning. We asked Aiko to share what they are learning about how to support children now. We also talked about what’s working, what’s not, and what is helping her team as they navigate tough times.

Q: With COVID-19, and now the wildfires, how ar
e you and your colleagues holding up?

It’s been hard, I won’t lie. I’ve been trying not to urge my team to be “flexible” anymore. It just starts to feel inauthentic. Our team has started to talk more about being mindful about where we carry our stress, acknowledging it and talking through it with each other.

There’s a kind of emotional whiplash in putting on smiles at every next headline, so instead we’ve decided just to make it okay to feel fatigued and do our best to move on. We don’t want to pretend everything is okay or normal; we want to tackle it head on. We can’t do that by turning our backs on the problems.

Q: How are the children that you serve doing?

In general, the children have been incredibly resilient. Adjusting to a new routine is difficult, and when you take away so many outlets for kids — like recess because of the smoke or playing together because of COVID-19 — that can cause some confusion and dysregulation.

But when we create new routines, they are generally ready to adapt — often way better than adults. Some kids find it hilarious that they can stick their tongues out at me behind their masks without me knowing — though their giggles definitely give it away. So that’s an example of adapting and conquering, I think!

Q: What are some of the more challenging aspects of providing programs this fall?

There’s a constant sense of things being too much and, simultaneously, not enough. There’s too much information to soak in — about everything from distance learning to scientific studies to news — but not enough resources and time to make the most of it. There’s a huge need to provide more support for families, but not enough information out there for them about childcare and financial aid options.

I think we all wish we could just press “pause” and walk around and take a deep breath so we can just think about what we can do rather than react, react, react.

I’m also very concerned about equity. While distance learning makes most content available online, some families don’t have consistent internet connections or a quiet place to sit so everyone can do their work.

Surveys help identify community needs but don’t always capture the full picture. A “yes” can mean “my mom’s phone can connect to the internet” but not necessarily that there’s the bandwidth needed for Zoom calls and synchronous learning. And it’s very likely that the families that would most benefit from being heard, aren’t able to participate in these surveys at all.

Q: What kinds of changes are you making to keep children, families, and staff safe, while also keeping students connected to learning and supports?

Aside from adopting all of the health and safety measures — groupings, hand washing sinks, sanitation protocols, etc. — one of the biggest changes has been to find new ways to communicate with families and students.

Beyond the pandemic, there are a lot of social frustrations surrounding racism, devastating fires, and political news. There are many ways that our community members feel unsafe. Trauma-informed care tells us that kids' brains cannot learn when they feel unsafe or are experiencing trauma.

Our organization responded right away with a curriculum that incorporates trauma-informed care, anti-bias education, and strengthening community. So that’s the lens we’ve applied in approaching everything.

We are increasing our communications with families and have changed the way we track the kids’ progress to be more responsive. We talk with families about digital safety and help students get logged in on time. We’ve created synchronous learning calendars to find breaks and pauses in their schedules so we can have intentional times to regroup, stretch, come together, and practice SEL skills.

In partnership with school districts, we are primarily operating distance learning centers that host learning pods; and we’ve set up some virtual engagement options as well.

Q: What do you feel is working? What’s not working?

We’ve gotten really great at the health and safety protocols. Everyone is hyper-vigilant about making sure everything is cleaned and sanitized, and that hand washing is occurring regularly.

Everyone is also really keen on finding magical moments for engagement and community-building, and that really makes the programs feel great.

The most difficult part for us is the distance learning schedules. All school districts, schools, and grades have something different planned so it’s a huge learning curve to get used to the platforms and schedules and making it work for the kids. We’ve gotten a lot better, but we have a lot of opportunities for growth here, too.

Q: What content or features in Mizzen are you using these days?

I like the Pro Tip “The Three P’s of AfterSchool Leadership: Positive Attitude.” It’s a great reset for educators who are coming into a totally unfamiliar situation and have to be ready to pick it up every day. It helps to ground us so that we can approach “the new” with confidence.

Also, searching the activities by duration is absolute gold. As I mentioned, there are many different breaks in the kids’ schedules. By prepping activities that fit a certain timeframe, we can be ready for whatever gap kids have in their day so that they are engaged and still respecting their classmates’ space. “3-D sandwich” is an easy activity to have at-the-ready. When they have a 20- or 30-minute break, we can get them started on this activity, and they are on their way!

Q: Through The Mizzen Minute, we’re sharing resources — and also ideas that support afterschool and out-of-school time professionals to restore their own energies. What’s helping you and your colleagues to recharge?

For children and for adults, I really cannot over stress the importance of taking breaks.

I had kind of an epiphany when I heard Arianna Huffington talk about the cultural stigma of sleep being “wasted time” and how we revere the idea of lacking sleep because it means we’re working hard. But there are obvious health risks involved with sleep deprivation, and so many benefits to being well rested.

Similarly, I think there’s a bit of a “cultural martyr” syndrome surrounding educators. When you read stories of teachers going above and beyond and buying their own supplies, working overtime, or fostering children, it’s heartwarming and they ABSOLUTELY are heroes, but it almost starts to feel like if you don’t go above and beyond to the point of exhaustion, you aren’t a remarkable teacher or dedicated enough.

Educators are pouring their hearts and souls into this work. It’s important to remember that by being here, you are enough — and to model to children what it means to love yourself and take care of yourself. Take time off if you can. When you return, you can give them your all! We need to celebrate wellness and reject systems that base our worth on our time rather than the quality of what we have to share.

Aiko Sato is a program manager for Champions. She is passionate about finding ways to strengthen the field and make afterschool an exceptional experience for all children and youth.

The Mizzen by Mott app is free through support from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.

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