Can teaching crucial skills create a ripple effect that changes generations? For Russell Virgin, that beautiful concept is reality. As comprehensive services deputy director for Early Learning Essentials, Russell facilitates courses for 160 employees across three Utah counties who, in turn, model and share the skills with the nearly 600 children and families with whom they work.
“If we’re serious about helping families overcome poverty and become successful and supportive parents for their kids, then there’s some real barriers for the families we’re working with,” he said.
Early Learning Essentials (formerly Mountainland Head Start) runs a federally funded Head Start program for children who come from low-income families and/or have disabilities. The program provides preschool, health, mental health, and nutrition services for children and social services for their families.
Virgin is certified in all five Crucial Learning courses, but he primarily facilitates the two Crucial Conversations courses for his entire staff, alternating between Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue and the add-on version of Crucial Conversations for Accountability. He’s taught Getting Things Done and The Power of Habit to his leadership and management teams as well, and he specifically trains family advocates in Crucial Influence.
“I love each course,” he said. “They each bring such a different set of tools to our staff. It’s such a critical set of skills to build the culture we want here.”
The challenge, Virgin said, is finding time to get everyone trained—particularly teachers, assistant teachers, and aides who can’t step away from the kids in their classrooms for days during the school year. Instead, they provide a stipend to bring them in during summer, and Virgin coaches staff through challenging conversations as needed throughout the year.
He’s also implemented monthly follow-up sessions to continue learning beyond the course.
“It just feels like a single training’s insufficient for them unless they’re really intentional about it themselves,” he said. “So we come up with practice scenarios or use some of the ones we’ve gotten from Crucial Learning, and we work through them, have people ask questions, and then practice. Each month we’re practicing different scenarios.”
Although Virgin doesn’t facilitate sessions for the families they help, he finds that arming family advocates with an understanding of the Six Sources of Influence makes a difference in how they work with their clients.
“They go into the homes of our families, and they’ll talk with them about their needs and their strengths,” Virgin said. “When they’re doing that, one of the tools we’re trying to have them use is the Crucial Influence model to work through the barriers to their major life challenges. They’ll go through the different sources of influence and talk about those crucial moments and vital behaviors and everything.”
Creating a Crucial Conversations culture benefits everyone within the organization, he said.
“My management team has learned to resolve parent concerns quickly and respectfully,” he said. “When a parent concern escalates and they speak with one of the leadership or management team members, they often feel heard and respected no matter what their concern is.”