When students enter the reset room at Moscow Elementary School, their hearts might be pounding in anger. Their fists might be clenched in frustration. They might be worked up because of all the noise their classmates are making. Sometimes, they just need a break.

In the reset room they reflect on what they’re feeling. They learn to calm down and get control of themselves. They learn how to reset themselves.

Marcy Melcher, the sole social worker within School Administrative District 13 in Bingham and Moscow, and Bethany Szarka, a special education teacher at the elementary school, devised the reset room as part of a solution to a problem cropping up for educators all around Maine: More and more children in pre-kindergarten through third grade are coming to school unable to regulate their emotions.

“More than your typical age development problems with emotional regulation,” Melcher said. “The severity – it would become not just emotional meltdowns, but it would become physical – so we definitely saw a need to not only have a space for these kids to go, but also to help build those skills that they were lacking.”

Special education teacher Bethany Szarka explains how different tactile items available in the Moscow Elementary School reset room are used to help students deal with sensory deficits. Staff photo by David Leaming

Students are exhibiting defiance at a new level, educators say. Many have trouble listening, sitting still and doing what is asked of them. Some run away from the classroom and try to hide from their teachers within the school building. The behaviors also manifest as physical aggression, with students threatening to harm themselves or others. Physical outbursts sometimes require whole classrooms to be evacuated to ensure student safety.

Over the last five years or so, area educators have been tracking not only the emergence of an increasing number of students who display these behaviors, but also the intensifying severity of the breakdowns. In part, schools and teachers are doing a better job of identifying the needs of students today than they did in the past and kids are now getting help for behaviors that may have gotten them kicked out of school 30 or 40 years ago.

But many see the problem as a reflection of today’s society and culture, including change in the family structure, drug addiction and the prevalence of technology, even though the behaviors aren’t necessarily determined by socioeconomic status or found within a particular demographic.

Eric Haley, the superintendent of Alternative Organizational Structure 92, which encompasses Vassalboro, Waterville and Winslow, said schools are taking on more and more of what has traditionally been the responsibility of parents. He said a child’s inability to control emotions stems from the same reason why schools in his district now all have food pantries to ensure kids don’t go hungry and clothing closets to ensure kids have something clean to wear to school.

“For me, I think the common denominator is that schools are the only safety net for the children that are born into these situations by no choice of their own,” Haley said. “If you think about a family of four, and mom and dad are drug addicted, then how much social training do they get in how to handle adversity? How do you accept the fact that you don’t get immediate gratification?”

First-grade teacher Jen Morneault leads her students in a reading lesson at Winslow Elementary School on May 18. Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

The issue has become a common topic of discussion for Haley and other educators at budget hearings in their districts.

Many of these children don’t qualify for special education services, but often they still require the attention and resources that a student in special education receives. Without those resources, educators spend their teaching time diffusing disruptions caused by afflicted students.

However, some school districts are investing in programs, such as the reset room, that aim to teach students the skills they need to regulate their emotions, and in turn will help restore a teacher’s primary focus to educating rather than dealing with disruptions.

Nearly two years after its implementation at Moscow Elementary School, the number of students who use the reset room and the amount of time they spend inside the room have both decreased.

“We had kids go from being in here sometimes a majority of their day to being back in their classrooms all day long requesting a break,” Melcher said. “We’re at a place now where they know their triggers and they know when they’re starting to escalate, so they ask to use the room.”

The room itself is ordinary looking. A dry-erase board on which to work out homework problems takes up the length of one wall. Jars of Play-Doh and small toy cars sit on the window sill, reward activities once children achieve a goal. An exercise ball sits in a corner for students who may need to wiggle while they work.

But its ordinariness has purpose. The bare off-white walls provide an environment where students can reset without the risk of overstimulation.

Less conventional items, such as buckets of dry rice and beans, may look odd to visitors, but each was recommended by the district’s occupational therapist.

The buckets and their contents are available to students who experience a hypersensitivity or increased sensitivity to touch, which is known as a tactile sensory deficit, Szarka explained.

“Their body just doesn’t process things as normally as we do,” she said. “Their bodies aren’t getting enough input.”

Several of the other items in the room – a 4-foot tall padded gray mat to wrap around their bodies, headphones, a bean bag chair and stuffed animals – all help with sensory deficits.

Laura Jones, an Education Technician III at the school, is the overseer of the reset room. She works one-on-one with students in their classrooms, but whenever a child needs to use the reset room, Jones supervises.

Sophie Fortin, in Jen Morneault’s first-grade class, reads during class at Winslow Elementary School on May 18. Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

She also helps students listen to their bodies and differentiate between a feeling of calm and a feeling of agitation – and then how to de-escalate on their own.

Jones often has her students run around or jump on the mini-trampoline in the room to get their heart rate up. Then she asks if they notice that their hearts are pounding and that they’re out of breath.

Then she shows them how they can slow their body down with breathing exercises and yoga.

“You can even see, after they’ve done it for awhile and they can feel their bodies start to escalate, without any prompting, some of them will start taking deep breaths and working on their breathing exercises.”

Melcher said the reset room is now primarily used for when students feel they’re getting worked up and just need to take a short break from whatever is frustrating them.

