Written by Hannah Allerdice Bricker
Given the everyday stressful experiences of our city’s students, the stark reality that academic achievement will not come in a non-compassionate environment, and the massive resources found in our compassionate teachers and knowledge in our city – our schools cannot afford NOT to support – with both bills and funding – modalities including yoga, stress management, conflict resolution and restorative justice practices in our schools.
“This feels like going home after a stay at the hospital” said W, a sixth-grade-girl, after a long sigh. Emma McGonigle was leading a deep relaxation session during an afternoon yoga club meeting at Eliot-Hine Middle School. Emma and I are two local parents and yoga teachers in NE DC. We are members of the Dharma Yoga DC community which aims to bring yoga into DC schools in a sustainable way.
Together, Emma and I lead a yoga club that meets from 3:45 – 4:45 every Tuesday in the Eliot-Hine parent conference room. Each week we have anywhere from 3 to 10 girls who attend, and it is equally chaotic and deeply peaceful. The two areas that the girls have been most receptive to are deep relaxation and talking about what is real to them. Week to week, it is never the same–we chat about emotions, the power of our perceptions, our life’s dreams, violence and respect. Yoga poses are always a part of the class, but often not the main theme. We share breathing, meditation and relaxation exercises as well. A great deal of time every class is spent bringing the girls back together–from getting on their phones, rough-housing with each other, playing music, etc. To do this, we keep the class moving – from dialogue to breathing exercises to yoga movements to relaxation. In the end, we all share some quiet time together.
Why is this story important to the vitality and efficacy of DC schools? DC students are stressed simply by living in Washington DC, a great deal of whom have already experienced trauma. Our community must emphasize dealing with stress and trauma as equally important as academic achievement. Almost half of all DC students have had an extremely adverse childhood experience, such as being a witness or victim of violence, parental drug or alcohol abuse, an intense accident, parental divorce, and of course any neglect or abuse . Data from the 2016 National Survey of Children’s Health shows that 47% of children and teens in the District have experienced at least one traumatic event – 22% have experienced more than one. Alarmingly, 55% of children of color, have had at least one traumatic event in their childhood . These deeply emotional childhood experiences are on top of everyday stressors of living in an urban environment.
Knowing these statistics, understanding how to create healing environments may be the single most important concern for schools. These traumatic experiences live inside of our children’s bodies – they etch impressions into the central nervous system – radically changing the way that any external stimulus is experienced. Traumatic events are not just drawings in the memory – these events actually fundamentally change the way our children operate. They are either hyper-vigilant and over-reactive to everyday stressful experiences – or lethargic – like a huge wall has been placed between them and their environment. The founder of Conscious Discipline, Becky Bailey, explains in her course on dealing with trauma for school children that while the lethargic child that may seem calm is actually a reaction mimicking preparation for death. These students’ central nervous systems are not set up for success in a school environment wherein academic goals are the only marker for a student’s growth and success. We must consider the whole child and all that they bring with them into the classroom.
Before our sixth-grade girl yoga club participant in the story above shared her comment in deep relaxation, she shared that she had thrown desks and pulled knives on others. These actions, while extreme, are not unheard of from a person whose central nervous system is off balance. Right now, almost half of all of our students are experiencing school days without this inner balance or the tools to recenter themselves. As noted above, children of color are most vulnerable to this adverse affect, and the consequences surface in our school discipline data. This holds true for our black students specifically, as they are “more than seven times more likely to be suspended.” Not providing support for children dealing with trauma only reinforces the school to prison pipeline connection. We know that these students need guidance, not punishment or push outs. Because the already huge responsibility of teaching academic skills and creating healing environments often falls on the teachers alone, it is no surprise that burn out rates in teachers are so high. It is time we look for more long term, proactive and sustainable solutions.
Sustainable Steps for Compassionate Schools
“These programs are most effective when they are implemented not just because the district or school leader believes in them but because every teacher in every classroom does as well.”
-Maya Martin, Founder and Executive Director of PAVE
Teachers, administrators, parents and students all need sound practices and designated time and space for healing trauma and dealing with the constant ebb and flow of stress in our lives. This only occurs when heralded from and modeled by school leadership. This is not just a story about students. Our entire community – parents, district teachers, administrators, and staff have unresolved effects from trauma in their lives (including what happens inside of schools). You might not think of yourself as ‘traumatized,’ but if you have experienced divorce or death in your family, an intense car accident, any violence, alcoholism or other addictions in your inner circles, and of course any abuse or neglect, you have trauma living in your body. It may live in you as anxiety, depression, over-expression or under-expression of anger, gut issues, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, overeating, undereating, abuse of substances, including technology, and more. Trauma manifests in the body – within the autonomic nervous system – not just in our minds and memories. Like Maya, from PAVE explains, “As these models require a major shift in mindset around school discipline, we need to make sure the adults who are carrying them out are well versed in how to implement the practices effectively.” This means a transformation of trauma within the personal lives of school leadership, teaching staff and parents, together with the students.
What do these practices look like, are they effective and what time and space and resources do we need? A first step is creating professional development programs in yoga, mindfulness, compassionate communication and stress management for all interested District school personnel (public and private and charter schools alike). The current state of research (even in its infancy), is overwhelmingly positive: yoga embedded in school curriculum has incredible benefits . In a suppository of research provided by www.yoga4classrooms.com, the benefits for children include aspects of the whole child. Overall, we see that children receiving yoga instruction have greater self awareness, confidence, self and other respect, and an increased resiliency and ability to cope with life stressors. Their mental health is boosted. We see increased concentration, comprehension, memory and mental ease and an increased ability to remain in the present moment. Physically, children have increased strength and flexibility and mind-body awareness. Naturally, these benefits spread into the classroom. In these classrooms, we’ve seen increased academic performance, greater ease of pre-test anxiety and tension and increased connection and community in class. These positive changes has resulted in a reduction in problem behaviors such as bullying, unexcused absences, detentions, impulsivity, hostility, and reactivity. Yoga brings an overarching increase in harmony within the classroom environment – the kind of environment kids can learn in, and teachers can teach in. Naturally, this research also shows that the benefits for teachers are incredible too, resulting in greater physical, mental, emotional and social well-being. Taken together, it is clear that these programs are essential to foster a healing environment for the overall well being of our entire school community.
To be truly effective, programs should be ongoing, weekly – even daily. They should be housed in schools, and provided during the school day so they don’t overload the teachers and are highly accessible to students. They should be created with the specific input of all the stakeholders of each school so that it really meets their needs, and allows for maximum participation. This, combined with restorative justice programs and including healing rooms that are staffed all day for students to practice their mindfulness skills and reset their physical, emotional, mental and social selves,should be implemented in coordination with school social workers and mental health counselors. Building school-community partnerships with the practitioners (some of whom are parents) is also a must. Our city is filled with individuals who have spent decades honing their skills in yoga and mindfulness. They know how to share ways to heal from our suffering, hone skillful compassionate action, and build self-awareness and confidence from the ground up, regardless of life’s circumstances. These teachers can share how to not feel thrown under the bus each time a stressful life circumstance arises, and how to deal with life’s inevitable ebb and flow of pain and suffering.
Like PAVE and other community organizations continue to reiterate – this also means financial backing from the city. In 2016-2017, 20 schools received training and technical support from DCPS that focused on creating a welcoming school culture and building on a foundation of preventing and restoring negative behaviors. Together, with a greater investment and commitment to these practices, we can build upon what we started and achieve our goal of making compassionate schools a reality, and watch as our students thrive.
For more information on the work of Dharma Yoga DC’s school programs, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.