by Jayne Donato Dempsey, NJEA member

Pleasantville’s approach

How do we create an atmosphere where behavior problems are at a minimum? Is it possible to eliminate bullying by preventing it? Does mindfulness promote higher productivity? What about the neocortex and the reptilian parts of the brain?

What does any of this have to do with our classrooms?

The Peace Zone Program is designed to pull all of this together, and more. It’s a program focused on brain-based learning, anti-bullying character education and a mindfulness program. Its goals are to minimize negative behaviors, maximizing positive behaviors and optimal learning productivity while at the same time providing constructive life skills.

I created the Peace Zone program over 10 years ago. It began in the middle school in the Pleasantville school district. It is now being implemented in various second through fifth grade classrooms in the district’s North Main Street School.

A few years ago, North Main Principal Teresa McGaney-Guy was introduced to the program through a professional development session held at her school. In the year that followed, she watched it in action in one of the school’s third-grade classrooms.

“I was impressed by what I saw,” says McGaney-Guy. “I wanted that positive environment for the rest of our school.”

McGaney-Guy’s early support helped lead to the creation of the school’s Pioneer Peace Zone Teachers in Grades 2 through 5.

“It’s been gratifying to witness the transformation of many of our students in Peace Zone classes,” McGaney-Guy said. “Like us, children blossom in an environment that is filled with kindness, empathy and strength.”

The Peace Zone at North Main Street School

The Peace Zone at North Main Street School

Entering the Peace Zone

When you walk into a Peace Zone classroom, you see teachers enthusiastically greeting students and praising them constantly. You see teachers quietly taking a student aside who needs behavioral re-direction. You will probably hear soft music and notice students helping other students. From teachers and students, you will hear respectful, enthusiastic tones.

At the beginning of a class, or morning, or after lunch, you will see something called The Peace Zone Exercise, a 90-second mindfulness exercise. It combines breathing, visualization, and energy balancing. It “sets the tone” for learning.

The Peace Zone follows a very simple, but all-inclusive, formula. It can be integrated into every curriculum. Peace Zone practices begin on the first day of school and are repeated every day until the end of the year.

The three major components of this program are Positive Energy Commitment, The Peace Zone Exercise, and The Win-Win Four Pleases Structure. This may sound a bit like gobbledygook. Let’s break it down and delineate how it contributes to optimal brain-based learning, anti-bullying procedures and mindfulness.

The Peace Zone is based upon the premise that there is tremendous power behind the manifestations of negative and/or positive energy in all human interactions. Patience, trust, kindness, understanding, respectful tones, and forgiveness trigger certain actions and reactions. Conversely, harsh tones, ridicule, sarcasm, impatience, mistrust, name-calling and intolerance create an entirely opposite set of actions and reactions.

When fear is taken away,

all that is left is potential.

Optimal brain-based learning

Two parts of the brain have a deep impact on learning: the reptilian and the neocortex. The role of the “reptilian brain” is simple: “Get me safe!” often called the fight or flight mechanism. It feeds on harsh tones, ridicule, name calling and negative stimuli.

The neocortex, on the other hand, feeds on positive energy, or as psychologist F. Gregory Ashby of the University of California, Santa Barbara calls them, “positive affects.” The neocortex is much larger than the reptilian part and is responsible for the complexities of learning processes: working memory, decision making, multistep processing, and other activities.

So how do we maximize the role of the neocortex and minimize the impact of the reptilian part of our brain? Or do we need them both?

As in every classroom, in the Peace Zone, the adults are the role models. They consciously provide plenty of praise and individual recognition. Verbal tones are always respectful. Smiling is routine, as is telling students how delightful they are to teach and how wonderful it is to see them. The students follow the adult’s lead. Only respectful tones are recognized. Only positive interactions are allowed. A classroom and school culture is established that promotes a constant stream of positive words, tones, gestures, facial expressions and actions.

Consequently, the neocortex team is hard at work to provide students with an optimal learning environment. With every positive affect, hormones are released that support a serotonin and dopamine balance that is critical for learning.

“The beauty of The Peace Zone is that it highlights the power of the spoken word,” says paraprofessional Ashley Parker. “What we say has the ability to shape our lives. The Peace Zone does a great job helping students have a positive perspective in life.”

“When fear is taken away in the classroom, all that is left is potential,” adds North Main Street fourth-grade inclusion teacher Matt Barnard.

Alternatively, what happens when harsh tones are vocalized? What happens if students are allowed to call each other names, or if there is sarcasm or ridicule in the room and scant praise? In those circumstances, the brain releases adrenaline, vasopressin and cortisol. The reptilian brain sends this message: “You’re not safe! Shut down or fight back!”

As a result, serotonin levels drop, which interferes with the assimilation of new material and concept integration. It becomes increasingly difficult to learn. In addition, these hormones also trigger negative behaviors that can result in verbal or physical violence.

