Yoga, black labs help open doors at school for troubled kids

Practicing meditation
Using a stuffed animal to assist with breathing techniques, fifth-grader Vermetrice relaxes during a yoga class.
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

This is not a place where you'd expect to find butterflies, or kids practicing yoga or gently petting dogs or, really, anything gentle.

Students at River Bend Education Center start their school day with a trip through a metal detector and a backpack search. The doors are locked so no one runs away.

Photos: Finding a path to self-control

Phones, money and toys are collected and set aside to reclaim at the end of the school day. They're easy distractions for the elementary and middle school kids who struggle already to focus, whose anger and behavioral problems have delivered them here after being pushed out of at least three other schools.

But they're still kids, and they need help. At River Bend, teachers try yoga and other strategies to help children control their own emotions. They hope that some can leave the school's locked corridors eventually and return to a traditional classroom. While yoga won't cure a behavioral disorder, it seems to be helping some kids. And in a school where many come from chaos, that's a start.

"The children who come to us are not willfully defiant," said school social worker Rebecca Stewart. "Many of them have suffered multiple traumas. We understand the brain science behind that now, and that kids need to learn how to regulate. They need to learn how to sit in a chair before they can read."

Yoga class
Rebecca Stewart leads a yoga lesson at River Bend Education Center.
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

For a few hours each week, the students practice yoga in a class led by Stewart. She started four years ago carving out an hour each week, then two. Last year, the school got funding to add another social worker. Stewart used the time and the relief from the school's all-consuming paperwork and report burden to design a mind/body class using resources and curricula developed by experts in child brain development.

She wanted to give the kids something they could carry within themselves, that didn't depend on a parent filling a prescription or driving them to a therapy appointment.

"What can the kids learn at school that they can use anywhere even if they're in a shelter?" she asked. "And the things that really stuck out to me were breathing. You're always breathing. How can you use your breathing to calm your nervous system? Even some poses, like rock pose or child's pose is a way to feel safe and contained no matter where you are."

Some of the kids had never heard of it and called it "yogurt."

Practicing yoga

In a spacious classroom decorated with kids' art and class photographs, three boys, ages 8, 9 and 10, stretch out on yoga mats. One led his classmates in a breathing exercise, and they take turns leading the effort to stay quiet, calm and in the present. Then they shift to the joy of striking animal poses: frog, giraffe, shark, and gorilla.

Yoga also gives them an athletic challenge.

Vermetrice, a wiry 10-year-old, suggests a class goal of holding plank pose for 25 seconds. They get down on their palms and toes like they're ready to do pushups, clenching all their muscles to hold still.

Eulondra Powell
Eulondra Powell says that her 10-year-old son uses techniques he learned in Rebecca Stewarts' mind/body class outside of the school.
Sasha Aslanian/MPR News

Eulondra Powell, Vermitrice's mother, says she was surprised when she learned her son was doing yoga in school. "He said, 'No, Mom, it feels so good and it's very relaxing and I can stretch all my bones.' I said, 'Oh, OK, nice.'"

Vermitrice started out in regular public elementary schools but had behavior problems and needed a smaller, more hands-on environment, Powell said. At River Bend, he's learned to redirect himself instead of losing his temper. Yoga, she said, helps the kids "find out how to express themselves without anger."

As the yoga class nears the end, the boys lie on their backs on their mats with their eyes closed and Stewart gives each one a cat stuffed animal to rest on their stomachs. The cats rise and fall with their breathing. Then she leads them in a guided relaxation where they imagine being a cat sleeping in a sunny room.

"And all of this relaxing feeling that you're having right now comes from inside of you," she tells them. "And even sometimes, if you feel really mad or really frustrated, you can remind yourself what it feels like to be really relaxed and that might help your heart beat slow down, and your breathing slow down so you can make better decisions."

Powell says 10-year-old Vermetrice uses the techniques now at his church and at his after-school care. Her son has also asked her to come up and do yoga with his class, which she's planning to do.

When 'calm down' doesn't work

River Bend serves students from some of the city's poorest families. Ten percent of the kids are homeless or "highly mobile," meaning they typically end up in and out of several different schools during the year. Some in the community call it the "jail school" because the doors are locked.

Violent crime often plagues the north Minneapolis neighborhoods where most of the children live. In late September, a former student was shot in the head and survived. Some current middle school students are closely related to those involved, and some younger ones witnessed it.

Kids are at River Bend mainly "for their own safety," Stewart said. "A lot of times, especially with the younger kids, they're just violently out of control with their peers, very poor impulse control ... just no physical boundaries, really presenting a physical danger to anybody else in the room."

Other kids are here because they can't be contained in a regular setting — they're runners who will bolt or hide some place in the building, she added.

There are just over 90 students right now, but as the school year goes along, more will be referred from other schools, and River Bend's population may climb as high as 140. Three quarters of them are boys. The Minneapolis district is 68 percent kids of color. Here, that number jumps to 87 percent.

Greeting in hallway
Rebecca Stewart tries to talk with third-grader Nevaeh.
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

The school's high staff-to-student ratios generally keep hallway transitions quiet and orderly. But volatility can happen with students in an instant.

