RACINE — Priscilla Marquez knew something needed to change.
When students become upset, teachers do not always know how to respond. That was especially evident when school returned to in-person learning after a year away because of the COVID-19 pandemic. With children and adults readjusting to social group dynamics, they were more prone to impatience and frustration at Mitchell K-8 School, 2701 Drexel Ave.
“Last year was a year like none other,” Marquez said. “Every day it was trying to adjust to getting back to somewhat of a normal year.”
That is why Marquez, Mitchell school principal, wanted professional development training for staff regarding emotional regulation.
“A lot of our students go from 0 to 100 for very little things, and sometimes then we go to 100 and we really don’t know what to do to help de-escalate them, because we’re escalated ourselves,” Marquez said. “I felt that this (training) was something we all needed, including myself.”
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The goal is to help teachers and other school staff handle their emotions so they can better assist students with their emotions, which should lead to better classroom learning.
“If kids aren’t emotionally ready … they’re not going to learn,” Marquez said. “You have some teachers that probably would say we needed this a long time ago.”
‘Energy matches energy’
Mitchell mental health therapists Olivia Floyd and Emily Orr led the training, which involved working with staff in small groups and as a large group. About 100 middle school workers met for 80 minutes on Nov. 4, and Mitchell elementary school staff will receive similar training in December.
Marquez hopes the training results in a shared language among staff regarding emotional regulation.
“To make change in a building, everyone has to have gotten that professional learning, because we need everyone to use that same vocabulary,” Marquez said.
Emotional regulation means understanding what one is feeling and appropriately responding to that feeling. Floyd and Orr acknowledged that is far easier said than done.
Another example of shared language is co-regulation, which means one person’s feelings can impact another person’s emotions positively and negatively. Ideally, staff can be calm so students are more likely to feel stable. If staffers are upset, students are more likely to feel stressed.
“Emotions are contagious,” Floyd said. “Energy matches energy.”
Relationships and empathy are key to assisting students. The type of connection depends on the teacher but should be based on their authentic self, be it humor, sports or music.
“If you’re a teacher and you have that connection with that child, it is so much easier to get them to self-regulate, to steer them in the right direction,” Orr said.
Marquez said actively listening to students is crucial as well. She often gets their perspective about an emotional situation that may require discipline.
“We’re trying to understand why they’re feeling what they’re feeling,” Marquez said.
Floyd agreed. She said Marquez excels at connecting while holding students accountable.
“There can still be consequences, but connect first so they understand why,” Floyd said.
Some students’ home lives are filled with trauma, so it is important to have school be a safe, welcoming place. Marquez believes students feeling heard and welcomed could boost attendance.
“We’re really showing students that they do belong here, regardless of what they’re dealing with outside of here,” Marquez said.
It is an inexact science to measure progress, but Marquez hopes to see a decrease in disciplinary action and suspensions as a result of the professional development. She also plans to observe classrooms and see how staff put training into action.
Emotional regulation will regularly be discussed during staff meetings, since repetition is how change occurs.
“It takes time to shift the way you think about something,” Floyd said. “It’s human to feel defensive, to feel angry. Take a step back. Take a breath … Respond with calm, assertive responses. It’s possible. It takes a lot of practice. It takes a lot of self-awareness. It takes a lot of emotional regulation.”