Early August I met with Angel Day, KEC Oakley Principal and Dana Stein, classroom teacher to discuss their vision for their school. They wanted to create a trauma informed center, giving kids the tools needed to return to their home district. This center-based school serves students K - 8th grade from over 20 school districts within Kent County.
As Dana Stein, Middle School Classroom teacher explains, this new idea began with a ‘road trip’.
It started off as a challenge from our building principal, Angel Day; to see what other districts were doing and what effective programming they had in place. A one-day road trip to tour and visit three schools that are similar in demographics started our journey into creating and opening doors that we never thought were possible. During our first visit our minds started to think and create. Knowing what worked for them might not necessarily fit perfectly for us. It allowed us to see their programming and allow us to use it as a springboard for us to create and modify our programming framework. During a three-hour drive home Colleen Holmes and I (Dana Stein) started a wish list and a list of things to do. On that list was to make contact with the Mindfulness Center. We realized quickly that we needed to back things up for our students and start at ground zero.
We could no longer assume that students understood their emotions and behaviors and that we needed to equip them with the tools and strategies to help them regulate their bodies and themselves. I made the call to the Mindfulness Center just to inquire the possibility of them partnering with us and getting us started in a different framework that would allow both staff and students to develop new strategies for self-regulation. I remember the summer call to Patti, instantly I knew it was going to be a perfect fit. She understood our need and vision for our building. Her background in teaching and special education allowed her to see our need very clearly and assisted us in the development of our framework and vision.
Creating a trauma informed center meant keen attention to details, for instance adding Mindfulness training and the Zones of Regulation training into the State School Improvement Plan for the 2016-17 school year would help ensure implementation and evaluation of the new programming. And while most districts utilize a 3-Tiered Model of Intervention, KEC Oakley utilizes a ‘4-Tiered Intervention Model”. This model is designed to coordinate with the local districts to illustrate the full continuum of services available for children in the very large Kent ISD area.
Today there are many different Mindfulness programs to choose from. However, we are using an evidenced based mindfulness program called Mindful Schools. A certified Mindful Schools Instructor teaches the students twice a week for 8 weeks. Each lesson is about 15 – 20 minutes in length incorporating a variety of mindfulness practices e.g. Mindful Listening, Mindful Breathing, Heartfulness, Mindful of Emotions, Mindful Walking, etc. We begin each lesson with a student leading the class in a 1 – 2 minutes quiet sit. It sounds something like this:
- Please get into your mindful bodies
- Close your eyes or look down
- (student rings the bell) everyone listens to the sound of the bell until they no longer can hear it and then they focus on following their breath until the bell is rung again.
Sometimes we can sit for one whole minute without any activity, other times we don’t even make it a minute, but we learn not to judge, just to notice what is real. It’s not the amount of time that is important it’s teaching students to notice their thinking, to become aware of this present moment and what is happening within it. Students learn that they can ‘respond’ to a stimulus instead of ‘react’ as illustrated in the following picture:
We also spend a lot of time practicing and learning about ‘heartfulness’, having compassion for oneself and for others. One of the lessons asks students to put their hand over their heart and say:
- May I be safe
- May I be happy
- May I be healthy
- May I live in peace
- May you be safe
- May you be happy
- May you be healthy
- May you live in peace
I wish I could say that KEC Oakleigh has solved all the children’s problems and they are now perfect children, but of course, that is not the case. What we are noticing is that the children are gaining a new vocabulary, new tools, and new insight. They are beginning to learn how to ‘self-regulate’ with tools that first asks them to notice that they are becoming angry, sad or distressed. To notice that their chest feels tight, their stomach aches, their jaw is tight; once I notice that, I can do some deep breathing, I can ‘feel my feet’, I can use my ‘bead breath’, I can learn and notice when my body calms down.
One student in Dana’s room asked me how Mindfulness could help him when he feels totally out of control. I explained to him that everyday he practices Mindfulness when he is calm and in control helps build up that part in the brain that he might be able to go to when he starts to get out of control. It’s not that his emotional regulation is cured or ‘fixed’ it gives him new neural pathways to try and go down instead of the ones he has become so ingrained in.
I have taught Severely Emotionally Impaired children early in my teaching career, it is not for the weak of heart. It is emotionally and physically draining everyday, not just once in a while. It will often require you to change your well-designed teaching plans multiple times a day to match the realities you are confronted with. You are feeling the pressure to teach the written curriculum, e.g. decoding, comprehension, writing, math skills, science, social studies, etc. but you have to attend the student who just tore up all the papers on their desk for seemingly no reason at all. As a teacher who understands the written, articulated curriculum of your district you know that the train has already left the station only your students are on individual travel plans. One student needs deep, repeated remediation another is right on track and ready to learn more, another is right in the middle but they are all sitting before you sometimes ready to learn, sometimes not. It is challenging on multiple levels that sometimes only a teacher who teaches in this type of classroom can understand.
I cannot say enough about the dedicated, caring, professional educators and staff at KEC Oakleigh who are truly the unsung heroes of our school system. They do everyday what most teachers or administrators would never even dare to do, work with children with severe emotional impairments, some of the most challenging children to teach. These students are given a chance to learn and grow because this staff chooses to be there every day, willing to not give up on these children teaching them math, reading, science, social studies and emotional regulation. Believing in them, giving them clear boundaries and constant reminders that they are loved and cared for everyday.
As always it takes a village to make any endeavor work. In this case it is the the nine special education teachers, the principal, the child care workers, the intervention specialists (academic and behavioral), art teacher, music teacher, gym teacher, social workers and the occupational therapist all working together to make this very special home, KEC Oakleigh.
So what am I noticing halfway through the program? Some days I am frustrated with myself because a lesson I presented didn’t quite ‘land right’, somehow I didn’t connect the learning with the students. Other days I leave the school feeling over joyed by the experience. Watching students in every classroom lead a mindfulness lesson, hear how they are using the practices to calm themselves down, to notice when they are dysregulated, to send heartfulness to themselves and to others. Students will share with me that they used their bead breath tool to calm down or hearing one of the students that is also cognitively impaired and very young saying ‘breathing in, breathing out’. All of that might sound really insignificant but it’s big really big for these students.
Teachers are finding creative ways to integrate practices throughout the day and on the days when I am not there. I will share more details in my next writing installment, after my formal instruction with student’s ends in January. I will also share how the whole school was awarded a grant from Mindful Schools to provide training in Mindfulness Fundamentals and Mindful Educator Essentials to every teacher and Para educator at KEC Oakleigh.
I remember when teaching students with emotional impairment; I always thought there must be a better way than strict rules and consequences. Now I think there is, setting clear boundaries and teaching self-regulation with mindfulness and heartfulness. I am so proud to be a part of this compassionate community. A big thank you to Angel Day and Dana Stein for asking me to share this practice with your students and staff, it has exploded all my expectations of what can happen at a school for severely emotionally impaired students.