Photo of Lora Smith smiling at camera next to photo of Dustina Gill sitting at table speaking into a microphone

Partnership Aims to Indigenize Existing Wellness Programs for Indigenous Youth

A chance meeting seven years ago has turned into a years-long partnership to support the wellbeing of indigenous adolescents.

Audrey Breen

Photo left: Henderson Smith, right: Gill speaking on a panel at the 2022 Youth-Nex conference

The first time Lora Henderson Smith met Dustina Gill was in 2016. Smith was a doctoral student at the UVA School of Education and Human Development and was invited to travel with a group to visit with an Indigenous non-profit located on a Native American Reservation in the Midwest. Gill was there to greet them and teach them about the work she was leading with adolescents from her tribe. 

Since that meeting, Smith and Gill have forged a connection and lasting partnership that has been sustained across the miles, the years, and even a global pandemic. Together, they are actively collaborating on multiple projects aimed at supporting indigenous students’ social and emotional wellbeing, both in school and out.

Smith, now an assistant professor of clinical and school psychology at the School of Education, and Gill, founder and director of Nis'to Incorporated, a Native American non-profit youth organization, are currently focusing their efforts on two projects. The first is identified school-based social-emotional learning (SEL) programs that have been used with indigenous youth. The second is designing a game-based summer experience for indigenous youth. 

Supporting SEL In School

“During one of our conversations with a local school, I was asked if I could recommend any SEL programs for indigenous students,” Smith said. “And that sparked the idea of doing a scoping review of SEL programs to help identify which ones have been implemented with indigenous youth and which ones are culturally grounded or culturally adapted for indigenous youth.”

Smith relied on Gill’s expertise from the beginning of the project, offering insight that only including programs used in the U.S. might be unnecessarily limiting. So, Smith and her colleagues, Belinda Hernandez, Kate Joshua, and Jessika Bottiani, expanded their criteria to programs used across North America. The results of their work were published in the fall in Educational Psychology Review.

“In our review, we found 35 papers that examined 27 different SEL interventions that were used in the United States and in Canada, and we found none in Mexico,” Smith said. “We then grouped those programs into two categories: Culturally grounded and culturally adapted.”

The SEL programs that were culturally grounded were those developed for indigenous students in indigenous communities from the start. “These were often developed using community-based approaches with elders, community members, or researchers in the community,” Smith said.

The programs identified as culturally adapted were designed and validated with other groups that were altered to become more culturally sensitive to indigenous students. The range of those alterations varied between very minimal to significant.

“Some adaptations were minor, including changing the pictures or changing the names to be more like those used within a community,” Smith said. “Other times the changes included deep structural adaptations, where maybe they changed the way that content was delivered to be more reflective of indigenous communities.”

The scoping review revealed that there has been an increase in the use of community-based approaches to developing SEL and preventative interventions. And according to Smith, this is a very positive finding. 

The team is currently conducting a systematic review that will examine the outcomes and effectiveness of SEL and prevention programs used with indigenous students. “Then, we will be able to make better recommendations on which specific programs are effective for indigenous adolescents,” Smith said.

Summer of Games

With a new grant from the Spencer Foundation, Smith and Gill are developing an SEL summer program for youth centered on the creation of games. In partnership with iThrive Games and Nis’to Incorporated, Smith and Gill, along with iThrive Games Executive Director Susan Rivers, are designing a weeklong summer program where youth will explore issues of educational inequality and then design games that represent their experience and their desired experiences in schools.

Gill is especially committed to helping create a flexible program where students have space to be creative. In her experience, these kinds of spaces for adolescents are not common.

“I don’t think there are many spaces that allow kids the space to be creative and explore what is important to them,” Gill said. “Spaces where they have the freedom to have an imagination to build and create is kind of rare.”

With the students taking the lead this summer, it is impossible to describe exactly what games will be created. But they will be learning how games work, what game design entails, including the terminology, the vocabulary and their mechanics. 

Smith does offer some hypothetical scenarios that describe what the students might be working on: “Some groups might decide to create a game about how education currently works for them. So, it might include experiences of microaggressions in school or getting push-back. Or they may decide to design about their ideal educational system and what that would be like for them. So, that game might include rolling the dice and picking up a card where they skip a grade, or they have a teacher help them, so they get to move two squares ahead.”

Whatever they create, the games will serve as a way to explore important educational issues. And they won’t be the only ones playing them. At the end of the week, different community members will visit and play the students’ games to experience either how the youth currently experience their educational system or how they would like to ideally experience it.

“Our hope is that, as tribal leaders, educators and other community members play these games, it will spark some change as they learn what it's like for kids and schools and think about how they can leverage their leadership positions to make changes recommended by youth,” Smith said.

Impacts of an Ongoing Partnership

These projects are two specific ways the research-practitioner partnership between Smith and Gill are making a difference in the lives of indigenous youth. But their expertise is being passed back and forth in other ways, too.

This fall, those gathered on Grounds for the most recent Youth-Nex annual conference benefited from Gill’s expertise and the insights of the students she brought with her, as they shared about their work and experiences on a panel. 

And as Gill’s work with Nis'to Incorporated continues, where the workshops and gatherings follow the seasons, they are serving as an example to other organizations because of the evidence-based methods they use.

“Whatever Nis’to does, it will be trauma informed,” said Gill. “We learned that from Lora.”


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