“It’s nice because it’s what we as adults do: We take a break and then we go back,” Melcher said. “It’s teaching them that skill of recognizing it and figuring out what to do.”

MAKING THE INVESTMENT

In May, voters of Farmington-based Regional School Unit 9 passed a budget of $35.5 million, which included $461,403 to fund a new kindergarten-through-fifth-grade alternative education program called Pathway for All Learners.

It’s an investment the community is making for not just the 10 to 25 students needing assistance for emotional regulation and social skill development, but for every student in that age group, the district’s curriculum coordinator, Laura Columbia, said.

“Some of the criticism of this program has been that we are in some ways reaching a small population, but it affects a large groups of kids,” Columbia said. “That’s one of the things that’s been … harder for people to understand.”

The disruptions created by one student, she said, affect the whole class.

“We are putting a lot of money into this smaller program, I would say, but think about all of those kids who had to be evacuated from the room,” she said, referring to what educators sometimes have to do when students become violent. “As a kindergarten student, you just had to witness the evacuation of a room, and then you’re going to have to go back and do math facts.”

MSAD 13 district social worker Marcy Melcher inside the “calming room” in the Moscow Elementary School reset room, where stressed students can be alone to relax and refocus. Staff photo by David Leaming

The students selected for the program are children for whom educators have exhausted all other resources. Teachers will refer students to Pathway, and students will be chosen based on their need. Similar to the reset room, the program will help these students outside of their usual classroom. They will be taken out temporarily to learn the skills they need to manage themselves and then brought back to learn alongside their peers.

“Our goal is to always have kids return to the classroom,” Columbia said.

The creation of such a program has been on the minds of principals throughout the district for more than five years, Columbia said, but it wasn’t until this past academic year that it started to become a reality.

“We noticed a lot of trends and teachers’ time being taken away from teaching and having to deal with the issues that arise in the classroom, which every teacher is going to have – that’s part of being a public school teacher — but it felt more and more common,” she said. “We didn’t feel like we were meeting the needs of all of our students as best we could.”

In the last year, teachers and administrators have been developing the program. They decided it would need to get to the root of each student’s problem and try to work through it. The solution wasn’t just hiring more ed techs to staff classrooms.

“We’re not just getting someone to watch them,” Columbia said. “We don’t put a Band Aid on it. We’re trying to find out what is the problem and how are we going to fix it.”

Other schools were called, not just in Maine, but across the country, to find out what works for these students. Columbia said district staff spoke with principals at schools in Texas and North Carolina who work solely with students with behavioral challenges. They learned about some of the mistakes these schools had made and the parts of their curricula they believe will work well in RSU 9.

Administrators have a structure in mind for Pathway, Columbia said, but will wait until they’ve acquired a full staff to adopt a model or a curriculum. In the meantime, the district will need to hire and train a social worker, a board certified behavior analyst, six education technicians and two teachers who will staff the two classroom sites that will be located in Farmington and Wilton.

Parents in the community have supported the creation of Pathway, Columbia said. Some are excited that their child might qualify, and others are optimistic that those students will get the help that they need to function in the general education classroom.

“We even had some letters read to our school board from students who are having trouble learning in their classroom because the environment is conducive to that,” Columbia said. “Our teachers do the best that they can, but at a certain point, we need more resources for that.”

BURDEN ON TEACHERS

While some districts are investing in solutions, others are fighting to maintain the resources they have so that the behavioral challenges don’t worsen.

Jen Morneault, a first-grade teacher at Winslow Elementary School, says she spends about 90 percent of her time dealing with the few students who exhibit severe behavioral challenges.

“It takes longer to do our lessons, and I often don’t get to do the things I’ve planned,” she said. In turn, the disruptions take her away from the rest of the children who are able to function well in the classroom.

“They’re getting less of me than they should be,” she said.

In late April, the Winslow Town Council asked the School Board to cut an additional $197,000 from the increase in their 2018-19 budget, much of which would come from pinkslipping personnel and not replacing a retiring second-grade teacher.

When Morneault found out she would be the teacher taking over the second-grade position that would not be filled with a new hire – which would leave just three employees teaching first grade — she worried about the ratio of students to teachers in the classroom.

She decided to speak up at a May budget workshop to tell the council exactly what she and other teachers are dealing with in their classrooms.

With the behavioral problems she is seeing in children, a student-to-teacher ratio of 18-to-1 becomes an impossible challenge. Something has changed in children in the last few years, she told them. The classroom experience is not the same as it was when she began at Winslow nine years ago.

“The job now compared to nine years ago is less about reading, writing and math and more about dealing with PTSD, hunger, abuse, homelessness, sensory issues, autism.”

The council ended up restoring the second-grade position and the librarian position at the junior high school following the testimony from Morneault and letters sent by other educators.

Winslow will maintain the resources they have so that the behavioral problem may not worsen, but the school does not have a real solution for the problem. A recess and lunch group helps students develop some social skills, but it’s not a formal program, Morneault said.

“We talked about having a room, some kind of learning lab, for these students, but that would require people — qualified people,” she said.

Until then, the burden will remain on teachers.

“We have to handle it on our own,” Morneault said. “We do the best we can.”

Emily Higginbotham can be contacted at 861-9239 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @EmilyHigg

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