April 20, 2018

Reset Central at Ralph Waldo Emerson

A PLACE TO UNWIND — Ralph Waldo Emerson School 58 second-graders from left, Mariah F., Yasmine A. and Robert T., were encouraged by their teacher Catherine Mullins to use their Reset Central room to unwind after completeing the final draft of their research paper.

IPS second-grader Mariah F. has had a mentally-taxing morning. After working hard on the final draft of a research paper, she and two classmates are treated to a “brain break” inside Reset Central at Ralph Waldo Emerson School 58.

Once inside, the students walk directly to the “emotion rug” and stand on the emoji that best identifies their feelings. They then head for a shelf of bins, where they choose their preferred stress-relieving reward.

Mariah chooses a blue bin of kinetic sand.

“Today, they were working on writing, and it was a pretty labor-intensive assignment,” said teacher Catherine Lewis. “It was 25 minutes of working a final draft and then a C.O.P.S. check, which is checking capitals, the order of things, punctuation and spelling. All three of them sat right down, got started right away, worked hard on their final drafts, and were at a voice level zero. I felt like they just needed a little happy break.”

It’s hard to believe the colorful and creative atmosphere inside Reset Central used to be an In-School Suspension (I.S.S.) room. But after recognizing that in-school suspension was not helping students emotionally or academically, Principal Susan Kertes made the bold move to replace the room with a more positive, productive space for students.

“I.S.S. was not getting us where we need to be with kids,” said Kertes. “We needed a process to meet their socio-emotional needs so they could stay in class and learn at their full capacity.”

Kertes said it was the students who inspired the change.

“Sometimes students are lacking skills to meet the demands that are placed upon them,” she said. “Historically and traditionally, I.S.S. is not a place where you build skills in kids, and we believed Reset Central would give us a place to teach kids these much-needed coping skills. It’s not about punishment at all, because punishment doesn’t get you anywhere.”

Reset Central is not used only for children who are stressed and need to reset. It is also used for teaching students about how the brain works and offering positive brain breaks.

Ashley Burns is the Culture and Climate Coach at Ralph Waldo Emerson. She offers “brain lessons” to every child in the school, including a clear understanding of the anatomy and function of the brain’s primary behavioral and decision-making areas.

“Every child has been in here and been normed as a school,” she said. “They are all quite competent in explaining the parts and functions of the brain. It’s just a very safe space for amygdala regulation.”

Not sure what the amydgala is?

Fifth-grader Da’Najia H. can tell you all about it. “Behind your ear is your amygdala, and wrapped around that is the hippocampus, which helps you remember your memories,” she explained. “When you’re in your amygdala, it might remind you that somebody did something mean to you, so you know you want to get into your frontal lobe to help you solve the problem peacefully.”

Da’Najia and her peers are also given a number of techniques to help them reach that frontal lobe quickly. Da’Najia prefers using a brain-shaped stress release toy to ease tension, and employs deep breathing and tapping to reset her brain when needed.

“I don’t really get mad anymore,” she said. “I know how to deal with little things calmly so they don’t turn into big things.”

Burns said Reset Central is used equally for positive reinforcement and resetting emotions when needed. “We want kids to understand that there is a whole realm of emotions to understand.”

Lewis agrees. “Sometimes we come to the Reset Room to calm ourselves down, but it’s really important for me to send them when they are focused and doing the right thing, too,” she said. “Then, they don’t just associate this room with being angry. They associate it with having a moment to breathe and re-center themselves positively or negatively.”

Kertes knew these changes needed to extend beyond Reset Central and into each and every classroom. She applied for a non-competitive school improvement grant to provide funding to train her staff, and enlisted the help of Dr. Lori Desautels from Butler University. Desautels is an expert in creating “Trauma Sensitive Schools” to regulate and prime the brain for learning. 

According to Desautels, the trauma and adversity that students carry into classrooms changes how educators need to address learning and academic performance.

“Fifty-one percent of children in public schools live in low-income households, and when poverty levels exceed 50 percent, there’s a significant drop in academic performance across all grade levels,” she said. “Providing strategies that promote emotional regulation can positively affect students’ emotional, physiological and cognitive health.”

“Our students are dealing with a lot – inside and outside of school,” said Burns. “I think students now feel like this is a safe spot. They can bring things, whether it’s a home issue or school issue, anything that’s going on in their life, and they feel safe to deal with it in this space.” 

Kertes said the school has a number of trauma-informed, adversity-sensitive practices to help students learn to cope and communicate.

“We have 20 students trained as peer mediators, and in our morning announcements, we do deep breaths and tapping,” said Kertes. “There’s something about tapping … the neuroscience behind tapping shows it automatically puts your brain at a calm state. When you walk through our halls you will see kids tapping, trying to get back to their calm state.” 

The school also has a therapy dog that visits every two weeks. “Kids read to him and touch him, and he just kind of sits there, said Kertes. “He’s calm and soothing. It’s a positive experience for kids. It helps them with developing positive connections.”

Burns said that while some teachers were resistant to the idea of eliminating I.S.S. and instituting the Reset Center, everyone is now fully on board.

“Those who were once skeptical are telling me it’s working,” said Burns. “They say, ‘My kids are able to tell me what’s wrong and that they need a minute. So, before things start to escalate, they can let someone know they are getting there and that they need a break before things become a problem.’ The teachers have seen how successful this is.”

Assistant Principal Gabriel Surface said the time gained with students is just as valuable as the lessons learned inside Reset Central.

“One of the things we don’t have enough of in education is time, so a place like Reset Central, which helps students get regulated and then gets them back in class, allows us to gain more time with our kids,” said Surface. “That is the big key to what happens in this room.”