Creating the calm to help Aurora students end the storms

October 4, 2017

AURORA | Before a child acting out can listen to what disciplining adults are saying, they have to be able to hear.

Keeping that in mind is what’s guided North Middle School as educators there put the final touches on a new area in the school dedicated to helping students with behavioral or emotional issues by promoting mindfulness.

The new M.E. Wing is equipped with tools for students to learn how to deal with times of emotional crisis in a positive manner and to step away from a stress that could be causing a disciplinary problem. The area is named after Matthew Emrick, a former PARA at the APS school who died in 2006 and was funded by a charity started by Emrick’s family in honor of Matthew. The wing is set to be dedicated on Sept. 26.

Students can color mandalas, use yoga mats and cards with different yoga poses or use one of several IPads that have guided meditations loaded on them or the HeartMath program. That program uses a heart monitor to help students see how focusing on breathing or positive thoughts can affect stress levels and heart rate in real time.

Tara Emrick, Matthew’s older sister, said through the memorial fund her and her family set up they have helped provide scholarships for two graduating students in honor of her brother for the past 11 years. Matthew loved North Middle School and since his death, his family has looked for ways to help continue to help the school community that meant so much to Matthew.

“We really wanted to stay involved with that amazing community and bring some light out of this darkness (after Matthew’s death). So we started with the scholarships,” Emrick said. “But we also started thinking what else could we do for students at North beyond scholarships.”

Emrick’s career was in social work, and her husband is a pediatrician. The couple, who also have two adopted children who have dealt with issues of trauma in their life, has seen the importance of giving children a way to center and reconnect with themselves can be.

“In our work with young people throughout the years and raising our own children, we realized we need to do more to connect younger people with themselves,” Emrick said. “This in part is about continuing (Matthew’s) legacy there caring for the students. But also it’s about doing more to support students and move away from the traditional detention model for discipline.”

North Middle principal Rachel Langberg is excited to see the mindfulness wing start to be integrated into the daily routine of the school. The center, which will also house the school’s counselors and support staff, represents the first steps in moving toward a restorative disciplinary system at the school.

The goal is to give students a chance to connect with their emotions, what’s causing their stress and learn the necessary tools to recenter themselves so they can deal with the issue. That could mean having a safe space to deal with communication issues between students or behavioral issues that are causing students to act out in class.

Langberg said the idea of using the mindfulness wing in the disciplinary process isn’t a substitute for disciplining students. But a student who is in a moment of crisis and is acting out isn’t ready to be disciplined and instead probably needs a few minutes to take a step back, reset themselves and understand why they’re feeling that way at that moment.

“We’re not letting students get away from their behavior. If students aren’t ready to hear that consequence it can them become a power struggle between the adult and the student,” Langberg said. “We’re giving students a chance to reset, connect with their emotions and them be able to hear what they need to do to restore that trust.”

Landberg said when students enter the M.E. Wing for the first time, they’ll be given a tour and shown what is available to them. A counselor or instructor will also suggest an activity or tool that other students have used to deal with an issue that’s similar to what’s going on with that student. But Landberg said the student will make the decision on what tool to use to deal with the situation at that time.

The goal is for students to take ownership of the process and to take the lessons they learn from using the wing with them when they leave and break the cycle of crisis, Landberg said.

For middle school students, learning to deal with stressors and crisis situations is important as they take the next step from being a child to being an adult, Landberg said. They’re right in the middle of leaving a phase where teachers and adults plan everything for them and entering a phase where more and more decisions are being put on them to make.

“This is the time for them to learn how to deal with these situations in a low-risk environment,” Landberg said.

For Emrick, she said her brother would be proud of the work that’s going on in his name even if he might be giving his older sister a little grief for something that sounds a little “hippy.”

“He would totally back up this and always believed that these kids deserve something like this. They deserve to be seen and heard and given tools to empower them and for them to recognize their importance when so many people around them say they don’t matter,” Emrick said. “He would totally make fun of it but also he would think it was the most amazing thing ever.”