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Mindful of schoolkids’ need for solace

The kindergartner wouldn’t walk, wouldn’t talk and wouldn’t stop screaming.

So Greg Johnson scooped her up and brought her into his school’s new room where she let off some steam bouncing on the small trampoline in the corner.

“Three jumps later, she stopped screaming and started talking,” recalled Johnson, principal at the George E. Blackman School of Excellence on Main Street.

“We figured out what was wrong and talked about what to do next time that happens — all while bouncing. Seven minutes later, she was smiling and back in class.”

The school district calls the new venue a "mindfulness" room and it’s one of the new strategies that schools, like George Blackman, are rolling out to help address behavioral problems, resolve conflicts, reduce suspensions and teach kids how to cope with the stress and emotional trauma that so many bring with them into the classroom.

It's in large part a recognition of the wide range of traumatic experiences that thousands of Buffalo students encounter each day at school, home or in their neighborhoods.

A Buffalo News review last summer found that at least six school-age children in Buffalo have been slain in the past two years, and more than four dozen wounded. Exposure to such violence, a growing body of research says, affects developing minds, learning, behavior and how a child responds to situations. In fact, children living in violent neighborhoods suffer from PTSD at a rate that is three times higher than troops returning from Iraq, national studies have found

 The mindfulness room is one tool to address the underlying causes of aberrant behavior by students exposed to such violence by offering support — not punishment

In fact, a mindfulness room may be headed to a school near you.

Here’s how it works:

“What happens,” explained Jessica Scholze, the school’s social worker, “is when a kid is upset in school, the teacher contacts me and the kid is able to come down here for a few minutes – typically 5 to 10 minutes.”

The small, cozy room just inside the main office is inviting.

There’s warm lighting and a sofa against the wall. There are bean bag chairs, fluffy pillows, a small trampoline and a play tent. There are stuffed animals and squishy toys for the kids to squeeze. There's a white noise machine with the soothing sounds of birds or trickling water and an aroma therapy diffuser spraying a mix of fragrant oils.

“They’re able to come down here, calm down, get the energy out,” Scholze said. “They’re able to sit with me and have a conversation, reflect on what got them so upset - whether it be something that happened in the classroom, something that happened on the bus or whatever it may be.”

Signs in the new Salvatore Russell Reflection Room help stressed-out students deal with their emotions so they can regroup and go back to class ready to learn. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Fourth-graders Diego Taite and Zaidiel Osoreo have been to the room a few times this year.

Diego said he comes when he gets frustrated in class.

Zaidiel said he comes when he is bullied by other kids.

“It helps our kids regulate their emotions,” Scholze said. “It helps them to avoid physical altercations. It helps them to reflect on their behavior and make more positive choices in the classroom.”

George Blackman serves 504 students in grades pre-K to 4 – more than half under the age of 6. The school has high expectations of its students, Johnson said, but success can be hard when you’re 5.

The school practices self-calming, mindfulness strategies with the students throughout the day, but last year saw the need to have a dedicated space for kids who are having a bad day — a safe place where they can cry, be angry or let out their frustrations before they collect themselves and return to class.

The school needed help to establish the room. George Blackman found it in restaurateur and philanthropist Russell Salvatore, who donated $5,000 to outfit the space.

Salvatore stopped by Tuesday to help the school unveil its new “reflection room,” which has been in use since September.

Now, both George Blackman and West Hertel Academy on Hertel Avenue have designated mindfulness rooms, but the district wants to see them in more schools, said Superintendent Kriner Cash.

“You’re really good boys and girls. We all know that,” Cash told a small group of kids during the unveiling, “but sometimes we have a tough day and there’s a lot of reasons for that.”

“And what we’re doing in the Buffalo Public Schools, as part of an overall effort to increase attendance, reduce suspensions, reduce behavioral referrals, is we’re trying to launch what are mindful meditation rooms,” Cash told them. “It’s a really, really great idea, We looked at research. We looked at best practices and we said, ‘We need those in our schools.’”

So far, the reflection room at George Blackman is being put to good use.

Students are in and out of the room for much of the day for a variety of reasons, Johnson said.

“Some kids have sensory issues so at lunch time we have a bunch of kids that come down if the cafeteria gets too loud,” Johnson said. “Sometimes kids get frustrated in class if the work is too hard and they can’t do it. If they have a conflict with a peer, they’ll come down and meet with Jess and talk it out.

“But, again, it’s not a punishment,” Johnson said. “It’s a safe place, not a discipline place.”

And the goal is always to get the students back to class.

“We don’t want them to do something that will get them sent home,” Johnson said. “We don’t want them suspended. We want them here because they can only learn if they’re here.”

Is it working?

“I think so,” Johnson said. “Our suspensions are down, and we’re having kids asking to come down.”

Johnson recalled a kindergartner who showed up to the reflection room on Monday.

“I just need some time,” the youngster told the principal.

“Then,” Johnson said, “like three minutes later, he came out and said ‘OK, I’m ready to go do my work.’”

And the boy walked himself back to class.

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