Time and space for family: Without the option to leave home, we are certainly spending more time with our families and children. While tensions might run high from time to time, having the time and space to slow down and savor each other’s company, without having to balance sports or activities’ schedules and business travel is a gift. We’re also getting to see a new side of our children and partners as they discover a new side of us. You might learn things that surprise you and maybe even scare you, but better understanding those around us is always a good thing.
Since March, we have been learning so much about our work, families, and personal needs because of the pandemic. Many of us are facing the challenges of parenting, while balancing work.
As a part of our series about how busy women leaders are addressing these new needs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sara Potler LaHayne, the CEO and Founder of Move This World, the social emotional learning program that has impacted over one million kids in 35 states who is now helping parents, teachers, and most importantly students understand how to take control of their lives under quarantine.
Sara LaHayne was named “Female Innovator of the Year” in the 2016 Stevie Awards, Sara has presented at conferences around the world and been featured in USA Today, Forbes, The Washington Post, The Guardian, and others. A lifelong dancer and previous professional performer, Sara was a Fulbright Scholar in Bogotá, Colombia when she authored, implemented, and evaluated the original Move This World curriculum.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
Icome from a highly creative family of musicians, song writers and dancers. Our family time often consisted of singing and dancing, and it was through creative expression that we celebrated one another. When I got older, I nearly pursued a career as a professional dancer but decided to pursue a degree from the University of Virginia instead. After graduating from UVA, I worked in Santiago, Chile with the United Nations’ Economic Commission of Latin America and the Caribbean and then in Washington, D.C. in the Department of Education for the Organization of American States. I completed my Fulbright Scholarship in Bogota, Colombia where my team and I focused on peace education. At the time, the research team I was working with was developing a peace education curriculum that was primarily being taught through lectures and books. The kids were disengaged. I started to think through how I could use creative expression, a vehicle that was so deeply personal to me and my values and upbringing, to teach the same social emotional learning skills through kinesthetic modalities and movement. In many ways this combined the two areas I was most passionate about: creative expression and conflict resolution, specifically through the lense of social and emotional wellbeing. This is where Move This World was born, and my career and company ever since has focused on providing schools and families with engaging, evidence-based and accessible social emotional learning content and resources to cultivate learning communities where everyone feels they belong.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started at your company?
After 5 years of implementing a direct service model, it became clear that we could not fully realize our mission or scale it through such a human capital centric delivery. In 2015 I transitioned the organization to a media company and set up a for-profit entity. I am not tech savvy, do not use screens with my children, and actually do not know how to turn on our home’s smart TV. I never would have imagined that I would be leading a media technology company given my own discomfort with technology and my pop culture ignorance. That said, this transition has allowed me to be more mission focused than ever before. Many people think only nonprofits can deliver on social impact, but in the 5 years since I’ve led a for-profit entity, I am spending more time listening to and talking with schools and families, developing curricula, writing content, measuring impact, and defining the strategic and creative direction of the product and organization than I ever was as a nonprofit CEO.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We have a lot of new and exciting content for the upcoming school year, including further differentiated content for PreK-12th grade; new, younger talent that more authentically represents and connects with students; and scripts that better reflect students’ challenges, stressors and hopes for the future. In particular I’m really excited about the high school video content we shot and produced this summer, which students across the country will soon be engaging in. It has a “talk-show meets The Office” vibe and I think it will really resonate with high schoolers in a way that’s often difficult in the area of social emotional learning. I’m also looking forward to launching two podcasts this fall and continuing work on a children’s book series. All of these projects are rooted in social emotional learning and creative expression, so they will help students and adults build important skills like communicating clearly, managing emotions healthily, and resolving conflict peacefully. More than that, when I think about these projects, a common througline is the idea of accessibility. Right now both myself and my team are focused on how we can make Social Emotional Learning more accessible and easy to do no matter where you are or how much you are juggling. In order to do that we need to be offering a variety of different ways for people to engage in the work of mental, emotional and social wellness.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
When I was a Fulbright Scholar in Bogota, Colombia, my now husband Rob LaHayne came to visit me. He took the buseta and ventured to the schools in the outskirts of the city where I was implementing and evaluating the program. Back in the United States, Rob stayed up with me until 2am while I was setting up Salesforce and Quickbooks and writing curriculum. He then got up with me at 6am and made sure I went for a long run and ate a good breakfast. In the early days of building Move This World, he watched me give myself hives because I was so stressed with getting the organization off of the ground. That same year he even talked about Move This World when he asked me to marry him — he knew he was getting all of it. Rob has embraced Move This World as an extension of me, my values, the problems in the world I want to solve, and the ways I want to approach those problems. Building an organization has really exuberant highs and really scary lows, but Rob has never been turned off by the difficult moments when we’ve had to float payroll or work late nights or invest in the business. I am grateful to him for believing in me and my ability to realize this vision and get it out deep into the world. He’s never questioned the risks we take together because he sees the conviction I have for this very personal work of strengthening mental, emotional and social wellbeing for all of us.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Can you articulate to our readers what are the biggest family related challenges you are facing as a woman business leader during this pandemic?
