You Can Lead a Horse to Water…3 pages of humor and wellness work buy- in tips :-)

Annie Baker, July 2020

Everyone has heard the idiom, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink”.  It basically means that you can do everything in your power to help someone, but you can’t force them to accept your help no matter how much you are convinced that “it” will help them.

In the case of Healthy Schools work, no two districts are the same.  Some jump on board whole heartedly and make you proud!!  In others, you can install hydration stations, supply water bottles printed with the schools customized logo to every staff and student, provide tips and statistics about the benefits of hydration, but you can’t force school administrators, teachers, support staff and students to drink the water.

In some rare cases,  a well-intentioned, community partner, who specializes in convening health minded experts to work  together for the common good of local communities (or school districts),  and who is dedicated to serving the underserved for the purpose of creating thriving healthy communities, can write grants, provide a dedicated Wellness Coordinator to streamline and coordinate wellness work, provide best-practices and professional development, purchase state of the art health technology, physical activity equipment, nutrition education and curriculum, and positive behavioral incentives but cannot, even after four years of dedication, gain the buy-in of administrators and district leaders.  Even if they are consistently providing data, research, support, examples, strategies, tips, tools, coffee, healthy snacks, childcare and translators.  The point is, you cannot MAKE a school district see the benefits of creating a healthy and safe school climate and culture that produces healthy, safe, challenged, and engaged students and staff anymore that you can MAKE a horse drink water.

What is the solution? How can you convince a school district to “buy-in” to health and wellness resources and funding?  How can you ensure that your efforts are not wasted and that the work will continue once the funding is gone?  Well first, you must answer the questions “WHY?” and “What if?”

Why can you lead a horse to water but oftentimes cannot make him drink?  I can think of a few reasons.  Maybe the horse is too exhausted because he has been carrying a heavy load for far too long and he just doesn’t have the strength to drink.  Maybe the horse has no idea that the water is available, because of a lack of communication.  Or perhaps the horse is skeptical about the quality and source of the water, and they need more information.   It could be that the horse does not trust the provider of the water and thinks the water hole is poisoned!  Perhaps the horses past experience has taught him not to drink water that sounds “too good to be true” because there are usually strings attached. Or maybe his is concerned that as soon as he enjoys drinking this water, the water will be removed without notice and it’s better not to get his hopes up. Perhaps there have been a myriad of “new” watering holes over the years, and the horse is just tired of the constant state of change.   Maybe there are just too many hoops to jump through to reach the water.  Possibly the horse would have to change his course, his habits, his well-worn path that he has traveled for years, in order to try this “new” water, and the horse is perfectly happy with the old water that he has been drinking for the last 20 years.  Maybe he sees no need to change or try new water.

It could also be that there are way too many daily threats, dangers, distractions to even think about stopping to replenish himself, even if he believes that this amazing new water promises to protect and strengthen even the most damaged and exhausted horse.  Even if this water may very well revitalize him with renewed strength and endurance and training and research and tools and strategies to work smarter.  Some horses might have allergies to water or special needs that prevent them from accessing the water.   Plus, why would this horse even want water when there is an overabundance of sugar-sweetened beverages to choose from.  Every shade tree oasis and concession stand offers a cheap alternative to water. Brightly colored, wildly flavored, low priced and easily accessible drinks that spike a dopamine rush and provide easy energy on the spot.

One could be dealing with an entire heard of horses with many different reasons for not drinking the water.  This is especially true if there are large numbers of turn-over and horses are constantly leaving and joining the herd.  Where in lies the silver lining!  A possible hidden clue that could actually be the key to success!  The silver lining of this “turn-over” may be that, as newly trained staff arrive, so does new “evidence-based” practice and new knowledge gleaned from decades of research that supports the fact that Healthy Kids (and Staff) learn (and teach) better!  New additions to the herd are typically primed and ready for healthy changes because they have been recently educated with the most up to date research supporting the importance of health and wellness in schools.  In fact, many health and wellness movements with-in districts are grass roots in nature.   Movements are started by one or two like-minded wellness advocates, or a life skills or catering class, and catch like wildfire and spread among staff and students!

