It was a Tuesday and Jack*, a student at Sycamore Elementary School in Redding, California wasn’t in his classroom. He was clinging upside down to a gate outside the principal’s office, crying and screaming. Jack had been in and out of numerous schools in his short life, but each one had dismissed him because of his behavior. He would run out of his classrooms. Teachers and administrators gave up, exhausted, and would send him home.

Redding Breakfast Lions prepare to turn a classroom into a sanctuary for troubled kids.

But not Susanna Winstead.

She was the new principal of Sycamore Elementary and she wasn’t going to turn kids like Jack away. She knew he had a history of throwing tantrums so he would get sent home. Winstead made an agreement with his parents that they could call for support or reassurance, but they would not send him home. “But that meant we had to figure out how to stay with him and keep him in the classroom,” she says.

No Excuses

When Winstead became principal of Sycamore Elementary in 2012, she saw a school that reflected the woeful downturn in circumstances of the community it served. As recently as 2004, the school had been high-performing, representing a population of upper-and middle-class families with children who went on to attend college. Over the course of eight years the economy in Redding spiraled. Hit hard by the housing crash and loss of construction jobs that were a central part of the economy, many families lost their homes.

By 2012, many children at Sycamore were homeless, living in motels, or had parents struggling with addiction. Winstead wanted an environment that had high expectations for kids, regardless of their circumstances. She began participating in a program called No Excuses University, which is a network of schools that believe all students can be academically successful and attend college. The schools participate in workshops and take measurable steps to work toward their goal of improving college readiness. Within three years, Sycamore had qualified as a “no excuses” school.

But something was still wrong.

“A lot of students were still acting out or distracted,” says Winstead. “They weren’t rising to their potential.” So, she and her team at Sycamore began looking into trauma. At the time, research into early brain development had surged, and one area receiving increasing attention was the effect of abuse and neglect on the developing brain.

Not ACEing It

In particular, researchers focused on ACEs—adverse childhood experiences—as the potential culprit behind a variety of physical and emotional problems for children extending well into adulthood. Winstead began to wonder if her students were suffering from trauma.

“We have these kids for six to seven hours a day—a good portion of their waking hours. It’s up to us to help our students.”

The yellow door welcomes kids who need a break from the classroom to center themselves and refocus so they can learn.

They did some preliminary testing and found that 80 to 85% of their school population scored at least a 3 out of 10 on the ACE assessment scale. While that doesn’t seem high, a score of 4 or more is associated with a variety of serious adverse health outcomes. Any number of ACEs contributes to behavior problems, including acting out, a lack of focus, and the inability to self-regulate.

No wonder, Winstead realized. Teachers were feeling that in the classroom.

Some teachers felt students needed to leave their “baggage” at home, but Winstead disagreed. “We have these kids for six to seven hours a day—a good portion of their waking hours. It’s up to us to help our students,” she says.

Winstead saw a school culture that needed a transformation. She and her team researched ACEs and how to help students get from the “downstairs” part of their brains—when they are stressed and reactionary—to the “upstairs” part, when they can learn.

It so happened that right about that time The Redding Breakfast Lions were in the market for a school to "adopt." And when they saw that Winstead was trying to do something special for her students, they were eager to help her do it.

Together, with the help of Olivia La Field, a local educator who had been working with schools in the area to help children with trauma, they developed their plan for the Peace And Love Zone (PALZ) room.

It would be a sanctuary for kids dealing with trauma. Focused on giving students sensory materials to help them process emotions, school officials hoped the room would help children transition to “upstairs thinking.”

Students who were struggling would be assigned to regular 15-minute visits to the room. The repetition of the practice was important. It would help them train their brains to react differently. Each student would work with the sensory materials based on their unique needs. They would choose three activities and do them for 10 to 12 minutes before spending the remaining few minutes journaling about the experience.

“The goal is to get them regulated so they can go back to the classroom and learn,” says Winstead.

During the summer of 2016, Redding Breakfast Lions spent hours each week painting and decorating the classroom. White and blue walls, yellow trim, whimsical pictures, and brightly colored cupboards and furniture made it inviting. Two white glider chairs and three bean bags placed on a yellow rug were welcome places to rest. Yellow curtains trimmed with blue filtered the sunlight. A few stuffed animals relaxed in the gliders, waiting to be cuddled. It felt welcoming and serene. They hoped the children would feel that way, too.

They did.

Making Progress

They officially began the program in fall of 2018 with 17 kids assigned to regular rotations in the room. If their behaviors changed over time and they stopped needing to go to the room, then they would go off regular rotation but could always go back if they needed to. By the end of the school year only two to three of the students were still on a regular rotation.

The PALZ room at Sycamore Elementary in Redding, Ca, is a welcome place for kids to refocus.

“It’s been amazing,” says Winstead. When they began, one of the screeners they used identified 58% of students as being in what was referred to as “Tier 1” externalizing behaviors. These were the least severe. Twenty-six percent were in Tier 2, which requires intervention, and 16% were in Tier 3, which is the most severe. By the end of the second trimester, those numbers had shifted to 67% in Tier 1, 21% in Tier 2, and 12% in Tier 3.

That’s a remarkable change for just one trimester.

The data is still getting crunched for the third trimester, but given what Winstead and her team are seeing in the classrooms, she feels certain the numbers will support the positive change that’s taken place over the year.

“We don’t want to label kids or say they need a more restrictive environment,” she says. “As school employees we do have that responsibility to teach kids about regulation and self-discipline.”

And that’s why she didn’t give up on Jack. She had him visit the PALZ room two to four times a day and had an outside therapist come in to work with him. His teacher was fully on board, working with the therapist and sharing strategies so they could figure out what helped him.

For students who are struggling, gliders are a nice place to relax and write in their journals.

“It brought tears to your eyes. It made us realize how fragile these little boys are and how desperately they needed something to hug.”

After just two months, Jack was staying in the classroom 100% of the time. “We could see it worked,” says Winstead. He was engaging with his teacher and revealing that he was actually quite bright.

And the Redding Lions felt the benefits, too. Mary Stephenson, a Redding Lion involved in the adoption of Sycamore School, says the experience helped her understand how vulnerable these kids really are.

In early December they brought gifts to the school for the kids. Among them were some teddy bears. La Field felt they would be perfect for two boys who were working hard to improve their behaviors. La Field called the boys to the office and told them that because they were working so hard, the Lions wanted to give them a gift, and she gave them a bear. At first Stephenson wasn’t sure a teddy bear would be an appropriate gift for 10- or 11-year-old boys. But she watched as they hugged the bears tightly. “It brought tears to your eyes,” says Stephenson. “It made us realize how fragile these little boys are and how desperately they needed something to hug.”

Thanks to the dedication of the Sycamore Elementary teachers and administrators, and the hard work of caring Lions, more kids will get the chance to learn how to manage stress—even if it just means taking out 15 minutes to hug a stuffed teddy bear.