Building a Home for Challenging Times
Guest Blog Post by Glenn Buechlein & Jeff Bramhall
The time we are living in now is unprecedented. Our new normal is to hunker down in isolation venturing out only for essentials. This is the only time in our collective history that we’ve faced this sort of isolation. Man is, by nature, a social animal and needs connection. Thus far, we have adapted and are able to interact through social media and conferencing apps such as Zoom.
For many families, this isolation comes with additional stressors such as having to deal with food scarcity, childcare, lay-offs and even job loss. The uncertainty brought by each day may result in fear or anxiety.
Children especially are in a tough place. Their routines have been dramatically altered and they may sense that a certain element of doom hovers over them. When feeling overwhelmed, some may act out in various ways.
For children to blossom, they must feel safe. Feeling fear, anxiety, and uncertainty all challenge that feeling of safety and may overwhelm the child. For some children, that feeling of overwhelm may result in acting out, isolating, or responding in other ways.
As a life-long educator, I’ll share with you some of the approaches we’ve taken at Fifth Street Elementary School in Jasper, Indiana to help our children deal with fear, stress, and trauma to help them become more successful in the classroom.
My hope in sharing this is that you, as a parent or a fellow educator, can take some of what has worked for us to help your children in this difficult time.
I’ll share our journey first, but feel free to jump to the WHAT YOU CAN DO section to learn how you can create this environment in your home with minimal space and equipment.
Please share this article with anyone who may find this helpful.
FIFTH STREET ELEMENTARY – A RESILIENCE SCHOOL
Following a challenging 2017-2018 school year, the faculty of our school undertook a study of how trauma can affect students and their learning. Our entire staff did a year-long book study to learn more about trauma, how it affects kids and their learning, and what we, as educators, can do to help these students.
This process began slowly with a team of committed staff members delivering this new way of thinking to our staff members. We started by identifying some mindfulness ideas, focused-attention ideas, and breathing activities that we could trial. We found some initial success: Mrs. Goodhue, our school social worker, led these activities in the gym in the morning on a weekly basis. She taught several breathing strategies for our students and staff. Building on her success, we created a calendar during the second semester of the school year for staff to follow in their classrooms, encouraging use of these strategies on a regular basis.
Fifth Street Elementary is now implementing a school-wide resilience focus which teaches our students about their brains, what happens in their brains when they experience stress, and strategies they can use to cope with that stress in a healthy way. Our goal is for students to recognize when they are becoming dysregulated and begin to use these strategies on their own. This empowers the children to be healthier, safer, and better all-around leaders.
Even better, there is new research coming out that is supporting our findings, showing that specific strategies can calm the brain and body’s stress response, leading to positive impacts on the neural pathways in our brains. These lessons and strategies they learn in elementary school can help them become more resilient as they face adversity in their lives beyond the classroom.
WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE
Here’s what this looks like in our school. Each classroom has a space we call an Amygdala Station. In the station, we have simple sensory tools like pinwheels for students to blow on, squishy balls to squeeze, puzzles to complete, stuffed animals to hold, and a mini etch-a-sketch for the kids to doodle. This is our first step for self-regulation. If a child starts to feel stress or overwhelm, they are able to go to the Amygdala Station to calm themselves down. In some cases, this is enough for them to self-regulate and go back to learning. We’ve found that the Amygdala Station heads off what would otherwise have been a larger issue in the classroom.
In the cases where the Amygdala Station isn’t enough, we have created a room in the school called the Amygdala First Aid Station. This separate space allows our staff to work more one-on-one with the students to help them regulate. We have a multitude of sensory related items such as water beads, lava rocks, stress balls, a piano, soft material for sitting quietly. We also keep RPR sticks in the room for the kids to use to do the Zone One activations.
Because the end goal is for the students to intentionally regulate their emotions, we provide structure. A trip to the Amygdala First Aid Station is structured. Students can choose up to three of the tools and they’re given two minutes at each station, which we time. After six minutes, they are able to return to the classroom.
One thing that all the students do in the Amygdala First Aid Station prior to return to the classroom is using breathing techniques. The children have several techniques in their toolbox because breathing is Batman and everything else is Robin. They have to know what good breathing feels like. We give these techniques names that the kids understand like deep belly Breathing, breathing balls, starfish breathing, roller-coaster breathing, and birthday candle breathing.
From a practical standpoint, by giving the students agency to regulate themselves we have found a significant drop in classroom disruption and disciplinary issues. If we know that the kids want to feel safe and cared for, and we can give them tools to achieve those goals, then we will see fewer disruptions to learning and ultimately have a much happier classroom.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
You’ve seen how we have built the structure of our school around building resilience and empowerment in our staff and students. In these challenging and uncertain times, here are a few ideas that can help you build this resilience in your own children and in your own home at little to no cost and with materials you likely already have.
The first thing to do is find a space for your Amygdala Station. It doesn’t need to be a big space, but it should be a quiet and private place for the children to reset and reconnect with themselves.
Second, of course, is decor! We’ve found that our kids love having a cozy, fuzzy blanket or pillows.
Third is the content of the Station. Find items that engage each of your child’s senses and they enjoy. Simple things to touch are play-doh, fidget spinners, sequin pillows, stress balls, or water beads. For things to see, glitter bottles are very popular. A rain stick or musical instrument can be good to hear. Scented lotions or cotton balls with essential oils can provide great sensory engagement for smell. Gum or mints can engage their sense of taste.
Having small signs, which you can create with your child, reminding them to breathe, is a must.
In times like these, it could be really helpful to have a notebook or journal and coloring books and crayons. If your child is a worrier, you can work together to construct and decorate a worry box from a Keenex or shoebox. When they have worries, the child can write it down and put it in the box, letting it go for safe keeping.
Last but not least, it’s important to remember during these times that children hear what you say and mimic what you do. As the great coach John Wooden said, “being a role model is the most powerful form of educating. Youngsters need good role models more than they need critics. It’s one of a parent’s greatest responsibilities and opportunities.
Special thanks to Principal Ryan Erny and Social Workers Mrs. Heather Goodhue and Mrs. Melanie Krueker for this article.6 Likes Share