Given a growing focus on the social/emotional needs of students throughout USD 373, one Newton school adopted some building-wide changes this year to address that.
Following a pilot program led by South Breeze Elementary third-grade teacher Autumn Altum, the decision was made for the entire school to adopt "calm corners" this school year.
"We saw the benefits of that, so we made a decision as a school to implement calm corners in every classroom — so specialized classroom teachers, our special education teachers, everybody has one in their room just because we've noticed every year there's more and more social/emotional needs that students need help with. They need strategies to cope with those and calm corners is just one of those strategies," said South Breeze first-grade teacher Jenn Criswell.
How those are set up and what specific tools they have vary from classroom to classroom, whether set up individually by each teacher or through outside donations from parents. South Breeze kindergarten teacher Ashely Best brought a tent into her classroom, while Criswell constructed a canopy.
Additionally, there are other outlets to help in the establishment of the calm corners, as Criswell pointed out.
"The tool boxes that we have in the calm corner with things for the students to use to help self-regulate, our social worker does have boxes like that that she can check out to us," Criswell said.
On top of the calm corners, South Breeze has also recently started using zones of regulation and class meetings to help students learn how to self-regulate and take more responsibility in the management of their emotions.
Best and Criswell presented on these strategies to the Newton school board recently, noting that the morning meetings are about sharing and communicating with each other, while the zones of regulations have proven to be effective indicators to teachers of when intervention — or time in the calm corner — might be needed.
Using both classroom charts and a traveling folder, students are able to identify the emotional zones they are in throughout the day. Whereas in the past, teachers might have gotten a simple "I don't know why" as to why students were feeling a certain way, the zones have helped them put words behind their feelings and the zone that puts them in — whether they are still tired in the morning when checking into the blue zone or excited for the day's planned lessons when checking into the yellow zone.
During the day, periods of transition — like specials time — can often be a time of zone changes, which is also when Criswell and Best are seeing the newer self-regulation tools being used.
"For some kids, that's a stressor," Criswell said, "so they might utilize the calm corner just to calm down or take a minute before they join the class."
Early on, Best noted there has been a learning curve in adoption and usage of the calm corners. Initially, she noted students may have wanted to to go to the calm corner because it was a new experience.
However, as the year has gone on, Best said students have come to understand when it is truly needed, like when one student took five minutes to calm down last week before rejoining the class — checking in with a teacher before doing so.
"What we're hoping is that through kindergarten and first grade that maybe we can get those kinks worked out, that the students eventually realize that it's not just a play area. It is a tool and we use it to help us get ready for the day," Best said.
Getting all the classrooms on the same page has been a big part of the implementation of the calm corners. While Best and Criswell couldn't speak to exact usage among other classrooms, they did note they are hearing the same vocabulary used among all South Breeze students.
Best admitted she has talked to her daughter about usage of the calm corner at home, and that is part of the next step for the school. Best and Criswell are working on recording the same presentation they made to the school board for parents, as this tool is not one staff feels needs to be isolated to the school.
"Just having that accountability piece, having them own up to what they're feeling and why they're feeling that. ... I just think that's really important that kids can tell their parents that and parents use that at home," Criswell said. "That's a life skill — recognizing how you're feeling and how do I self-regulate to move on to the next thing."