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Kids Learn When They Feel Safe: Prioritizing Social Emotional Learning with Peace of Mind

“I’ve never had to talk a 2nd grader down from a panic attack — until this year.”

By Linda Ryden, Founder of Peace of Mind Inc

Photo of two students sitting on the floor of a classroom in lotus pose, meditating

In my twenty years of teaching, I don’t remember ever talking down a 2nd grader from a full-blown panic attack… until I had to do just that earlier this year.

Kids have always had challenges at school and at home, but in this new “post-ish” COVID world, kids are still struggling to adapt and are dealing with things that their adults never had to. At a time when virtually all discussion on education seems to focus on recovering lost learning, I am deeply concerned that we’ve jumped too quickly to focusing on scores when our kids need much more than just academic support.

Consider this: the average 2nd grader is seven years old. That means that almost half of his life, the half that he is most aware of, has been entirely experienced during the pandemic.

For many of us (at least the lucky ones), the pandemic has been an aberration, a blip of a few years in a life that looked very different. But for kids — this is their reality. And it has been hard. Kids missed out on so much and when they came back to school after almost two years of being mostly at home, their bodies were two years older even though, developmentally, many of them were still back in 2020.

During the pandemic, while we teachers were madly trying to master the technology and other challenges to learn to teach virtually, and parents were scrambling to figure out how to work on Zoom alongside their children, kids were having their one-and-only chance to be in 2nd grade — at home on a computer.

Politicians, school leaders, and the media all said that once we got back to school, the most important priority was helping our kids deal with the trauma of what they had been through. There were well-meaning plans for implementing social emotional learning (SEL) programs during the height of the pandemic — and even government funding to support them — but unfortunately, most schools today are back to business as usual.

As test scores came in and it turned out that kids didn’t learn as much during a deadly pandemic — unsurprising considering the fact that many lost family members or knew students who had — the priorities changed. Learning loss suddenly seemed like the biggest problem and schools doubled down on academics. SEL programs are now collecting dust on bookshelves while our kids fall apart under the weight of academic expectations.

If I’ve learned one thing as an educator, it’s that if kids don’t feel safe, they can’t learn. So I have to ask… What are we doing?!

We all know that, before COVID, many of our kids were dealing with trauma. Since COVID, we know that all of our kids are dealing with trauma. COVID has widened the huge opportunity gaps that already existed caused by racism, poverty, and access to technology. During this time when we should be redoubling SEL efforts, many people have begun to weaponize it — lumping SEL in with the erroneous attacks on Critical Race Theory, making it even harder for schools to attempt to address the social and emotional needs of our students. Some parent groups argue that SEL programs are a distraction from the more important focus on academics.

SEL is a foundation for learning, never a distraction from it. In fact, students’ abilities to manage their emotions and regulate their behavior is critical to creating school environments that are conducive to learning. Federal data shows that roughly 1 in 3 school leaders have noticed an uptick in student fights or physical attacks this past school year. What we need is more focus on helping students manage their feelings, not less.

Let me give you an example of what this can look like:

The other day, I was shepherding 150 4th graders back into the school building after recess. There had been a bunch of conflicts during recess and tensions were high. The kids were loud and unruly as we attempted to line them up to fit through a narrow doorway one-by-one. Finally, I stopped everyone and said, “Let’s all take a few deep breaths before we go through the doorway. All of this outside energy just isn’t going to fit inside your classrooms.”

Because all the students at my school have been learning how to do mindfulness meditation since they were in Pre-K, everybody stopped what they were doing and took three deep breaths. They didn’t have to sit down in a lotus position. They just stopped what they were doing for a brief moment and allowed themselves to regulate their emotions and tune into what they were doing and where they were going.

Imagine how long it would have taken their teachers to settle everyone down enough to start the math lesson that was scheduled for three minutes after recess.

Of course, teachers need support as well. Teacher working conditions are student learning conditions, and if our teachers do not have the resources to attend to their own emotional needs, they will not be able to be there for their students.

At Peace of Mind, we have spent 20 years in the classroom creating a mindfulness-based SEL program that works. The students at my school are the proof. Allowing kids time in the school day to attend to their feelings, worries, anger, and other big emotions is crucial. Giving children time in the school day to just be a person, not a number on a math or reading scale, and to be seen as enough just as they are allows them to focus on their work.

In 2018, we founded our nonprofit organization, Peace of Mind Inc, to share these skills with children throughout the DC area and nationwide. Thanks to the Catalogue for Philanthropy’s support in so many ways, we have developed the capacity to reach and support schools serving over 4,000 students — and their teachers — in the DC area this year, and thousands more nationwide. But there is so much more to be done.

My students often say that “Peace Class” is the only place where they can truly be themselves, where they can stop working for a moment. Helping to bring social emotional learning, mindfulness, and conflict resolution into our schools is one of the primary goals of Peace of Mind.

But one thing that the COVID pandemic has taught is that we can’t rely on schools for everything. The need is so great, and schools are still enormously overstretched. With this in mind, we are evolving our Peace of Mind program to go directly to students at home, too. If kids are receiving Peace of Mind at school, our new Direct-to-Kids program will reinforce these lessons. If not, this can be a lifeline to kids who desperately need the skills to manage big emotions, relate to others, solve conflicts peacefully, and stand up for what they believe in.

Every day in my classroom, I see the effects of the pandemic — some kids have lost family members, others have lost their faith that everything will be okay. Some have developed anxiety about their own health or the health of their loved ones. We are living in unprecedented times. But, every day, I also see the impact that well-designed, mindfulness-based SEL lessons can have on our kids. I see the difference between kids when they walk into my classroom and when they walk out 45 minutes later.

We can’t keep putting off dealing with this trauma. Trauma will always find a way out. That’s why we need to bring more SEL in as a necessary part of academics — not a fluffy side project teachers do when they have spare time. Now is the time to fight for these programs. Our children’s futures and well-being depend on it.

Peace of Mind‘s mission is to educate students about mindfulness, brain science, conflict resolution, and social justice to help them develop skills to enhance their own well-being and become peacemakers. Peace of Mind creates, develops, and shares The Peace of Mind program, an innovative and relevant social and emotional learning curriculum that helps students notice and manage challenging emotions, build healthy relationships, solve conflicts peacefully, and stand up for what they believe in. Peace of Mind also provides training and community for educators who deliver the Peace of Mind program to students in elementary and middle schools in the Washington, DC area and beyond.

The author, Linda Ryden, is the creator of the Peace of Mind Program and author of the Peace of the Mind curriculum series, a cutting-edge combination of mindfulness-based social-emotional learning, conflict resolution, and social justice for Early Childhood through Middle School. Linda has served as a full-time Peace Teacher at Lafayette Elementary School, Washington, DC’s largest public elementary school, since 2003 and continues to teach Peace of Mind classes to more than 700 students every week. Linda is also actively engaged in her school’s efforts to sustain an inclusive and equitable school climate.

Linda is the author of six mindfulness-based children’s books, three of which are published by Tilbury House. Her work has been featured in The Washington Post, Washingtonian Magazine, Washington Parent, Washington Family, Teaching Tolerance, and Edutopia, among others. Linda brings a passion for teaching peace and over 30 years of teaching experience to her work with children and adults. She lives in Washington, DC with her husband Jeremiah Cohen, owner of Bullfrog Bagels, their two children, and their dog Phoebe.

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