PHOENIX — The trip to the principal’s office at Phoenix Elementary School for inappropriate classroom behavior has been replaced with a visit to the HUGs room.
HUGs stands for Hello, Update, Goodbye. It’s a new approach to cut down on disruptions in classes that cost learning time, and to help students.
Early results appear to be promising for the program that works to build both emotional regulation and academic skills and tracks the interventions. Talent and Orchard Hill elementary schools in the Phoenix-Talent School District also have HUGs rooms.
“We are seeing a humongous turnaround and an increase in student classroom learning time,” said Phoenix Elementary Principal Jeff Carpenter. “It’s a small population that takes a lot of adult time and a lot of the learning time.”
Orchard Hill Principal Shawna Schleif and others observed a similar program at Mae Richardson School in Central Point last year and helped develop the effort.
All district teachers last year went through training on ACES — Adverse Childhood Experiences Study — which was designed to educate them on how life experiences affect learning. The ACES training was conducted by Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to determine impacts on health and social behavior.
At the start of the school year, staff evaluated students and placed them in one of three tiers. Tier Two students may need help at times, while Tier Three students go through a more intensive HUGs approach. Those seven students meet with the program coordinator each morning and again at the end of the day, checking in with where they are emotionally.
Phoenix coordinator Jeff Douci staffs the room, works with parents and helps teachers track behavior. Douci is a retired Oregon State Police trooper who had worked as a playground supervisor at the school. He has training from Family Solutions and Resolve, a local company dealing in restorative justice.
“It’s an unfortunate fact that kids in our Tier 3 level are experiencing significant emotional trauma,” said Douci. “The ACES study shows that when children are living in a fight-or-flight state of mind, it restrains brain growth in the rational decision-making areas.”
Students identified for the program can ask to go to the space if they are feeling uneasy, and teachers can send them there if they sense the student is anxious or interrupting the instruction of 25 to 30 other students.
Often students won’t speak when they initially arrive, so Douci lets them sit to cool down. He will ask them to point to a chart that includes levels of their emotional state, with a center point when they are ready to talk.
“I let them kind of gauge where they are at,” said Douci.
“I also see other kids as needed. Sometimes the student will have something that is really bothering them or an episode where they are really struggling in the classroom,” said Douci. Examples might include missing dad or not getting along with the teacher.
When students have conflicts with one another, Douci uses restorative justice techniques to make the perpetrator aware of how their actions have impacted someone else. Recently one student made derogatory remarks about people with mental illness, which impacted another student who had experienced that in his family. The two agreed to a face-to-face session to hear each other after going through the process.
Douci also helps teachers and parents track the behavior of students.
Teachers find the program gives them a quick way to stop disruptive behavior, which can include tipping over chairs, banging desks, bothering other students and making noises.
Kids may have issues to talk through, but once that’s done, teacher Jenny Christopher finds they can be more focused on learning. Christopher has a class of 30 third- and fourth-graders, and six of those are in Tier 2 or 3.
“You don’t have special training as to how to handle the episodes, especially the extreme behaviors,” said Christopher.
Students who are experiencing distress can let Christopher know they would like to go to the room by raising their hand, asking or holding up a card. Students are learning to recognize when they could use the help, she said.
Second-grade teacher Melanie Sprague says her students are not at the point to ask for help on their own, so she must monitor signs and behavior to determine when a student might go to the room. But in the two months so far, she has seen children initiate on their own coping mechanisms they have learned, such as breathing techniques.
“It is a positive experience, so they are not left in that emotional state,” said Sprague. Students usually return to the class ready to learn.
Carpenter said he’s spending much less time on discipline problems and has more opportunities to observe classrooms and focus on instruction.
— Tony Boom is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.