Olympia Della Flora: Can Small Classroom Tweaks Help Kids Better Cope With Emotions? After months of struggling with one particularly challenging elementary school student, principal Olympia Della Flora realized it was the classroom setting that needed to change ... not the child.

Olympia Della Flora: Can Small Classroom Tweaks Help Kids Better Cope With Emotions?

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi stepping in for Guy Raz this week. Maybe you've heard one of my podcasts, "Note To Self" or "ZigZag." I've also been a guest on this show. Thanks so much for having me.

So a couple years back, Olympia Della Flora had a job as a principal at an elementary school in Columbus, Ohio. And she had this one student there who was really not doing well.

OLYMPIA DELLA FLORA: Yeah, I spent a lot of time with this kid and really got to know him on a personal level.

ZOMORODI: That's Olympia. As for the kid, we'll call him D.

Can you tell me about him?

DELLA FLORA: Yeah. So when D came to us, there were just some behaviors that we were not used to seeing and things that were abnormal.

ZOMORODI: Like what? What would he do?

DELLA FLORA: He would do things like throw chairs. He would flip tables. He would scream. There was one time he climbed up in the windowsill and...


DELLA FLORA: I think the first time that I witnessed this type of behavior, I resorted to strategies that I had used, which was tell them to stop.

ZOMORODI: Stop was a word Olympia was used to saying. The school where she worked was one of the lowest-rated in the state. She describes it as a high-needs school.

DELLA FLORA: About 98% students were in poverty, which means they qualified for free or reduced lunch. We also had students that were homeless and didn't always have stable housing. And many of them had been in several different schools because of this, which made learning a challenge.

ZOMORODI: But D was especially challenging. And the school's initial approach....

DELLA FLORA: Stop. Get down. Don't flip the desk.

ZOMORODI: That wasn't exactly working. Sometimes, D's fits of anger would put the entire school into lockdown mode. It could take an hour or more to get things back to normal.


DELLA FLORA: No one in the school knew how to help D.

ZOMORODI: Here's Olympia on the TED stage.


DELLA FLORA: And though we didn't come up with a fail-safe solution, we did come up with a simple idea - that in order for kids like D to not only survive in school but to thrive, we somehow had to figure out a way to not only teach them how to read and write but also how to help them deal with and manage their own emotions.


DELLA FLORA: And in doing that, we were able to move our school from one of the lowest-performing schools in the state of Ohio with an F rating, all the way up to a C in just a matter of a few years.


ZOMORODI: I have two kids, but you don't need to be a parent to want all children to thrive. And we need today's kids to grow up into adults who can cope with the challenges of our fractured and frenetic world and find solutions to the big problems they'll be inheriting from us. But kids these days - they still go to school to learn to read, do math.

Now, though, they're also grappling with how to face issues like inequality and racism head on. They're put into fierce competition with each other. And they're under intense pressure to manage themselves emotionally and academically. So today on the show, we're asking, what do students need to learn to prepare them for the future? And how can we teach for better humans?


ZOMORODI: So let's back up to Olympia Della Flora and the idea that turned her school and her student D completely around. We told you what D was like at school. Well, at home, he had a whole different set of challenges.

DELLA FLORA: You know, it was his mother and him and his younger brother. And she was really doing the best that she knew how. I mean, she was a working mom. And she worked very long hours so I'm pretty sure she was, you know, tired by the time she got home. So he did pick up a lot of responsibility with his younger brother, meaning playing with him and probably helping him with his homework and those types of things that you typically would think adults would be doing.

ZOMORODI: But D, of course, wasn't an adult. He wasn't even a teenager. D was 6 years old.

DELLA FLORA: Yeah, he was 6. And he was a very....

ZOMORODI: That's so little.

DELLA FLORA: I know. He was a very mature 6. And I think this is another challenge that we have with teachers now is, you know, we look at a kid, and we assume that they are a kid and that they have kid responsibilities. But many of our kids now have pretty big adult responsibilities outside of school. And school is really the only place they can unwind and be a kid. But in many schools, we still are not really allowing them to do that.


DELLA FLORA: So here's what I learned about D. First, we had to figure out where he was struggling the most. And like most young kids, arrival at school can be a tough transition time, as they're moving from a less structured home environment to a more structured school environment. So what we did for D was we created a calming area for him in our timeout room, which we had equipped with rocking chairs and soft cushions and books. And we allowed D to go to this place in the morning, away from the other kids, allowing him time to transition back into the school environment on his own terms.


