Rapid City schools are tapping into the use of color, lighting and furniture to give students lower-stress environments. These redesign efforts support district's focus on trauma-informed practices. 

“It really morphed into how can physical environments better meet the needs of students who experienced trauma,” said Dave Swank, principal at Canyon Lake Elementary School.

When Open Heart United Methodist Church held a Christmas fundraiser to benefit its neighborhood schools, Robbinsdale Elementary was one of the recipients.

Principal Beth Keeney earmarked the funds for teachers. They can choose to either create a calming corner in their classroom or purchase flexible seating, which gives students options while learning. They might opt to sit on the floor at low tables, or choose large inflatable balls or even a standing desk, Keeney said.

“Kids are wiggly, and they need to move. These seating options let students choose what works best for them,” she said. “In one classroom, kids start in an assigned spot and later in the day they are free to choose where they want to sit and where they want to work.”

Calming corners or “chill out zones” are being developed in schools districtwide, offering students a chance to regain control of their emotions when they’re upset.

Robbinsdale Elementary has a dedicated wellness room this school year, Keeney said.

“Some students have built-in breaks during the day to go do a couple of activities. We’ve recognized maybe that a student needs to take a 10-minute break. We’re trying to be as proactive as we can with students that we know have trouble getting through the day,” she said. “It’s not a majority of the building population, but their behaviors can really … take away from teaching time and education time.”

Canyon Lake Elementary School added flexible furniture and “chill out zones.”

“It’s a bean bag chair that’s not secluded but is set off. A student has a little bit more control (over) sensory input,” Swank said.

The school's classroom walls are painted blue — a color research indicates promotes calmness, focus and productivity. Blue light filters have been installed to mitigate the effects of the school buildings’ fluorescent lighting that can trigger increased stress and anxiety, headaches and eye strain.

“We involved students in the redesign process. We asked them what they needed and what they wished the rooms looked like,” Swank said.

Simplifying the appearance of classrooms by minimizing the amount of items hanging on the walls also can have a calming effect, Cher Daniel, principal of Rapid Valley Elementary, said.

Rapid Valley Elementary teachers incorporate simple, child-friendly mindfulness activities that are proving beneficial for students and staff. Taking a few minutes to visualize a snowflake falling from the sky, or breathing deeply, or sending a good wish into the world are examples of easy mindfulness tasks that give everyone a chance to pause, focus and reduce their stress, Daniel said.

Next year, Rapid Valley’s goal is to develop common vocabulary that all teachers will use to help students identify what they’re feeling and manage their emotions, Daniel said.

She believes all the efforts to help students process and regulate their emotions, instead of simply reacting and creating chronic stress, directly contributes to their ability to learn.

“I’m a strong believer (that) we can’t be successful at academics if we don’t have a regulated little brain in the seat,” Daniel said. “We sometimes underestimate how disregulated a brain a child can have."

Meeting basic needs

In Rapid City, 16.4 percent of residents live in poverty, according to Data USA. That’s a poverty rate higher than the national average of 14 percent. The Rapid City Area Schools District estimates 45 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunches. Feeding and clothing kids frequently goes hand-in-hand with the district’s other efforts to cope with students' trauma and stress.

“We want to make sure they’re warm, they’re well fed. We’re taking away as many anxieties as possible. … The cumulative effect is that the vast majority of our students (at Canyon Lake Elementary) are happy and feel safe when they’re in school,” Swank said. “Our counselors (assist) kids to have a plan in place to cope with things they may be facing while they’re not under our roof.”

Canyon Lake is one of the district’s Title 1 schools, meaning a higher number of students come from low-income families and have a greater likelihood of experiencing one or more significant traumas, Swank said.

At Canyon Lake Elementary, Swank said every student can receive free breakfast and lunch during the school year. The school uses the Backpack Program to provide children in need with food on weekends, and last summer Canyon Lake was one of seven Rapid City schools where kids could eat free meals. With the help of the community, Canyon Lake keeps a stash of hats, gloves and coats available for children who lack winter clothing. 

“If you aren’t addressing (basic needs), no significant learning can take place,” Swank said. “Some of our third, fourth and fifth graders are taking care of younger siblings (after school). … If you’ve got a kid who’s worried about who’s going to be home, or if there’s food for the weekend, those could be things taking up the limited amount of currency our kids have (for learning).”

Thanks to community support, there are some resources to aid middle school and high school students, too. For example, Rapid City High School partnered with Feeding South Dakota to provide a food pantry at school twice a month. It’s open to any family that has a student in the Rapid City school district.

A free clothes closet for students, and another for the public, are open at Rapid City High School on the first and third Tuesdays of the month, at the same time the food pantry is open During the holiday season, Rapid City Area Schools teamed up with local radio stations and First Interstate Bank to provide gift cards to homeless middle school and high school students.

Swank said anyone who wants to donate items to Canyon Lake or the school of their choice, should contact that school to find out how to help. Community support is essential so that schools can continue meeting students' needs.

“What you think education is or should be really expands by a huge magnitude,” said Swank, who has worked in public education since 2000 and has been a principal for 10 years. “You are facilitating more than just the instructional side of things.”

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