A conversation with Heather Bryant, Director of Innovation and Impact, Momentous Institute

This is part of my series on thought leaders in the innovation space. Check out the other articles here.

One of Heather Bryant’s favorite innovations is a song about the brain’s amygdala. “When I think of an innovation success story, I always think of our Pre-K3 teacher Juanita Cabralas. We teach our students about their brains, how their brains control their emotions, and how to use mindful breathing to settle emotions… Juanita invented a brain hat, songs and poems, so now our 3-year-olds can tell you about their amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex. Juanita’s way of working with those 3-year-olds completely sets them up for success in their later school years.

Heather Bryant, Director of Innovation and Impact at Momentous Institute
Heather Bryant, Director of Innovation and Impact at Momentous Institute

This story is different than many we typically hear when talking about product design and innovation because Heather is an educational innovator. She is the Director of Innovation and Impact at Momentous Institute. Owned and operated by Salesmanship Club of Dallas, Momentous Institute has been building and repairing social emotional health in kids since 1920. Each year, the organization serves 6,000 children and family members through innovative education and therapeutic services. The organization also invests in research and training to reach far more children than could ever be served directly, including the annual Changing the Odds Conference. The combined support of Salesmanship Club of Dallas, the AT&T Byron Nelson (primary fundraiser), corporations, individuals and foundations enables these efforts and truly changes the odds for kids in the community and beyond.

Heather is a cowgirl at heart (she loves to spend free-time on her family’s ranch) and a dedicated educator for the past 30 years. She’s been with Momentous Institute for 22 years where she currently oversees their training programs and content creation. Additionally, Heather speaks nationally on the topics such as the importance of social-emotional health, what children need to succeed, the impact of trauma and toxic stress on children and the intersection of mental health and education.

Momentous Institute, owned and operated by the Salesmanship Club of Dallas, has a 96-year history.
Momentous Institute, owned and operated by the Salesmanship Club of Dallas, has a 96-year history.

Cause, Passion, and Mission

Of course, there are many overlaps, as well as differences, when we look at corporate innovation versus educational innovation. And, after talking to Heather, I think corporate innovation could take a few cues from the way she talks about how a mission is central to innovation work: “Any successful innovation program should be structured around a cause rather than a thing.” At Momentous, that cause is social-emotional health for all kids. “Everything we do is in service to that cause. Innovation flows from that. It’s at the forefront of everything we do.”

“Any successful innovation program should be structured around a cause rather than a thing.”

Momentous Institute’s framework for Social Emotional Health.
Momentous Institute’s framework for Social Emotional Health.

In comparison, she talked about how some schools have a “cause” centered around test scores. “You have to think about— what does it take to get those test scores? And anyway, everything always comes back to social-emotional health.”

“Our premise is— you will never get the test scores you want if you are not attending to children’s emotional well-being.”

Research, Research, Research

With that mission at the center of everything she does, Heather is also deeply committed to the importance of research in order to fulfill that mission. “I define innovation as mining, creating, testing — and that loop never ends. I’m always advocating for legit research. Otherwise, how do you know if it works?”

Kids at play

The primacy of research at Momentous is something that she believes sets them apart and one reason why “people listen to us.” She explained: “We’ve done longitudinal research that really backs up what we’re doing. We have legs to stand on when we talk about our model for education. Too often, people hear something that sounds super-cool and they jump in with both feet without knowing if it’s truly been tested or not.”

The school’s investment—both time and money—in research gives them credibility. But, it also means they have to be patient and not scale their learnings too soon. Heather shared an example of a curriculum she’s working on: “[Schools] have found out about it and they’re knocking on our door saying: ‘Will you sell it to us?’ My response is: ‘We’re still gathering research on it and how effective it is. Give us a couple more years and then it’ll be ready for widespread release.’”

“You have to take the time so you can confidently say ‘Yes if you use this curriculum with fidelity, these are the outcomes for children and teachers that you should see.’”

A Chorus of Perspectives

As well as research, Heather spoke of the importance of talking to diverse groups of people. “I think innovation fails when a group of fairly homogeneous folks thinks stuff up, without understanding the complexities and cultures of the end users.

Once, she worked with a funder who wanted to support a certain school intervention: “And so, we sat around and thought up what we decided was going to be a great intervention, without really getting to know the schools we were going to be working in first. When we got into these schools, we began to see different perspectives on what was working for them already and what wasn’t. It was a bumpy ride.”

