Eastern High School expands Dylan’s Wings of Change program

Founder Ian Hockley teaches experiential learning at staff training

After a year of hybrid and remote learning, Eastern Regional High School welcomes back more than 2,000 students in person on Sept. 9. (EMILY LIU/The Sun)

Ian Hockley, founder of Dylan’s Wings of Change, spoke at Eastern Regional High School’s staff training on Sept. 2, when staff participated in group activities with an experiential learning component and engaged with each other and reflected on shared experiences.

Hockley also spoke about the epidemic of social isolation and loneliness that emerged with the pandemic, and how empathy is the antidote. He founded Dylan’s Wings of Change and the Wingman Program in 2015, three years after his 6-year-old son Dylan was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012.

His program, geared toward empowering youth and educators, honors Dylan’s life by helping others become “wingmen.”

“I don’t think you teach empathy,” Hockley acknowledged. “You really can just foster it and give people experiences that, as they find their commonalities with other people, there will be empathetic connections.

“We keep my son Dylan at the heart of it because he was the kid who really needed everyone to be his wingman,” Hockley noted. “He took his cues from those around him, but there’s a piece of that in all of us. We all (have) that day when we need someone to check in, a helping hand.”

Through a combination of facilitated group activities and reflections, Dylan’s Wings strives to foster empathy, courage, connection and inclusion. At Eastern, Hockley continued to say that people are more likely to reach out and support someone with whom they have a connection,   or someone they’ve interacted with before.

“It’s about helping them form those bonds, but forming them naturally — not forcing any of this,” he explained. “We’re not forcing friendships; we’re just helping people realize we’re all the same really, deep down.”

Eastern began implementing the Dylan’s Wings program virtually last year, after 15 health- and physical-education staffers were trained as part of summer professional development. In turn, they later trained a cohort of students to become facilitators of peer-to-peer learning and activity sessions run through the Student Alliance, a group of upperclassmen.

This year, Dylan’s Wings will continue to be taught to staff and will be implemented more in health- and physical-education classrooms to help cultivate a supportive environment. The program is at the forefront of the district’s social and emotional learning initiative, according to Dr. Kristin Borda, the director of academic performance and student programs at Eastern.

The effort to incorporate social and emotional learning at the school has existed for years, in the form of a mental-health committee that did mindfulness training and later led a social emotional learning group that has evolved to incorporate Dylan’s Wings of Change in the curriculum.

“It’s not necessarily about teaching mindfulness or breathing (techniques), but how do we support students in self-regulation and self-awareness?” Borda said. “What we’re really trying to do is infuse those principles into things we already do.”

To learn more about Dylan’s Wings of Change, visit https://www.dylanswingsofchange.org/.