Programs take new approach to learning onta

Jodi Summit

REGIONAL- The new classroom furniture in the first, second, and third-grade classrooms at Tower-Soudan Elementary may seem a bit untraditional. But according to research on young brains and how they learn, the furniture, which facilitates rhythmic movement, is an essential tool for a modern classroom.
As students in Jo Holen’s first grade classroom scattered for some free reading time, students perched, rocked, and wiggled, all while intensely concentrating on their chosen books.
The furniture was purchased as part of a five-year federal grant to the St. Louis County School District for a program called “Project Aware.”
The program is being led by Alicia Dick, a social worker hired to lead training for teachers, staff, and parents, as well as working one-on-one with students as needed. Over the summer, teachers and staff had the option of participating in training and book study groups that focused on how brain development influences a child’s ability to learn and successfully navigate their day in the classroom.
Dick has been leading a book study based on the research of Dr. Bruce Perry, whose best-selling recently-published book, co-written with Oprah Winfrey, is titled “What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing.”
“Kids are less developed in some motor skills,” Dick said. She talked about strategies used to comfort an infant like rocking and singing, and she said these same strategies can be used for students in the classroom.
“Rhythmic, patterned, repetitive movement is important,” she said. “Engaging in sensory activities also increases test scores.”
So, a classroom environment that encourages rhythmic movement, like rocking, and enough time set aside for large-motor outdoor or indoor play is essential, she said.
She explained that brain development research shows that a child needs to have certain brain-based needs before they are able to engage the parts of their brain needed to learn academics.
Dick met with a small group of parents at Tower-Soudan last week as part of the district’s new Parent Advisory Committee outreach program, teaching parents how to recognize their own regulatory states, and giving tools for dealing with their child’s difficult behaviors at home. She also gave an overview of the Project Aware program.
Tower-Soudan Elementary Principal John Jirik said he and his staff are impressed with the program and the tools being given to teachers to help their students day-to-day in the classroom. Teachers are learning about the neurobiology of stress and the brain, and are given tools and strategies for getting kids back on track so they are able to learn.
Jirik said the teaching staff at Tower-Soudan has truly embraced these trainings, and almost all have been participating in the voluntary trainings and book studies. He said he uses these strategies when dealing with students who are disruptive in the classroom and get sent to the office.
“Sending kids to the principal’s office is traumatic,” Jirik said. “The goal needs to be getting the kid back to class as soon as possible.”
Jirik said strategies for getting students to focus and regulate their breathing helps them listen to what an adult needs to tell them, and also gets them calmed down so it is safe to return to their classroom and not disrupt the other students.
“It’s all about getting kids where they need to be to learn,” he said.
Tower-Soudan teacher Michelle Anderson said she has really appreciated the training and book study sessions, and has been implementing the ideas she is learning in her classroom. She keeps a basket of sensory-calming items on her desk that students can borrow as needed or when she suggests they need them. She was also excited to show off some learning tools she was given for her music classroom, including a set of singing bowls. She is using the bowls to get students calm and focused at the beginning and end of each class, having them sit still and listen, breathing in and out, to create the rhythmic chiming sounds the bowls.
Kim Jordan, who oversees federal grant programs for ISD 2142, said they are one of only two rural schools in the state who received the Project Aware funding, which totals $1.8 million over five years. She said Superintendent Reggie Engebretson spearheaded the grant-writing effort. The grant is funded through federal programs and in Minnesota is a collaboration between the Minnesota Department of Education, the Minnesota Department of Human Services, and partnering school districts to support the implementation of school mental health systems.
“People don’t realize how fortunate we are to get this opportunity,” said Dick.
Dick is working with teachers and staff throughout the district, and also in the Mt. Iron Buhl system. She started working with teachers over the summer, and said for the program to succeed, it needs to start in the classroom.
“It needs to be teacher led,” she said. “Strong relationships are important.”
In addition to training for teachers and staff, she is working on training some staff at each site to work one-on-one with students, with different types of brain-based interventions to assist in learning.
“We want this to grow in each school building,” she said.
Parent Advisory Committee
The Project Aware program is being introduced to parents through the new Parent Advisory Committees being organized at each district school site.
“We want to increase communication and collaboration with parents,” said Jordan.
The Parent Advisory Committee started up in Tower-Soudan just prior to this school year, and have included monthly afterschool meetings the third Thursday of each month.
“The hardest part is getting the word out to parents,” she said. “We want parents to realize they can come and have a voice.”
The Parent Advisory Committees will be starting soon at both Northeast Range and North Woods, with meetings for parents to meet the buildings’ new principals. The meetings offer free childcare for parents who are attending.
Anyone wanting to learn more about the Project Aware program or the Parent Advisory Committees can contact Kim Jordan at 218-749-8130 ext. 1123 or [email protected]

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