COLERAIN TOWNSHIP, Ohio — At Northwest Local School District, elementary school students don’t get sent straight to the principal’s office for misbehavior. They’re more likely to be asked about their feelings — an approach that Taylor Elementary principal Lori Riehle believes is much better for preventing future incidents, fostering positive feelings about school and building trust between students and staff.
“We’ve done a lot of work here at Taylor around educating the entire child and taking a whole-child approach,” she said Monday. “We believe strongly that we're not going to get the student achievement that we want out of them until they are in what we call their ‘upstairs brain’ and we address some of the social and emotional issues that they have.”
Her school and two others in the district — Struble Elementary and Pleasant Run Elementary — have partnered with the YWCA of Greater Cincinnati for three years to make sure their students get opportunities to grow when they make a mistake.
Their shared program is called Peaceful Solutions, and its central component is the Peaceful Solution circle: A short YWCA-hosted counseling session in which students are encouraged to share their feelings with others in the circle.
It’s a particularly useful way of de-escalating fights between students, said Peaceful Solutions program manager Jarrod Verkamp.
“Typically it’s a misunderstanding between the students” that creates conflict and disruptive behavior in classrooms, he said. “Through a five-minute conversation, we’re usually playing a game at the end and getting ourselves back into the classroom, whereas in the previous (model), they’re maybe sitting in the office for a long time, or it may be something that would have led to an in-school detention or a potential suspension.”
The district has held more than 5,000 circles since the program started, according to the YWCA, and most participating students display a reduction in negative behaviors afterward. Many sessions have been conducted virtually since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Verkamp and Riehle both view the program as a way of instilling long-term conflict resolution habits and nurturing students’ emotional health.
The YWCA’s official program description notes that students of color in Northwest Local Schools are traditionally suspended more often than their white peers, despite making up a smaller percentage of the student body. Classroom techniques that de-emphasize punishment and allow children to safely share their feelings are especially important to these students, according to the YWCA.
“By diminishing the use of Zero Tolerance policies, we know academic success, graduation rates and future achievements amongst students of color in these schools will increase,” a YWCA spokesperson wrote in a news release.
Riehle, the principal, said she welcomes the “new wave” of educational practices that focus on students’ emotional health. She tries to model many of the ideal behaviors herself, she added — she talks about her own feelings during morning announcements and encourages emotional check-ins every day.
“We try to teach them how to name those feelings,” she said. “Because if you don’t name them, it’s really hard to get out of that rut, so we spend a lot of time naming feelings and finding strategies and having conversations about what you can do to help yourself.”
These strategies also help students relate better to each other, she added.
“These circles provide a great sense of relief for some of our students when they realize there are other students in this building and in their grade level that are struggling and had similar experiences to them,” she said. “It allows them to be able to relate and, I believe, heal a lot faster.”