HERKIMER — Students at Herkimer Elementary School have a new way to cope when feeling overwhelmed by their emotions during the school day.
The Social Emotional Learning room provides a space for students to go to if they need to de-stress from a situation by giving them a chance to think things through, articulate what they’re feeling and figure out how to respond to it.
"This room is a tool," said Sara Lamanna, school counselor intern, during a recent interview with Kathy Orts, a school social worker, about the room. "It feels fun, but it’s a tool."
The room is one way the school district is incorporating Social Emotional Learning into its curriculum.
"The school is creating SEL activities throughout the [Herkimer Elementary School] building and we are addressing the core competencies set by the New York State Education Department," said Orts.
According to the district website, the state Education Department describes SEL as "the process through which children, youth and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships and make responsible decisions."
When creating the room, Orts said one of the ideas was to make sure students felt like they were in a "relaxing" and "comforting" environment when they walked into the room.
The room has open spaces, a quiet corner with soft seats, different fidget items aimed at calming a child and other sensory objects, an activity table and jump patterns on the floor.
A child who needs to use the room does so with adult supervision.
Lamanna said when a child visits the room, they see a bulletin board that lists steps for the child to go through, including "stop and think," "what are you feeling" and choosing a coping strategy.
"The chart is a resource because they don’t have all the vocabulary built up yet," she said, about how they may be feeling, such as "mad" or "frustrated."
Orts said a teacher will decide whether a student needs to go the room "if behavior becomes a disruption to the classroom."
"Or the student needs a little extra support … [and] can’t pull themselves together in the classroom," added Lamanna.
"It’s not intended as discipline," said Orts. "It’s not doing anything wrong. It’s simply leaving the classroom to take care of themselves."
Herkimer Central School Superintendent Robert Miller said the school district is building the SEL component into the curriculum and that creating the room is one way to do that.
"One thing in the national news is trying to improve the mental health of the populations as a whole," he said. "… [we’re] embedding the social emotional learning so we can have more well-balanced citizens."
Besides having the SEL room, each teacher in the building has a "calming corner" to help students who may need it. Orts said these aren’t "timeouts."
"It’s not a punishment," she said. "It’s an opportunity for students to realize or recognize how they’re feeling; to learn and develop independent coping strategies to manage themselves."
According to a district website, Lamanna is developing a comprehensive counseling program for all students that includes spending time with students in kindergarten through third grade on social and emotional learning, and working with fourth- and fifth-graders on career counseling and goal-setting.
Miller said the district is also bringing in more mental health experts to help students as a way to bring more SEL to the school. SEL is also being incorporated on the middle school level.