Is there a time when we want the reptilian brain to dominate? Absolutely! When the fire alarm rings, and that piercing sound streams through the walls, the reptilian brain screams loud and clear, “Forget those iPads. Just get safe!”

Anti-bullying

Most anti-bullying programs focus on what not to do and what consequences will follow when bullying occurs. Certainly, all of those programs are necessary as a deterrent, but the Peace Zone program provides a crucial, missing component.

The Peace Zone program provides a focus on what to do, such as focusing on affirmations so bullying loses its power and is greatly reduced or disappears altogether. With an emphasis on what to do, rather than what not to do, the negative energy created by ridicule, insults, intimidation, and violence simply cannot exist.

This climate of positive energy does not evolve magically, but it’s not difficult to engender. In the Peace Zone class, the power of positives and the weakness of negatives are clearly delineated. Each person decides what kind of environment he or she wants, because ultimately each person wants to be respected, understood, cared about, and treated with honesty and fairness. In order to generate those attributes, other people have to be releasing them into the atmosphere. Children readily recognize, for example, that the rule “one person speaks at a time” is beneficial because it leads to mutual respect.

Children learn that violence happens as a result of a process, or a “dance:” a negative glance leads to name calling, followed by a threat, which is backed up with a push or a shove, intimidation follows, and then violence breaks out.

Children, however, can learn that they have a role in eliminating bullying by giving only positive glances, speaking respectfully to each other, inviting someone into a group, and using their efforts to help a friend. In this way, children learn that they can gain true power by consciously building positive relationships.

The Peacemaker Process

When behavioral mistakes occur, there’s a Peace Zone Peacemaker process, which includes peer mediation. At North Main, this process is part of our behavioral intervention.

“Peace Zone makes my classroom more manageable,” says third-grade teacher Deborah Gaskins.” Fourth-grade teacher Rhonda Farmer adds, “The Peace Zone is a proactive approach to help students and teachers manage their emotions in a calm and peaceful manner.”

Students also learn a Peace Zone peaceful resistance strategy that resists the invitation of others to engage in negative behaviors. Students learn to choose to walk away, look away or not respond when that invitation comes and then to look for an adult to step in. The point of peaceful resistance is to help children understand how to handle a threatening situation, not to allow themselves to be victimized when confronted with negative behavior.

Adherence to the Peace Zone rules—or “Win-Win Four Pleases” as we call them—prepares children with constructive life skills. Teaching respect for norms such as “one person speaks at a time,” “raise your hand to speak,” “stay seated until the appropriate time to leave,” and “act and speak with respect to all involved” prepare students for the world as adults, not just the classroom.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a familiar word across disciplines such as education, medicine, and yoga, among others. The practices associated with mindfulness have actually been around for thousands of years. Now we are rediscovering how mindfulness can prepare us for optimal productivity.

In The Peace Zone, we have a 90-second activity called “The Peace Zone Exercise.” It combines an exercise of breathing in positives and breathing out negatives, energy balancing, and the visualization of short-term goals such as a earning a good grade on an upcoming test and long-term goals such as success in a desired career.

Why do we do this? Part of this is being in the moment: getting rid of the emotional baggage of negative experiences so that we are all ready for a day of learning. Another reason is to provide a life skill for students to relax their brains and emotions so that they will make thoughtful decisions, instead of reactive ones. Finally, there is an assumption of success and a realistic hope for future success.

The visualization technique involves picturing the desired outcome as already happening.  It can help children and adults recognize the opportunities, as well as the people and places that can help them attain that success.

Another aspect of The Peace Zone also involves mindfulness. All of us are mindful of what we say, what we do, how we act, and how we react. We consciously choose our intention, because we are mindful, or conscious, of the reaction.

“I believe The Peace Zone helps our children gather thoughts and relax, providing the opportunity to open up about things going on in their lives, like bullying,” says Pleasantville parent Orlando Ortiz, whose daughter Katelynn attends North Main Street School. “I believe The Peace Zone is helping children get their stress level down.”

Fifth-grade teacher Kevin Sellman sees benefits beyond any individual classroom.

“The Peace Zone is a good way to promote positive reinforcement and caring from student to student, from staff member to student, and from staff member to staff member.”

It’s been more than a decade since I developed the Peace Zone. It’s my goal to see it spread to many more classrooms, schools and districts. Here at North Main we will always be grateful to Principal McManey-Guy for leading the way.

Jayne Donato Dempsey is a fourth-grade teacher in an inclusion classroom at North Main Street School in Pleasantville. Visit her YouTube channel at bit.ly/peacezoneexplained to learn more. You can also see North Main students talk about the program at bit.ly/peacezonestudents. Dempsey can be reached at jaynedempsey@gmail.com.

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