A small boy is escorted by two staff, each holding an arm, as he yells, "Let me go!" The boy is headed to an area of the school called the "practice" or "break-out" rooms.

The four rooms are the size of large walk-in closets. They're painted soothing colors, and there's no furniture or anything to throw. A staff person will sit in a chair in the doorway supervising the child until he or she is calm enough to head back to class.

"It's a very physical job," said Christopher Morgan, a special education assistant assigned to these rooms. "I've been bitten, kicked, spit on, punched, like on a daily basis."

Morgan, though, said he's seeing the benefits of the mind-body class in this part of the school. Each practice room contains one word from Stewart's class stenciled on the wall.

"The children would come in, on their rage, sometimes attacking me, sometimes just very violent, and I was able to use the words on the wall to give them a little, to empower them," he said, adding that the words sometimes made kids forget why were so angry.

Giving students techniques to help control behavior is a positive change from years past when educating troubled students was more about locking them up, said Jennifer McComas, a University of Minnesota special education professor with an expertise in behavior disorders.

"Teaching them to regulate or do yoga, it's all very, very good," McComas said. "We're going in the right direction and now we just need to make sure that we're measuring" to see what's effective and what isn't. "We don't have a lot of very good evidence," she added.

"When I first got here, we would tell kids, 'Calm down. You can't go back to class until you calm down.' But we didn't have any actual practice or language around how to do that," Stewart said. "If a kid knew how to calm down from being told to do so, they never would be in this school in the first place."

Stewart credits Morgan and other special education assistants for helping spread the techniques throughout the school. The faster students can collect themselves, the faster they can return to class.

"I've noticed that the kids are more aware of each other," said kindergarten and first grade teacher Meaghan Harvey, who's begun using mind-body techniques in her classroom. "Now, if someone drops something, they don't laugh, they rush over to help clean it up. There's just a different sense of community," she said.

On one Friday afternoon, Harvey's kindergarten class invited the whole school to their butterfly release party. They'd hatched Monarchs from eggs and released them in a garden students planted in front of the school as part of their mind-body program.

The locked school now has a garden, right in front of the main office.

Black labs, breakthroughs, tears

Another visit to River Bend finds kindergarteners thrilled to pass two black labs in the school hallway. Therapy dogs from the nonprofit group Paws for Learning are frequent visitors to Stewart's mind-body class. When the therapy dogs are in the building, it seems to calm adults and children, said Chris Pagel, the school's administrator.

Jennifer Troy, the director of Paws for Learning, co-teaches with Stewart, and introduces the children to today's dogs, Annie and Raven.

Therapy dog meeting
Second-grader Valeria is all smiles as she meets a therapy dog.
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

"So you're going to let her sniff the back of your hand," Troy tells a student. Annie licks the girl's hand, and makes the girl giggle.

Stewart asks the class about the best way to meet a dog. "You got to sit there and be calm, otherwise the dog is going to jump up if you run around and bark at you," says one little boy.

"And if you off-task, the dog going to be off task if you not doing what you supposed to be doing," says another.

"It's really a powerful lesson to give a child a leash and ask the child to make the dog sit and do a stay, walk away and give the treat, because doing that, the child needs to exercise self-control too," Stewart said.

"Annie is a lab that comes and she has been you know, squirrelly and naughty at times. And it's really interesting to have that parallel process and talk to the child about 'What's it like to try to teach this dog who's not listening? What do you need to do? You need to get her to look in your eyes. You need to get her to have a still body.' So they get the opportunity to teach the dog what I'm secretly trying to teach them," said Stewart.

The dogs can also make kids feel safe talking about deeper worries.

Last year, one of the Paws for Learning dogs named "Girl" got old and sick and died. On this day, the second- and third-graders want to talk about her again. How could Troy tell her dog was dead? How did the other dogs respond? What did she do with Girl's body? Can the dog still feel pain?

Then they bring up the people in their lives who have died: uncles, cousins, older brothers. Stewart and Troy gently guide the discussion back to the class topic, but Stewart says the dog's death last year offered a moment to teach on compassion, grief and loss.

"Miss Jennifer brought Girl in a wagon when she was really sick and had lost a lot of hair, to come get the blanket. And the kids all made cards for Miss Jennifer," she said. "It was really cathartic for kids who have a lot of violence in their lives, and then don't have a lot of positive models about how to cope with that or talk about it."

Children are willing to interact with animals in a way that they are not often willing to interact with adults, said Stewart.

"We had an activity where we set up an ice house inside my room, because it's fun to be in enclosed space together," she recalled. "We pretended that we were fishing in the ice house and we asked the children, 'If you could reel anything up out of the ice, what would that be?' And there was, 'I want a Maserati, I wish it was a million dollars,' and one child said, 'My dad.'

"I hadn't known, but his dad had passed away. And he said, 'My dad' and then he laid down next to one of the dogs, wrapped his arms around the dog and cried for about 20 minutes. And we were just able to let him do that in the privacy of the tent and with the dog," she added.

"That's something that he had never revealed to anyone."

Reporting for this story was supported by the Journalism Center on Children & Families and the National Association of Social Workers Foundation.

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