Kid holding ball

This loops back to research and hearing from the end-user. “It’s so important to get to know the folks that are going to benefit from the innovation. It has to be much more collaborative— more of a partnership and a co-creation.”

Hard, but Worth It

One unique thing about the Momentous team is how cross-disciplinary it is; it includes traditional educators as well as mental health experts. “I advocate for a cross-disciplinary team. Many of our intractable problems don’t get solved within a single discipline. When you involve more than one discipline, chances for innovation and success increase.”

“When you involve more than one discipline, chances for innovation and success increase.”

But Heather doesn’t pretend that this way of working is necessarily easy. In fact, it’s actually harder: “It takes a ton of communication. It takes putting structure into place that forces those two groups together to solve problems. But the pay off is so worth it when you began to take the best of each other and come up with something new…It’s rich, but it’s hard.”

“In life, the things that are hard are often what give you the best results.”

Be Nimble

Being nimble is a trait that the team at Momentous has had to work at cultivating. “Being nimble is really hard for schools in general, particularly public schools. If something’s not working, they tend to just keep doing it because it takes a while to get consensus…”

Heather feels that this inability to shift quickly is holding back innovation in education. That’s why, at Momentous, they encourage what Heather calls a “growth mindset.”

We learn as much from our partners as they learn from us. If something we’re trying is not working, then we need to quit. Give it a go, but when it’s time to quit—quit and adjust, and change direction. I think that’s really hard for public schools…”

Because of this, she thinks more schools could study change theory so they can understand what teachers and administrators go through when faced with newness. “There are typical stages of change that people go through any time you try to do anything new. Change is hard for anybody, and especially for teachers who have been doing things a certain way for a long time.

Kids learning

Collaboration, Not Reinvention

Momentous shares its programs and initiatives with other schools who want to learn from them. When partnering with new schools, Heather has found that it’s not always about reinvention. In fact, that might backfire.

She gave an example from a school they worked with. They had an idea to track students who were having behavior challenges with monthly meetings. But, instead of coming to the school and simply implementing these new meetings, they first asked what the school was already doing to meet the needs of students who were not performing.

By starting with a question, versus a solution, we found out that the school already had bi-weekly meetings, but they were only focused on academics. So we asked about how they would feel about bringing in the piece that looks at children’s behavior needs and merge those with their academic needs. The school administration was able to accept that was so much more seamlessly.

This story illustrates the benefits of building on what is already there and the benefits of starting small. “Sometimes you have to look for the quick and easy win.” For example, in one middle school, they started by biting off a very small chunk— introducing mindful breathing breaks school-wide. Heather has found that even “little” innovations like these can have a big impact and can put schools on the road to bigger change.

Scrabble tiles spell Momentous

You Need Buy-In

What else has Heather learned about why things don’t go well when schools try a new way of working? “They fail for a variety of reasons: too many new initiatives at once, too little training for staff, administrators don’t fully support the initiative, teacher turnover, administrator turnover, or it is not a fit for the context of a particular school.”

But, she thinks that two big barriers to success are lack of buy-in from staff and overly ambitious deadlines. “There’s many initiatives that fail in schools because people are super gung-ho for one year about a new intervention, but no one’s asked the teachers if they think it’s a good idea…

“We lose so much when we’re just focused on efficiency and
timelines. Without spending the time to really listen to teachers and hear their thoughts about how it might work, I think that’s when you don’t get buy-in.”

“Speed is the biggest deterrent to getting true buy-in.”

Kids holding letters spelling thank you

People Are Finally Paying Attention

Our conversation ended back with the school’s mission. Right now, Heather is happy to see that there is an increasing interest in the importance of children’s mental health. She sees a huge need to get school counselors back to actually counseling students, instead of pushing paper. Because of the high poverty rate in Texas, there are many, many children who need the services that school counselors can provide. But, there is a shortage of them, so as Heather says, “teachers are really that first line of defense.”

But, people are starting to pay more attention: “It’s sad that it took a series of tragedies to get us to this point, but when the Texas legislature starts asking questions about it, you know we’ve reached a tipping point. I’m hopeful that we will begin to see some innovative resources to support children, their families and their teachers around mental health in schools.

If you want to read my other articles about innovation experts and practitioners, please check them all out here.