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Taylorsville Journal

Change in atmosphere: students’ social, emotional and physical needs being addressed

Sep 18, 2018 02:01PM ● By Jana Klopsch

New and in-style clothing is needed to fill the Clothing Closet at Eisenhower Jr. (Jet Burnham/City Journals)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected] 

Eisenhower Jr. High School faculty members are changing the culture of middle school by addressing the social, emotional and physical needs of their students. 

“There is something different this year—this is my 21st year here, so I’ve got a whole lot of years to compare it to,” said English teacher Amy Burgon-Hill. 

The change began with an assembly to kick off of kindness. Since then, there have been teachers wearing Be Kind shirts, and there have been positive posters in the hallways, activities in the lunch room and fun videos during announcements—all drawing a focus on kindness. 

“It’s just in your face,” said Burgon-Hill. “It’s just such a nice reminder—if that’s what you see, that’s what you live.” 

In response to the Be Kind theme for the year, teachers are actively engaging in Eisenhower’s positive rewards program. 

“Everyone is just full-force noticing and reinforcing kind behaviors,” said Deborah Andrews, head of the incentive program. 

Behaviors such as turning in homework on time, helping others, assisting the teacher or participating in class earn students stamps on their STARS Card. They can exchange fully stamped cards for candy, chips and small trinkets. 

Faculty and students have noticed an improvement in behaviors in the hallways, classrooms and the overall atmosphere of the school. 

“The climate in the school is so much more positive,” said Andrews. 

Principal Mark Ellermeier also provided a copy of the inspiring book “Wonder,” by R.J. Palacio, for every student to read this year, as a pattern for kindness.

But not every day goes well—this is junior high after all. For students dealing with emotional distress, frustration or other impediments to learning, there is the STARS Room. Also called the Calm Room, it is a quiet place with comfy couches and scented air where students can decompress and prepare their minds to learn. Students can go any time they need to. 

“It is really self-run to give the kids 10 minutes to gather themselves and calm down and then return to class,” said school social worker Sarah Spencer. 

Students self-reflect and calm down with mindfulness techniques, breathing exercises, stuffed animals, stress balls and coloring books. 

Ultimately, students learn to adapt techniques they can use in the classroom, without having to leave class, said Spencer. 

She said Eisenhower staff members have recognized the positive effects of prevention and proactive responses to negative behavior. She said kids may act out because they had a traumatic experience at home or they are hungry. Instead of disciplining, staff members are determined to meet students’ basic needs to allow learning to take place. 

“This is just what we do in schools—we take care of kids,” said Spencer. “We’re just trying to give them what they need so they can learn.” 

Ellermeier is optimistic that a positive approach results in fewer negative behaviors and outcomes. 

Administrators have adopted a positive way to address dress code violations. Instead of disciplining students, they provide a change of clothes. The Clothing Closet has racks of donated clothes, such as leggings to put on underneath ripped jeans. Donations have been so generous that the closet has been moved to a bigger room twice already this year. Latinos in Action students are working to acquire new, name-brand clothing donations from popular clothing stores to add to the collection. 

Ellermeier wants the closet to be available to anyone who needs or wants clothes, for any reason. 

“No kid should feel not accepted or not part of the group because of what they wear,” he said. “We want to try to eliminate kids having to worry about what they wear. It’s just one less thing they have to worry about.” 

Ellermeier said the Be Kind theme, the Clothing Closet and the STARS Room are all solutions that came from faculty members noticing there was a need. 

“Sometimes it's right in your face, but you don't see the solution until someone brings it up,” he said.

He said this has been the best start to a school year he has ever experienced. 

“If people are considerate and think of other people, a lot of problems go away,” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to get here at Eisenhower. We want every kid to feel comfortable and feel safe here. This is their second home.”

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