Esperanza Montelongo attached a biometric sensor to her ear, stood in front of a computer screen and started breathing. With each inhale and exhale, a small ball on the screen moved up and down, mimicking her breaths.
“It just keeps going and going and when this fills up, if it’s all green, that means your heart is calm and you’re breathing right,” she said.
Montelongo, 12, is in the M.E. (said as “me”) Wing at North Middle School Health Science and Technology campus in Aurora. She is using a computer program called HeartMath to help regulate her breathing.
The idea behind the M.E. Wing – and programs like HeartMath – is to help students who are disrupting class or feeling angry change their behavior.
The M.E. Wing is in the school’s former library, which is also houses the school counselors, psychologist, dean and other staff. When a student has disciplinary issues, the staffers work together to provide support and identify the needs of students — whether that’s five-minutes of breathing or a counseling session.
Jennifer Minor is the assistant principal at North Middle School and helped create the M.E. Wing. She said many students have challenges outside of school, so the space was designed to teach them how to self-regulate their behavior.
“If our students don’t feel safe, if our students don’t have a place to regulate, they’re not going to be able to learn,” she said.
Mindfulness in the classroom
Almost 900 students are enrolled in North Middle School and many of them deal with ongoing trauma like poverty, violence and homelessness – stresses that often get brought to the classroom.
About 80 percent of students receive free and reduced lunch. There’s a sizable refugee population; 40 percent of students are learning English and 35 different languages are spoken at the school.
North Middle School also educates kids who are being treated at nearby Children’s Hospital Colorado and their siblings.
To help educators address the emotional and social needs of these kids, North has been part of Health Environments and Response to Trauma in Schools, or HEARTS, for the past three years.
The program, run by Aurora Mental Health, provides mindfulness training, workshops and other professional development for teachers. North is one of 11 HEARTS schools in the Aurora Public School District.
Amber Meehan is North’s HEARTS consultant. She said while teachers may not have had significant trauma themselves, they often internalize the feelings of their students.
“Helping them to regulate that through mindfulness is where we always start,” she said. “Then we move into, ‘How can we carry this on over to your classroom?’”
One way teachers take the lessons into the classroom is through “peace corners,” designated spaces where students can take a quick break to re-regulate their behavior.
Michelle Herndon, a 6th-grade math teacher, filled her peace corner with a bean bag, pillows, stress balls and fidget toys. She does not send students to the corner but may recommend they take a moment to de-stress.
“Generally, it’s a choice that students make. They let me know that they need to head back there,” she said. “The time limit is usually 3-5 minutes and then they need to be able to join the class.”
Other students, like sixth grader Carlos Duarte, come to the M.E. Wing to calm down. He says he’s been about 15 times since it opened last fall.
“Sometimes I get mad out of nowhere. I just get really mad,” he said. “So, I always ask for a break, so I can go to the M.E. Wing and calm down.”
He likes to use HeartMath or walk on the treadmill, which has an attached standing desk for schoolwork. Since he began using the relaxation tools, Duarte said he’s noticed a change in his behavior.
One of the goals of these mindfulness spaces like the M.E. Wing and peace corners is to keep students in school. Since the 2015-2016 school year, out-of-school suspension days at North have dropped by 67 percent.
“Our students do not learn from suspensions. It creates an unsafe environment,” said assistant principal Minor. “They may be at home with a parent, they may not. We do whatever we can to make sure that our students are here at school.”
“They can connect their mind and their body through their breath”
The M.E. Wing owes its name and existence to Matthew Emrick, a former staff member and campus monitor who passed away in 2006. To honor his memory, Emrick’s family created the Matthew Emrick Memorial Fund.
Since 2007, the fund has provided scholarships to graduating eight-grade students to help pay for their high school expenses. But last July, the Emrick family decided they wanted to do more for the students at North.
The family partnered with Minor to create the M.E. Wing, funding teacher trainings and tools including HeartMath, yoga mats, mandala coloring pages, lap labyrinths and a treadmill.
Tara Emrick, Matthew’s sister, said the M.E. Wing is a powerful tool to continue her brother’s legacy and support the students’ healing. The family plans to bring the mindfulness program to other metro Denver area schools.
“At the end of the day, empower the students here to know that they can actually help themselves regulate,” she said. “They can connect their mind and their body through their breath.”
Everyday about 30 students utilize the M.E. Wing as mindfulness becomes an increasingly important part of the school’s culture. Minor said helping students understand their emotional and social needs is just as important as teaching them reading, writing and math.
“Now that we have all these pieces in place, they can focus on their academics” she said. “They can focus on achieving their goals and their dreams and their aspirations and moving onto high school and moving onto college.”
Disclosure: The Emrick family is a long-time friend of the reporter and her family who have contributed to the Matthew Emrick Memorial Fund.