Nurtured Heart

Left, Karla Cornell-Wevley, a teacher at River Bluff Middle School, talks with Faith Radecke. Cornell-Wevley is a certified Nurtured Heart trainer.

It took 18 months, but finally, Amy Ruck got through.

The Stoughton Area School District inclusion support teacher works with some of the “tricky” students in the district. Those include two girls she tries to “nurture whenever I see” with positive comments, if they’re perhaps being respectful to others or just walking quietly down the hallway.

For a year-and-half, she would receive growls of scorn for her efforts. But she kept trying.

And to her utter delight, it seemed to pay off a few weeks ago when one of the girls greeted her with a “good morning” – before Ruck had said anything to her.

“First time she’d ever initiated,” Ruck told the Hub last week. “I said, that is the first time you have ever spoken to me first, and I so appreciate that; that makes me feel so welcome that you’re reaching out to me.’

“And she said, ‘You’re welcome.’”

In a moment, that is what the Nurtured Heart approach is all about.

The new district-wide approach to mental wellness and student discipline stresses constant, positive reinforcement (and instant, low-energy “resets”) is in the last stretch of a transition year, being implemented at River Bluff Middle School and Stoughton High School after a summer of training.

The approach has been a “huge” change for teachers, but Ruck said the positive-themed message is catching on as staff and students become more familiar with the changes. Part of the reason, said River Bluff principal Trish Gates, is how well the approach works well with students of that age.

“Adolescence is a tough time for all our students, and we want teachers to use strategies in the classroom that are positive and supportive,” she wrote in an email to the Hub. “They like that someone is noticing great things about themselves. Students really reflect on their behavior when you point out what they are doing well.”

Nurtured Heart (NH) is part of the district’s overall approach to mental wellness known as “Trauma-Informed Care,” a “general umbrella” for a variety of related approaches to discipline, Ruck said. This includes Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS) throughout the district as more of an “external rewards-based approach,” she said, with contests for kids to earn points or prizes for good behavior.

Approaches with more internal-based rewards are “Responsive Classrooms,” used at the elementary school level since 2017, and Nurtured Heart at the middle and high schools. Ruck said while NH was created for “really intense or complex” children, researchers noticed it “just happens to work for everyone.”

“All kids want is a connection and relationship with people, and they’re going to get it however they can,” she said. “So if we can … show when they are doing things well, we get a lot more bang for your buck.”

Nowhere is NH taking off faster and farther than River Bluff, where Ruck said educators “jumped right in and said we’re going to be all in on this,” with every staff member getting trained.

Gates said the results so far this year are “absolutely” noticeable, with “students doing more positive behaviors because they feel appreciated.”

The key to success is repetition, Ruck said.

“This isn’t a magic bullet at all, this is persistence and sticking with it and being all in,” she said. “You just have to implement it and keep with it.”

‘Paradigm shift’

For teachers – particularly those used to a different approach for years – the change in this transition year to NH has been “a paradigm shift,” Ruck said.

Essentially, it boils down to changes in the traditional methods of confrontation and consequences. No longer are classes grounded to a halt during behavior incidents, with students “yelled at” by staff or sent out of the classroom.

River Bluff language arts teacher Karla Cornell-Wevley said last year, when she started “dabbling” with NH on her most “unengaged” students, she found many just wanted to be recognized for the things they did well.

“One student would come to me before the school day started to let me know something she had done well, so I could recognize it and put a character quality with it,” she wrote the Hub in an email.

Now, with it implemented school-wide, it’s how she talks with every student.

“It’s a more positive way to see my students and be in their world,” she said. “I tell students the great things I see them doing (and) when there are problems, I bring as little energy as I can to the redirection. It’s about having them see, ‘You went off course, get back in the game now.’”

The Nurtured Heart approach is based on three “stands”:

  • refusing to “energize” negative behavior by handing it through “immediate, concrete and uncharged responses;”
  • “Relentlessly energizing the positive;”
  • Demonstrating “fair and consistent boundaries” that “recognize the child in the moment they have a ‘reset.’”

Ruck said the idea of a “reset” – done immediately and with intentionally low emotion to defuse the situation – works as a consequence with many students because it’s a familiar concept.

“If you think about why kids are so drawn to video games, it’s because they’re constantly getting rewarded, leveling up,” she said. “But they know the expectations of the game, and if they step over the line – even a toe – they’re out. With a reset, it’s just a ‘Hey, you just messed up, you need to get yourself back on track.’”

Studying up

Ruck said after coming across research touting the effectiveness of NH training for parents with children with ADHD symptoms, district officials conducted a book study on the approach and came away impressed.

Since then, they’ve sought ways to implement NH as one of several strategies that deal with mental wellness under the general term, “trauma-informed care.”

“This just seemed like a perfect fit for building relationships with kids,” she said.

Ruck and Cornell-Wevley attended several workshops to take the lead as the district’s trainers, and last summer they assisted a group of Verona Area School District staff on NH training at SASD.

Ruck said the sessions were open to educational assistants and teachers throughout the district, from 4K through 12.

“Anyone who wanted to get trained could come,” she said.

Nearly 100 staff members attended the three-day sessions, which were funded by the district. Throughout the school year, Ruck and Cornell-Wevley have written weekly NH emails to staff to provide ideas and support.

Ruck said as this inaugural year starts to wind down, she’s excited by the progress many teachers have made.

“What we’re getting now is kind of a critical mass, where everyone is practicing where they feel comfortable in it,” she said.

Planning ahead

After the school year is over, district officials will likely do some strategic planning over the summer on how things went and how to grow and evolve NH in the district.

SASD director of student services Keli Melcher said one of those main tasks is figuring out how to “quantify” the results.

“That’s the part we have to work on next,” she told the Hub.

Ruck said her conversations with teachers have already made it clear the new approach has helped with some of the more difficult students to work with at the two schools.

Cornell-Wevley said she was touched by a message a student wrote her during a recent “reflection” exercise, asking if there was anything the student wanted her to know. The student thanked her for “positivity and how nice you are to everyone … You’re always willing to help anyone, even if they give you a hard time and you understand about how they feel.”

Perhaps not an uncommon sentiment from a student, but Cornell-Wevley said it meant even more given the source.

“I thought she found me annoying because I kept pushing her to put forth more effort,” Cornell-Wevley said.

Still, for many teachers, changing the “consequence piece” has been a struggle, due to the strong memory of past practices, Ruck said.

“(In the past), we wanted to show them what makes them remember that if they (misbehave), we’re going to make it as painful as we can,” she said. “With Nurtured Heart, the goal is to not have it happen in the first place; to build such a tight relationships with kids and have them feel so good about themselves that you’re not going to get that disrespectful behavior.”

Ruck said while NH is “just another tool” to reach students, and that other approaches like PBIS can be “super effective” as well, so far, it’s been “amazing” one for staff.

“Is it perfect for every kid out there? I’d say it’s pretty close,” she said. “It’s the best thing I’ve come across in all the years I’ve taught.

“It’s about noticing the greatness that is right in front of you, all the time.”

Email Unified Newspaper Group reporter Scott De Laruelle at