DUBUQUE, Iowa (AP) — Fifth graders in a full classroom at Marshall Elementary School in Dubuque used hand gestures to represent their emotions.
They "plugged" two fingers into the floor to help themselves feel calm and grounded, held their fingers together to feel connected to the others and crossed their hands over their chest in the shape of a bird to share positivity.
"One more deep breath in, and then I want you to hug that one in and keep it with you for the rest of the day," said Laura Hodge, a yoga instructor with Challenge to Change Inc., to the children.
Since 2017, Dubuque Community Schools leaders have grown a program in which students receive regular yoga instruction. Now, all elementary campuses have a yoga offering, according to the Telegraph Herald .
The program is among multiple efforts that area school leaders have undertaken in recent years aimed at helping children learn about understanding and regulating their emotions.
"We expect a lot from (kids), but they come to school, sometimes, feeling the same way we do," said Christa Feuerhelm, a second-grade teacher at Resurrection Elementary School in Dubuque. "If you can give them the strategies to help them so that they can still learn and be successful academically, socially and emotionally, then they'll be able to meet their goals."
The yoga program started in Dubuque public schools two years ago to help students learn to self-regulate their emotions and to help them pay attention in class, according to Mae Hingtgen, director of behavior and learning supports for the district.
The district partnered with a faculty member at the University of Kansas to study the impact of the program. Surveys indicated that the students reported being more calm and able to focus themselves, Hingtgen said.
"We are trying to help students to self-regulate, to be able to maintain calm so they can focus on the academics," Hingtgen said.
While the schoolwide yoga program is new to Marshall Elementary this year, fifth grader Piper McElmeel started doing a bit of it last year with her class.
"I liked it last year because it relaxed us, and it just lets you think more (that) you should think before you do," Piper said. "That's (what) the poses show you."
This year, Western Dubuque Community School District elementary school students also will receive yoga instruction from Challenge to Change. Staff received yoga classes last year so the lessons that students learn in yoga sessions carry over into the rest of the school day.
"The whole idea for us is that we teach students those self-care tools and those tools that they can carry on throughout their lives to help support the development of their attention, to help their emotional self-regulation, to help empathy, to help them be present throughout the school day," said Kelly Simon, the district's director of curriculum, instruction and assessment.
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Those kinds of lessons are particularly important because children live in a world in which they are consistently exposed to influences such as social media, societal unrest, technology and news, Simon said.
"Life around them is not calm, and just to ask them to calm down or to handle things calmly is a ridiculous request if we're not teaching them the tools," she said.
Leaders in the Potosi (Wis.) School District also noted factors such as heightened student anxiety levels and social isolation as factors driving their focus on social-emotional learning, which aims to help students with skills such as self-awareness, emotional regulation, decision making and relationship skills.
Tammy Cooley, director of student services, said that educators long have incorporated those kinds of skills into student instruction, but now the teaching of them has become more explicit during the school day.
"Now, we're trying to give teachers the tools to be more explicit about things that will help intentionally build those social-emotional learning skills," Cooley said.
This school year, district leaders added a social-emotional learning coach to their staff. She works with staff members so they can support students' social and emotional needs, in addition to providing some counseling for elementary students.
At Resurrection Elementary, Feuerhelm in 2018 started using a curriculum called "zones of regulation," which uses colors to help students identify their emotions.
"I really emphasize that it's totally fine to feel all these emotions," Feuerhelm said. "Adults feel them just like our kids do, but you need to learn to still act appropriately for the environment that you're in even if you're feeling sad or scared or upset."
Other staff at Resurrection Elementary took note of the ways the curriculum helped Feuerhelm's students calm down and have more empathy. This year, zones of regulation are being used schoolwide, she said.
"I feel like teaching students how to regulate their emotions is going to be very beneficial to them in the future," she said. "It's going to help them as they become an adult."
Information from: Telegraph Herald, http://www.thonline.com