I feel that the COVID19 pandemic has cultivated a strong sense of unity amongst parents over the past several months. Working and learning from home is challenging to say the least and it very much feels like “we’re all in this together.” Prior to 2016, I was working at all hours of the day to get Move This World off the ground. I ended up burning out and losing my creative spark. I embarked on a six-week sabbatical filled with silent meditation and dance, and have tried to carry all that I learned in that time into my day to day life ever since. Before the pandemic, that meant I was very intentional with my time. When I was at work I had my phone away and focused solely on Move This World. When I was at home I turned off work notification and focused solely on spending quality time with my husband and daughters. I intentionally built in moments of silence throughout my day in order to feed my creative soul and ensure I didn’t burn out. That looked like meditation in the evenings, journaling in the mornings, weekly dance class, and a daily workout. Now our schedules and routines have been upended, the division between work and home is non-existent and silence is missing more than ever before. I also have been immensely worried about the state of our education system and the impact school closures are having on students, particularly those in low income communities and potentially unsafe living conditions. With my daily routine upended and these constant worries consuming me, it’s been difficult to remain present during this time, which as a woman business leader is essential to my success, both as a CEO and as a mom and wife.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I’ve had to lean on many of the social emotional learning skills Move This World aims to develop in students and adults. I’ve had to discover new ways to manage my emotions, to motivate myself, and to communicate effectively with my family, friends and colleagues. I’m trying to lean into this moment as an opportunity to learn more about my daughters and create new rituals together. I now have the opportunity to spend more time with my daughters and husband at home, and this allows for more spontaneous dance parties, story telling, and improv. I have the opportunity to lean into the discomfort of uncertainty and build new systems of support for myself and those around me. I’ve tried to reframe my perspective during this time as an opportunity for growth and learning, which most challenges end up being once you’ve had the time to move through them.
Can you share the biggest work related challenges you are facing as a woman in business during this pandemic?
This is a very tenuous, uncertain time for businesses, and it’s been challenging to navigate the uncertainty of my company alongside providing a sense of normalcy for my two small children who depend on me for their sense of security. I have had to get creative as to how I will continue to drive our business forward, ensure my toddler does her Spanish Zoom preschool class, and continue to breastfeed my baby. Before there were clearer lines between each of my roles and responsibilities, but now it feels like my husband and I are trying to tag team the day as co-parents and both leaders of fast growth companies. I talk very openly about Move This World to my daughter, but now I’m finding it more challenging to be present in each activity because it feels like I’m doing a lot but I’m not doing anything well, including sleep.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
First, I’m trying to be compassionate with myself and recognize that this is an unprecedented moment in time, and that it will pass. Second, I’m trying to focus on what’s in front of me moment to moment and avoid multitasking if possible. When I am breastfeeding, I am breastfeeding my baby. When I am creating and writing new content for Move This World, I turn off my email and cell phone notifications. When I am reflecting on our days with my husband, I try to listen closely to his highlights and gratitude. When I’m on the phone with an investor, I go for a walk so that I don’t get distracted. Last, movement has been my medicine. It can feel extra sedentary to work and learn from home, so exercising every morning has been critical, and taking calls while walking if I can has been a huge help to feeling stagnant.
Can you share your advice about how to best work from home, while balancing the needs of homeschooling or the needs of a family?
I found that regardless of where you are working and under what circumstances, you have to intentionally create a space that feels fulfilling. There’s a couple of ways I’ve been working to do this during the pandemic. First, I try to express gratitude regularly. For me, I commit to finding at least one thing I’m grateful for each day and finding a way to acknowledge that. That might mean sending an actual thank you card, sharing what I’m grateful for with my husband over dinner, or recording a voice note in my phone that I can come back to later and be reminded of that feeling. Second, I try to incorporate something into each day that will fill me up creatively — even if it’s a quick morning walk or journaling, having that silence to clear my head is essential. Finally, I am recognizing the power of community. As New Yorkers we are used to coexisting with 8 million people daily. Recently we’ve been interacting with as few people as possible. We need to find new ways to recognize the power inherent in a group, particularly during a time when seeing fewer people is actually a sign of solidarity. I’ve been trying to get creative in how I connect with people and create a sense of community for myself and my daughters even if we are more physically distant during this time.