ZOMORODI: Transitioning - I have to say when I became a parent, I was like, what is this thing that everybody's talking about? - how he struggles with transitions. I was like, what's transitions?

DELLA FLORA: Yeah. I think this is so imperative - not just for kids in poverty, more imperative for kids in poverty, but for all kids. And so there was a lot of conversation and experience that we did with the teachers. We went out into the neighborhoods. We had staff meetings in some of the local businesses or the churches. And we would walk to that location as a staff.

And then we would say, like, how did you feel about walking through this neighborhood, you know? And they're like, oh, I was really scared. Or, you know, there's really tall grass - they don't even cut the grass. I said, so imagine if you are a 5 or a 6-year-old that has to walk to school through this every single day. How are they feeling by the time that they get to us?

ZOMORODI: And so aside from those transition rooms, Olympia's school did other things to take into account what was going on for students at home and help their kids be kids. For instance, in class, instead of telling them to say stop fidgeting, teachers gave kids a way to do just that.

DELLA FLORA: What people call fidgets, but they're basically just little things you can hold in your hand. But they look like toys. It could be a ball. Or it could be something you can hold in your hand and fidget with.

ZOMORODI: That was on top of the desk. Underneath...

DELLA FLORA: We had these, like, little elliptical machines that go under the desks. They're quiet. They don't make noise. But kids can move their legs while they're sitting at their desk. They could be reading a book, but they could be pedaling.

ZOMORODI: The school also experimented with playing soft classical music during class.

DELLA FLORA: We also had a lot of discussion, like, can the kids concentrate if there's music? But it kind of just calmed the air and helps kids be able to adjust so that they would be able to retain and learn new information.


DELLA FLORA: And here's the magical thing - it didn't cost us a whole lot of extra money. We simply thought (ph) differently about what we had. As part of our personal professional development plan, we studied the research of Dr. Bruce Perry and his research on the effects of different childhood experiences on the developing child's brain. And what we learned was that some of our students' experiences, such as an absent parent, chaotic home life, poverty and illness create real trauma on developing brains. Yes, trauma. And those difficult home experiences created real barbed-wire barriers to learning. And we had to figure out a way over it.

So our teachers continued to practice with lesson plans, doing shorter lesson plans with a single focus, allowing kids to engage and continue to incorporate these movement breaks, allowing kids to jump up and down in class and dance for two minutes straight because we learned that taking breaks helps the learner retain new information. I saw teachers say, what happened to you? - instead of, what's wrong with you? Or how can I help you? - instead of, get out.


ZOMORODI: And I wonder if some of the methods that you are using in your school are actually becoming common practice. What I've seen, like, in my kids' school, for example, is my daughter came home and was like, we had yoga in class today. That would never have happened when I was growing up in the '80s.

DELLA FLORA: Yeah, I think schools across the world - it's not just in the United States. I was in China last summer. They're experiencing some of the same issues that we're seeing here in the United States. And I think that we just have to reframe our vision and our thought of teaching to be more holistic. And, for example, you even see in the workplace now people are coming up with meditation rooms and quiet rooms. And I was just privy to another business that actually put in, like, a punching bag.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

DELLA FLORA: So if you'd rather go in and, like, punch it out, you have the option to do that. Or the exercise bikes you see people are putting in workout facilities in their places of business because they recognize that people being able to relieve stress in a healthy way is going to benefit their organization. It's going to benefit the culture and the climate. So you'll see several states have actually come out with social-emotional learning standards to help kids and to help teachers know, you know, what skills they can help develop.


DELLA FLORA: I'm happy to say that when D got to fourth grade, he rarely got into trouble. He became a leader in the school. And this behavior became contagious with other students. And we saw and felt our school climate continue to improve, making it a happy and safe place Not only for children but for adults, despite any outside influence.

Fast-forward to today. I now work with an alternative education program with high-school students who struggle to function in traditional high-school setting. Many of them exhibit the same behaviors that I saw in 6-year-old D.

So I can't help but wonder, if these kids would've learned healthy coping strategies early on when times get tough, would they now be able to survive in a regular high school? I can't say for sure, but I have to tell you I believe that it would've helped. And it's time for all of us to take the social and emotional development of our kids seriously. The time is now for us to invest in our kids. They are our future citizens, not just numbers that can or cannot pass a test. Thank you.


ZOMORODI: Olympia Della Flora. She's now an associate superintendent for school development in Stamford, Conn. You can see her entire talk about her work in Columbus, Ohio, at ted.com. We'll be right back with more ideas about teaching for better humans. I'm Manoush Zomorodi in for Guy Raz. And you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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