P.W. Moore Does More: Growing Resilient Students

By: Elizabeth DeKonty, Director, NC Resilience and Learning Project

In the far northeast corner of the state, there are a number of districts eager and ready to find ways to better support their staff and students — and they are doing this by starting the process of becoming trauma-informed.

Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools was one of the first districts in this region of North Carolina to seek support from the NC Resilience and Learning Project. They were ready. They were bought-in. They carefully selected which schools to begin this work, and P.W. Moore Elementary became one of the first ones in the fall of 2018.

As a new principal at P.W. Moore, Dexter Jackson-Heard knew he had a big task ahead of him coming into a high needs school. He was excited to bring change that would create safer and more supportive learning environments for the school’s approximately 380 students.

In August 2018, Jackson-Heard led his staff on this trauma-informed journey first with a whole school training on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and the impacts of trauma in schools. Staff then formed a Resilience Team that met regularly with one of the NC Resilience and Learning Project coaches, which enabled them to take that next step beyond training and awareness and really focus in on changes they could make that would better meet the needs of their students. Resilience Team staff looked at what some of their greatest challenges were that may be linked to the impact of trauma and then established goals. Two goals that they arrived at: 1) Staff needed to help students start the day ready to learn, knowing so many students come to school with their brains immediately in fight, flight, or freeze mode due to difficult situations at home or something that may have happened on the bus, for example. Being in this mode prevents students from accessing their “thinking brain” that allows them to begin processing and learning. 2) Staff recognized the importance of finding alternatives to removing students from the classroom and suspensions so that students could remain in the learning environment.

These big goals were a lot to take on, but Jackson-Heard and his team knew they were important, and they were ready to invest in the time to create change in these areas. The two specific strategies put in place to address these goals were the implementation of restorative circles in every classroom and peace corners.

Restorative circles are a time for students and teachers to gather sitting in a circle facing each other, with no desks or other barriers between them, allowing them to exist as one community. Students check in with one another during this time, sharing how they are feeling that morning. A talking piece is used in the circle to ensure that only one person talks at a time and others listen. After checking in, students discuss a pre-identified topic for the day. This process builds community and allows for the class to learn about each other, support each other in times of success and struggle, and helps resolve any issues in the learning community as they arise. To implement restorative circles, the entire staff participated in a training session, and once implementation began, the positive impact was felt immediately across the entire school.

Sometimes, enhancement teachers even elect to lead circles at the start of each of their classes as a way to help build relationships with students and to provide an opportunity for kids to reset during the school day. To ensure circles became a school-wide focus, administration made planning for circles required by including it in their lesson plan template.

One third grade student shared: “Circles help me calm down if I am mad, and if I am frustrated I can start to feel better.” A fourth grader shared: “When we do circles, it lets my teacher know more about me. I can also get ready to learn for the day.” Students themselves are recognizing that they are able to start the day actually ready to learn and feel more supported because they recognize teachers are taking time to get to know them and build relationships with them. While doing circles in morning meetings means delaying the start of instruction time by 10 to 15 minutes, students and staff are seeing firsthand how they actually get that time back because students can self-regulate and have a transition time that allows their brains to be more ready to learn, rather than starting academics right when the bell rings.

Peace corners, a second implementation goal for the Resilience Team, were implemented in 3rd through 5th grade classrooms first and will be implemented in Kindergarten through 2nd grade next month. Rolling out this strategy in two waves rather than engaging the entire school building all at once has helped to ensure the implementation has been done carefully and thoughtfully. Teachers have reported that peace corners have made it easier to help students reset so that the class can keep going even when one student is upset or triggered by something. Teachers took time to properly introduce peace corners to kids so that students have a process to use them and know that they are always welcome to do so when they feel that they are becoming unfocused or experiencing big feelings. Students also have access to their own mindfulness bottles to grab when needed. These mindfulness bottles, made of glue, baby oil, glitter, and gel shapes, were made by each student. When feeling unfocused, frustrated, or off center, the students grab their bottle, give it a shake, and watch the contents swirl and settle as many times as they need to get refocused. This reset strategy works so well, the administrators have mindfulness bottles on their desks too (and they use them frequently!). The goal for the peace corners and the mindfulness bottles is that every student in the building would have a strategy to help them co-regulate or self-regulate.

A third grade teacher shared her experience on using both circles and peace corners. “Now I know how my students are entering the space. Coming from where I previously taught, I could have never imagined the environment I am in now. But by implementing the circles and peace corners, I can more readily deal with the issues that come up in my class as they happen. I am not as stressed this year. Now when I teach, they are actually able to listen and learn.”

These two strategies are helping students prepare to learn at the start of each day so they can receive and process academic content to the best of their abilities. Restorative circles and peace corners are also giving students and teachers strategies to deter behaviors that typically cause students to be removed from the learning environment. Students have time to reset at the start of the day and know that they can self-regulate for the remainder of the day by using the peace corners to reduce big behaviors like types of meltdowns that often lead to office referrals. What P.W. Moore has seen now is a decrease in suspensions and an increase in teacher morale.

Now almost two years into the trauma-informed journey, staff are learning that this work is indeed a journey…something that does take time and commitment but something that is worth it for both staff and students. With regard to the hard work his staff have put in the past two school years, Jackson-Heard says, “Resilience is key with our students. Some of them deal with some really difficult situations outside of school, so we have to give them opportunities to make mistakes and learn from them. We know that structure and compassion are two of the greatest things we can do to support our students.”

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