Written by Carrcroft Elementary Principal Mark Overly
Carrcroft Elementary is a Title One school in the Brandywine School District of Wilmington, Delaware. What makes Carrcroft amazing is the diversity of students that attend our school. Our number one priority is to make Carrcroft feel like a safe place for students to grow academically and personally. We focus on climate and culture as an equally important priority as high academic expectations.
The priorities we practice are the result of the last five years of building a support system to meet the social and emotional needs of our students and staff. When I began as Principal five years ago, I saw that Carrcroft struggled with a high number of behavior problems and teacher burnout. The same old approach to behavior and discipline was not working and our teachers were frustrated and exhausted. I needed something different and I needed an approach that both students and teachers would see benefits.
My college roommate and fellow education major, James Butler, was a pre k teacher in Austin, Texas who had been using mindfulness with his four year olds pre-kindergarten class for years. He was finding so much success that the Austin School District created a district Mindfulness coach position, and James started traveling to the 84 elementary schools in Austin to train teachers on bringing mindfulness into their classroom. James and I spoke frequently about different strategies for meeting the needs of our kids and James’s success with mindfulness and teaching self-regulating skills became the obvious direction I wanted to pursue for Carrcroft.
At the time, Carrcroft was in the process of writing a Focus School Plan, an academic improvement plan mandated by the state for lack of achievement for students that were African American, Special Education, and Low-income. Part of our strategy was to redirect the way we were supporting the social and emotional challenges of students, specifically those in our target category. I invited James to Delaware to conduct workshops with my teachers, students, and families. James led classes on daily mindful activities that students and teachers could do together in the classroom. Staff and students adopted a common language for mindful breathing strategies and we saw remarkable differences in how students in a behavior crisis were able to calm themselves down and breathe. Pretty soon, parents began requesting more information about using mindfulness strategies at home and so James helped us lead parent instructional nights as well.
After five years, what started out as an unprecedented approach to behavior, some even called it another short-sighted initiative that would lose momentum, continues with a normalcy that has become a part of Carrcroft’s culture. We start every morning off with student lead mindful breaths on the morning announcements. Mindful activities are built into academic transitions, teachers incorporate student led mindful stretches in morning meetings, and we continue to defer to mindful breathing and calmness when redirecting behavior. The school community worked together to forge a beautiful mindfulness trail through the woods, complete with sensory stations and an outdoor classroom. Also, we now have mindfulness leaders in each class, and all teachers have created mindful/calm down areas in each classroom that replaces the traditional and ineffective time out corners of the past.
I was doing an observation this year in a fourth grade classroom. The students were working together in small groups. I could see one student getting upset with his group and his demeanor changed quickly from frustration to agitation. I was preparing to step in and remove the student. I had already anticipated how I would remove him from the classroom. The student would miss class instruction time, the intervention would cause a scene, ultimately embarrassing him and further isolating him from his peers. I expected that it would take at least an hour to calm the student down, parents would be called, and the student would have difficulty reentering the class tomorrow. What I saw next was not the usual turn of events.
The teacher saw the student was growing upset and losing composure. She calmly asked him if he wanted to go to the calm down area to take a break. The student was upset but verbally said, “yes.” No student even batted an eyelash as the student went over to the mindful calm down area. I observed as the student quietly took breaths as the lesson continued. The student returned to his chair after a short time and even answered a question. I left the room in shock. The culture that had been built in this room was one of mindfulness and the culture worked. It was OK for the student to feel his emotions, and he was able to use the mindful practices to prevent those emotions from leading to negative consequences.
That experience is just one of many stories that shows the power of mindfulness in Carrcoft. And the benefits are not just seen with the kids. Personally, my own daily morning duty is greeting 500 students as they enter the building. Many times, students are upset with their bus ride or are amped up transitioning into the morning routine. I practice mindful breathing and ground myself from the mounting anxiety which allows me to approach my responsibilities with more positive energy and patience. Of course, the behavior referral drop and improvement in staff morale were two terrific results as well, and now, Carrcroft has adopted the motto “Carrcroft is Calm.”