Kindness, communication and a strong sense of self may not be the first thing people think of when they think of health classes. But those attributes are a core part of a pilot class started this year at Animas Valley Elementary.
Fourth-graders giggled during class this semester as they passed the phrase “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog and said hello to the cat” from ear to ear and it gradually turned into “The dog jumped over the leg of the chickens that hopped” during a game of telephone.
In an ensuing game of charades, Lorelei Hassel’s miming a scuba diver was mistaken for diving into a pool and a beached whale.
The games helped Stacy Parr, health and physical education teacher, demonstrate the difference between verbal and nonverbal communication before starting to talk about conflict resolution.
“Giving them opportunities to learn in a fun and engaging way, I think, is the best way for kids to learn,” she said.
Sadie Ryan, 9, recalled making a rainbow with water and a flashlight in health class as part of learning to be a rainbow in someone else’s cloud and encourage each other.
“I like that we get to interact and get to play fun games and do fun experiments,” Ryan said.
During the fall semester, Parr has covered relationships, empathy, kindness and compassion, which she sees as a way to combat bullying.
“I have been trying to give the kids an opportunity to practice kindness and compassion because it feels good,” Parr said.
If a culture of kindness can spread, the more likely students are to stand up for each other, she said.
She’s also taught lessons about self-discovery to help students overcome insecurity. As part of that, she’s had students list what makes them unique and special. When a handful of students came to her unable to list their own qualities, it underscored the importance and need for the lessons because having a strong sense of self is a foundation for success, she said.
“It was really disheartening to hear a 10-year-old say, ‘I don’t know what makes me special,’” she said.
Before leaving class, she talked with each student and they all identified something unique about themselves.
Parr’s class fits into a larger strategy within the school to teach students life skills, such as regulating their emotions, to help prevent behavior problems in class.
As the Animas Valley Elementary staff members have spent more time teaching their students to regulate their emotions, the number of disciplinary actions teachers have to take has declined, Assistant Principal Samantha Tower said.
Since the beginning of the year, the number of students sent to the principal’s office has dropped dramatically.
In September 2015, 44 students were sent to the office; in September this year, four students were sent to the office.
The introduction of the new health class has freed up the school counselor to run the Husky Regulation Station, a room where teachers can send students who are emotional or disruptive. Students can also ask to go to the room if they feel the need.
“When you give a punitive consequence, a lot of times all that does is escalate them further,” Tower said. “There is very little research that a punitive consequence is effective for changing behavior.”
So instead, the school set up the regulation station as a safe place where students can identify the emotion they are feeling and a strategy to calm themselves, like deep breathing or journaling.
The room also has a trampoline, art station, partially enclosed pillows on the floor, reminiscent of a child’s fort, and other sensory areas to engage students who may be overstimulated or understimulated, Tower said.
“We wanted to provide an array of opportunity for kids that are struggling,” she said.
Practicing in the regulation station helps students learn to regulate their emotions in the classroom, instead of being disruptive, Tower said.
The need to address social, emotional and behavioral problems was identified by teachers.
“We are seeing more and more kids come in lacking the skills that they need to be successful in life,” Tower said.
Learning to regulate your emotions and other life skills are typically learned in a family unit, but many students arrive needing to develop themselves as people.
So this year, the school started a school family model to ensure that students and teachers feel connected at school and loved.
It’s not a canned curriculum, rather it’s focused on recreating some of the aspects of a healthy, functioning family.
“This is not about us delivering something to children; this is about us living what we want to see for the kids,” Tower said.
It’s a model that has gained attention from other schools, including Park Elementary, she said.
The pilot health class, in particular, could be introduced at schools districtwide next year after this year’s pilot effort, Parr said.