Far too often, our focus is on EVERYONE must change NOW, when true sustainable change happens organically and individually and avoids the superficial appearance of “buy-in” that can derail the most coordinated and optimistic attempts at implementing a new Health and Wellness initiative. All it takes is a person who is passionate about health and wellness, and who is respected by their peers, to bloom where they are planted.  Start where they are, with the tools at hand, and start a movement of health and wellness.  The results will speak for themselves. Word of mouth with take care of the rest, right?

Well, for the most part, with a few conditions.  As long as these advocates have the freedom, energy and blessing to build health and wellness within their districts, and their efforts are not squashed by well meaning administrators, and this movement does not interfere with district policy or take away from “in-class” learning or rub someone the wrong way and discourage them, then they are golden!

But what if one of these barriers does pop up?  Who will guard and protect these well-meaning grass root wellness lay leaders?  How can they be supported and encouraged?  What can be done so that success is supported?  And, once you do this, how can you identify potential leaders or movements? What if you are not on the “in-side” and don’t have the inside scoop on potential grass-roots movements or health and wellness advocates?

The most recent and most common focus seems to be looking to the district leaders for an answer to our question (which for those of you who are losing track of what our question actually is, it is “WHY can you lead a horse to water, but can’t MAKE him drink”.)  In every herd, there is at least one leader who calls the shots and sets the tone for the rest of the heard. The Stallion.  The stallion is not usually in amongst the herd.  You can usually find him at a high point watching from afar.  He is watching for danger and ready to signal the herd to run.   He charges and defeats the young, up and coming, stallions that try to take his power.  He leads the herd to THE water that HE wants them to drink.  He sees the BIG PICTURE.  He may not be aware of the “climate” of the herd or be in-tune with the everyday needs and challenges of his herd.  He may not be aware of the “watering hole talk”, but He is keenly aware of the surrounding environment and impending storms or rival herds heading their way.  He is experienced and his experience is what guides him.  You can tell how long He has led by looking at his battle scars.  He didn’t get to the top by falling for every “new water hole” advertisement that came along.  He did not become distracted by “promising-practices” talk and young whipper-snappers filled with their “new” evidence and research.  He is guided by his instinct and years and years of following the same trusted path.

But what if years of following that same path has resulted in years of slow decline.  What if our stallion is getting along in years and his eye sight is dimming and he doesn’t realize that his trusted water hole is not replenishing his herd.  What if he is just stubborn and set in his ways and refuses to see the need for this “new-fangled” health and wellness for his staff and students?

Then I suggest finding the natural leaders or health champions within the herd.  In every herd there is a lay leader, or an up and coming young stallion ready to challenge the status quo. They are usually checking out the latest watering holes, comparing notes, tracking outcomes.   They have their fingers on the pulse of the herd.  They know who the natural born leaders are, who the influencers are.  Oftentimes, they surprise you and are not always the directors of Nutrition, Teachers of health or Physical education that we have come to expect. More often than not, they are art teachers, school secretaries, reading tutors, or para-professionals that are passionate and dedicated to the health and wellness of their co-workers and students.  Sometimes there are hidden gems right under our very noses that get overlooked when administrators “name” or “appoint” wellness leaders, rather than put out a wide invitation.

One or two health champions at the school level can accomplish more than all the dusty district policies put together- on shelves, gathering dust- at the administration building.  They know the ebb and flow of their schools’ culture and climate.  They know the location of dangerous pit falls, trip wires and dry gulches.  They know who to include and who to avoid.  And when they succeed, others take notice, begin to inquire, and want to replicate their success.

Our job then, becomes coordinating and supporting these efforts!  As we see thirsty members of the herd perk up their ears and raise their heads looking for new and better water holes filled with training, resources, up and coming promising-practices and research based wellness evidence, we, as wellness coordinators – or as I prefer to call them, wellness whisperers- can be at the ready.  As we guide, support and encourage natural, grass roots, health and wellness movements we will no longer be in the tug of war of leading the horse to the water and trying to make him drink, but we will be sharing the map. Marking it with X’s for the best watering holes, staking danger signs to warn of the pit falls, smoothing the way for the stampede of excited, healthy, thirsty horses charging toward water!

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