At Barack Obama Elementary School in Asbury Park, a group of students began one recent school day in the front office, where they stood at a microphone to lead a “mindful breathing” exercise – five deep, calming breaths – as part of the morning announcements.

Across town at Bradley Elementary School, fourth-graders gathered around their teacher on a colorful carpet, greeting each other with handshakes in a “responsive classroom morning meeting.”

And in a classroom at Asbury Park High School that was once the in-school suspension room, now called the “wellness room,” five students practiced yoga and social-emotional skills in an Alternative Learning Lab program. The students were referred there after disciplinary or other issues, and some said at first they did not want to participate.

But now, in the words of one student: “I like how it makes me feel.”

Wellness, mindfulness and social-emotional learning – an approach in which schools teach such skills as empathy building and communication – have become part of the daily routine in Asbury Park, where the district is cultivating students’ and teachers’ inner lives to grow a healthy environment for teaching and learning.

Social-emotional learning has gained prominence in education as a way to help schools better prepare students for future success. Research links it to positive student behavior, improved attitudes toward school, and gains on standardized test scores. Social-emotional learning is also an objective of the New Jersey School Boards Association, which adopted it as a goal in its new 2018-2020 Strategic Plan, “Vision 2020,” and featured a renowned social-emotional learning expert keynote speaker at Workshop 2017.

The Initiative Begins The Asbury Park Wellness Initiative is focused on “integrating social and emotional learning with contemplative practices” in order to “help create healthy environments for teaching and learning,” according to a description of the program by the district. The initiative was started by Director of Student Services Dr. Kristie M. Howard, who was hired in 2015 by former Superintendent Dr. Lamont Repollet, an education leader recently named the state’s Acting Commissioner of Education.

Howard, who previously served in another district as an assistant principal – typically the spot held by a school’s chief disciplinarian – was tasked with reducing suspensions and improving discipline in Asbury Park. She went to a national conference on school discipline, seeking an alternative to suspension.

“Unless you have parents (who will enforce it), a suspension is just a day off. It doesn’t change the behavior if the students don’t want to change,” she said.

Howard became intrigued by the idea of social-emotional learning as a way to address discipline issues and help at-risk students. She proposed replacing in-school suspension at the high school with a mindfulness program, and bringing restorative practices and other social-emotional learning to the district. The student assistance counselor staff, including substance awareness coordinators Alisha DeLorenzo and Jory Artis, and health and social service coordinator Sheldon Sanders, embraced the idea.

“This has always been an idea of mine, but prior to the new administration, no one was interested in bringing it in,” DeLorenzo said.

Staff training in wellness began in 2016. The Wellness Initiative was rolled out, and went full-time by the next school year. One of the first areas addressed was high school discipline: After studying data, administrators realized that of 1,002 days of suspensions at Asbury Park High School in 2015-2016, almost half involved the same 25 students.

The most at-risk students were referred to a new twice-weekly program, the Alternative Learning Lab. The program develops social-emotional skills, combined with yoga that teaches relaxation, breathing and emotional control.

The first year showed results. The total number of days of student suspensions at the high school fell from 1,002 in 2015-2016, to 437 in 2016-2017, school officials said. Discipline referrals for students in the Alternative Learning Lab dropped by more than half. The current school year’s data is not yet available.

Yoga and More At the middle and elementary schools, wellness efforts such as “Yoga Calm” and “Reflective Time” are underway too. Some teachers there have seen increases in student test scores, according to DeLorenzo.

“Our students come here with a lot of baggage. They can be much more successful in the classroom if we can deal with their minds,” said Howard, in an interview at the high school. “Our students come with a lot of issues. A lot of times they don’t know how to manage themselves. (Here) they’re taught how to properly self-regulate.”

Asbury Park is an urban district that has long faced many challenges, including high poverty. So many children come from economically disadvantaged families, for example, that the entire district qualifies for free- or reduced-price lunches.

Now, hallmarks of the wellness movement are visible everywhere.

At Barack Obama Elementary School, Principal Reginald Mirthil watched one recent morning as fifth-graders Ushon Edwards and Anthony Garcia Sanchez, and fourth-graders Demiyah Hester and Sanai Tillman, read the morning announcements over the public address system. The students, who are members of the school’s Safety Patrol, worked from a script that included the mindful breathing exercise, a “Learners’ Creed,” and the flag salute.

“This morning I was having a rough morning,” Mirthil said with a smile. “When they started, I said, ‘Stop, Reggie. Breathe.”

In teacher Sandy Shader’s fourth-grade class at Bradley Elementary School, the day began with a responsive morning meeting, which started when the teacher tapped a melodious New Age-sounding chime.

Seated in a circle, the students enthusiastically greeted each other, then took part in a discussion about a “Hip Hop Nutcracker” play the class had seen. The approach is intended to build community and develop skills such as communication.

Shader, who was one of the first Asbury Park teachers trained in wellness practices, said she’d like the class to have the opportunity for more, similar activities. “Just the simple act of greeting each other and supporting each other. They need to spend time together, and they need to do things together,” she said. “They need these skills.”

Music, Yoga, Wellness In the high school’s wellness room, soft New Age music played as five students took their places on yoga mats surrounding instructors Rodney Salomon and Mychal Mills. The two run a non-profit called KYDS, or Konscious Youth Development & Services, and were hired as consultants to lead programs in school, as well as an after-school program.

The instructors led exercises designed to build empathy. “Learn to put yourself in someone else’s shoes,” Mills intoned.

The students did yoga poses such as “tree pose” and “supported tree pose,” and ended with a relaxation breathing exercise, while stretched out on the floor. “Relax your mind and body. Listen to what your heart is telling you,” the instructor continued.

The atmosphere in the room was quiet as the session ended. Afterward, several students said the yoga practice helps them control anger.

“When I get into it with someone, I use the strategies they teach us. Before I start arguing,” one teen explained.

“It helps you with your anger,” another added.

When, in one class exercise, students were asked to name someone who cared about them, one student said to the instructors: “You two.”

Putting wellness in place in Asbury Park has not been without hurdles. Staff training is required, and not all teachers have been quick to adopt the wellness ideas. “We’re trying to get every teacher to use restorative practices,” Howard said. “It’s not the kids that are the hard part, it’s getting teachers to change.”

To make time for wellness, schools have taken steps such as extending homeroom in high school, and repurposing elementary school time that was used for children to pack up at the end of the day. As with many initiatives in public schools, funding is also a challenge. “We’re still trying to find the money. If I had my wish, I’d have a full-time (wellness) room in every building,” Howard said.

Some teachers have requested more wellness training, however, and Howard said she is hopeful the practices can build and continue to make a difference for Asbury Park students.

She pointed out that while a restorative circle may take 10 minutes of class time, a disruption caused by a student disciplinary issue, in a classroom, can waste 10 minutes.

“If you do a restorative circle every class period, it will cut out those wasted 10 minutes. I’d rather take the time to focus on a social-emotional skill,” Howard said. “You either put it in on the front end, or you put it in on the back end.”

Jeanette Rundquist is communication officer at NJSBA, and the special section editor of School Leader. She may be reached at [email protected].

For more information on the Asbury Park Wellness Initiative, please contact Dr. Kristie M. Howard.

Jeanette Rundquist is communication officer at NJSBA, and the special section editor of School Leader.