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‘On a good path’

— Daily Freeman-Journal photo by Anne Blankenship Judy Doolittle and Jaime Davis display some of the graphic materials that teachers and counselors at Sunset Heights Elementary use to assess students’ social and emotional stressors. The school has worked diligently over the past year to create a safe and calm learning space for students.

Creating a caring and supportive environment in which children can learn during the COVID-19 pandemic has been the goal of most schools across the nation.

At Sunset Heights Elementary School in Webster City, Jaime Davis, school counselor, and Judy Doolittle, behavioral intervention, have headed up that effort with the support of their fellow educators.

“There’s been a lot of anxiety and stress for everyone during the pandemic,” said Sunset Principal Kelli Reis.

“The social and emotional right now are just as important as the academic,” Reis said. “Right now, kids are coming to school with a lot of baggage and we have to know how to react to that baggage.”

She said efforts at Sunset Heights have helped to make a calm and successful place to learn.

“We have our Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports in place. We have our social-emotional learning. We’re also utilizing a program called Challenge to Change which includes mindfulness, breathing and movement.”

“We’re on a good path right now,” agreed Davis.

There has also been an emphasis on making sure the staff is ready to help the students. That meant focusing on the staffs’ self-care.

“If the teachers aren’t ok, then the kids aren’t going to be ok,” Davis said.

Part of the self-care efforts has been pairing up with a buddy in the building. Staff members were encouraged to check in on each other frequently to make sure they were handling the challenges of the unusual pandemic year.

Davis said the teachers looked at the Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports and selected behavioral goals.

“We looked at our data to see what our needs were. We looked at some hot spots, some problem behaviors and how we could go about teaching corrective behaviors,” she said. Learning those corrective behaviors would be good for the students most in need of assistance, and would serve as a good review for all the students,” she said.

“We put together Google slides so that everyone is getting the same message,” she said. Each month, there is a new theme. One month, it was “See the Good.

“Kids were doing an interactive app where I would put out a video each week and ask the kids What are you good at? Or What have you done to let others see the good in you? What’s good in your life?,'” she explained. The children pick filters and stickers and frames to put on their videos, depicting what’s good in their lives. These videos are then shared with the whole school, Davis said.

“Some mornings, I’ll walk by a classroom and the teacher will have the videos up on the screens and the whole class is watching what their classmates have to say,” she said.

April’s theme is Making Winning Choices. That theme is meant to be a celebration of what the students, as well as the teachers, have accomplished this year.

“We want to make sure we finish strong to the end and not let up or start making bad decisions,” Davis said. “We’re always telling them that there are no bad kids, just bad choices and we can learn from choices.”

Davis and Reis said that the strategies the students are learning in elementary school will serve them well as they head off to middle school.

“These are really life-long skills they are learning,” Davis said.

Staying in the moment

Mindfulness has been another topic the students have learned about this year.

“Kids are anxious the way it is, but with the pandemic, that just added another layer,” Davis said. “Over the past three or four years, we’ve seen some of the trauma that the kids bring with them — that invisible backpack with everything that comes to school with them everyday.”

The mindfulness lessons encourage kids to think about what’s happening around them and in the classroom at that moment.

“If they’re thinking about what happened last night or over the weekend, that’s going to lead to anxiety,” she said. “So it’s just getting kids and their brains tied into what’s happening right here and right now.”

The teachers help children be mindful through a variety of strategies such as breathing exercises or gratitude activities to show them what they can control in that moment.

“That seems to alleviate a lot of that extra stress they seem to feel,” she said.

They also use the Peace Path, which helps children express how they are feeling, Doolittle said. Two students can speak and respond using the prompts on the Peace Path.

“One can voice their concern and the other can respond to that to resolve problems, “ Doolittle said. “It gives them the prompt and the guide to help them through it.”

Excited to return

Reis said the students were excited to return to the classroom in August, but many were fearful that the school year would be disrupted again.

“When we left for spring break this year, we had kids that were worried we wouldn’t come back,” the principal said. “Last year, we said ‘See you in a week,’ and we didn’t come back.

“There was some high anxiety when we left for spring break,” she said.

Reis said Davis and the PBIS team develop slideshows which are used to do preventative teaching in the classroom.

“Every classroom has these, so that every student has the strategies to cope and handle the situations they encounter,” Reis said. “Then we work with the students who need more attention to practice and go over the concepts again.

“And many of them will tell us, ‘Hey, I used that breathing technique,'” she said.

Reis said the idea is to front-load the concepts so on the backside, they have a strategy to use when a situation arises.

The teachers use graphs and charts and diagrams to help children identify and put names to feelings and worries. One graphic asks students to share “What Number Are You” with photos of faces exhibiting smiles to visible sadness or anger. Corresponding with the photos are colors numbered from 1 to 5, from green to blue to yellow to orange to red.

Another graphic visual explains what happens when emotions get the better of them.

“I teach students that your brain, when emotions take over, when the amygdala takes over with all of those feelings, your thinking cap flies off and they flip their lid,” Davis said. She said she’s heard from parents who have questioned why their children have told them they are flipping their lid.

“I just explain that the kids recognize the parent is no longer in their thinking brain but are in their feeling brain,” she said. “So we send that concept home as a handout so parents know about it.”

To help get their “lids” back on, Davis shows pictures of a birthday cake with candle and a bouquet of flowers. She teaches the children about “smelling the flowers” — breathing in through the nose, and tells them to “blow out the candles” — slowly exhale through their mouths.

Reis said Davis has worked with staff members about assessing the size of the problem.

“Is it a big problem or a small problem, and does your reaction match the size of the problem,” Davis said.

The school has been working over the past several years to address many of the social-emotional issues that students face. That preparation has meant that they were a step ahead when the pandemic hit.

“This has been a work in progress for us but I feel like we are in a really good place right now and we were able to take on the pandemic,” Davis said.

“Mrs. Davis and Mrs. Doolittle have really led the way for us,” said Reis. “And it’s phenomenal in what we’re seeing in return for the work we’re doing. There’s a lot of tools we’ve put in everybody’s toolbox.”

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