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IPS helping teachers, students focus on social-emotional learning

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. - Teachers at some Indianapolis Public Schools are bringing new skills to the classroom to assist students who may face trauma at home.

The district calls this approach social-emotional learning and it's all about allowing kids to soothe their emotions so they can focus, instead of acting out.

About two dozen schools were part of the first cohort to implement social-emotional learning strategies. Teams from each school participated in training from the Brain Institute.

Francis W. Parker School 56 was among those schools. Christine Rembert, the principal, said they were looking to make some changes to their curriculum to address some behavior issues they noticed during the 2017-2018 school year.

"We had over 100 individual instances of suspensions last year and that was just too many." Rembert said. "We had to ask some hard questions about what we needed to add."

Rembert said they looked into the deeper reasons why kids were acting violently or inappropriately in class.

"Sometimes, we see students acting out because they’ve experienced trauma." she said. "Sometimes, we see them shutting down because they’ve experienced trauma."

The IPS district includes some of the highest crime and poverty areas in the city. So, students might be exposed to a lot including violence or food insecurity.

Rembert said they want to be equipped to guide kids on how to respond to those situations or conflicts.

"The trauma our children feel and experience is real and we have to help them make meaning of that," Rembert said.

Now, kids get "brain breaks" at different points in the day to help them unwind. There is also an "amygdala reset room" that reinforces what kids are learning about their brains.

In that room, students can take a 15 minute break to put their feelings into words and engage in an activity that will help them calm down. There are activities ranging from breathing exercises to yoga and puzzles.

"In this building, we’re not waiting for kids to grow up to change the world." Rembert said. "We’re changing the world right now - one kiddo at a time. And, we need everybody pulling on the same end of the rope."

There is also a focus on teachers' well-being. A separate room was created to produce a space for teachers to gather their thoughts after they deal with stressful situations.

"When you read things that children write in their journals that tug at your heart, sometimes we need a place to be able to be." Rembert said. "Where we can take a minute so we can get our self back in our thinking part of our brain so that we can be back there for kids."

The teachers' amygdala reset room includes a soothing sound machine, magazines and uplifting messages posted nearby.

Rembert said she's noticed suspensions are being handed out at a slower pace compared to this time last year.

IPS hopes to expand the social-emotional learning model to 20 more schools in winter 2019.