Can you share your strategies about how to stay sane and serene while sheltering in place, or simply staying inside, for long periods with your family?
Get into a routine and ground that routine in how you want yourself and your family to feel. Oftentimes, we fall into the trap of looking at a routine as a series of tasks we have to check off in order to feel or appear “successful,” but in reality, routines are useful tools in helping us feel safe and secure. Start by having an open and honest conversation with your family about how they have been feeling recently and how they would like to feel moving forward. What do they want your family unit to feel like? What do they want your home environment to feel like? Then commit to building actions into your routine that will help you achieve those feelings. For example, if one of your children feels like everyone only pays attention to work and not each other, that might signal you to adjust boundaries between work time and family time. You might consider removing phones and technologies from your evening meal to encourage authentic communication, or you might take a family walk together each day at 5:30 to mark the end of the work day and the start of family time. This is also a useful exercise to engage in as an individual. If you’ve been feeling frazzled, stressed and frustrated but want to feel calm, in control and accomplished — what can you incorporate into your routine to help get you there? Maybe it’s a morning workout to release some of that nervous energy, maybe it’s a set quiet time that the whole family agrees to so you can enjoy your morning coffee in piece, or maybe it’s an evening meditation to help you slow down and reset at the end of these long, busy days.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
I’ve really tried to shift my mindset to focus on the opportunity that this moment in time is providing to us. Some of those things include:
- Renewed focus on Social Emotional Learning and the whole child. We’re hearing from school districts and parents across the country that social emotional learning and mental health is a major point of focus for them. Adults are looking for resources to help students process the trauma brought on by the pandemic and to help them feel safe and supported in their communities. I hope that this shift in focus is here to stay. The pandemic has been a reminder of just how important strong SEL skills are, so that students will be well-prepared to persevere through unexpected challenges throughout life.
- Reinventing a more equitable education system: School closures are highlighting the inequities that already existed throughout education. Now that those inequities have been put on display for everyone to see and better understand, I hope that they will no longer be ignored.
- Reimaging community systems: School closures demonstrated just how much we depend on schools. We look to our school systems to provide food, mental health care, child care, and an academic education. I hope we now see that we need to provide schools with adequate funding to continue providing these services, and we need to re-imagine our community systems and ensure that they can work closely with schools so the weight of these burdens does not fall solely on educators.
- Time and space for creativity: We should be making time to regularly fill ourselves up creatively, but it’s easy to let these practices fall by the wayside. New challenges force us to flex our creative muscles to find new solutions. I hope that we can approach the new challenges the world is facing with renewed energy and come up with innovative solutions.
- Time and space for family: Without the option to leave home, we are certainly spending more time with our families and children. While tensions might run high from time to time, having the time and space to slow down and savor each other’s company, without having to balance sports or activities’ schedules and business travel is a gift. We’re also getting to see a new side of our children and partners as they discover a new side of us. You might learn things that surprise you and maybe even scare you, but better understanding those around us is always a good thing.
From your experience, what are a few ideas that one can use to effectively offer support to their family and loved ones who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
First, we need to validate those feelings for one another. It’s easy to say things like, “There’s nothing to worry about. Don’t stress.” It’s also common to compare ourselves and feel like we don’t deserve to feel anxious when other people are suffering more than we are. That’s not true and we need to demonstrate to ourselves and to others that all feelings are valid. If someone expresses that they are anxious, stressed or upset, thank them for sharing that with you. Consider sharing a time when you felt similarly, if that feels authentic for you. Once you’ve validated the feeling and made your family and loved ones feel seen, heard and valued, then you can work with them to try to feel better. You might ask them what are some things that have made them feel better in the past that they could do right now. You could also redirect their attention to focus on three things they are grateful for in the present moment. This is an exercise my own family engages in at dinner every night, which helps us feel more grounded and calm.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Be Here Now.” I read this book by Ram Dass while on a silent retreat with a lot of time to think and reflect. Be Here Now reminds me to drop into the present moment, no matter what is swirling around in my mind or in my world. My husband and I hold each other accountable to not multitasking in each other’s presence and to fully listening to each other when we’re together. My daughters give me no other choice with their constant demands for attention! Especially now, we could all use a reminder to Be Here Now, to pause and to appreciate the opportunity to slow down.
How can our readers follow you online?
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!