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Heritage Landing provides Sanctuary for staff and students

“A traumatic experience impacts the entire person – the way we think, the way we learn, the way we remember things, the way we feel about ourselves, the way we feel about other people and the way we make sense of the world,” creator of the Sanctuary program, Sandra Bloom, M.D, said.

Taking Dr. Bloom’s words to heart, four Francis Howell School District schools implemented a Sanctuary program last year, with five more coming on board this fall.

Last year, Heritage Landing, John Weldon, Fairmount and Central Elementary schools began the Sanctuary model. Now, the Early Childhood Center at Meadows Parkway, Independence, Henderson, Daniel Boone, Becky David and Francis Howell North High School have joined in, as well.

The Sanctuary model is based on seven commitments:

• Non-violence – being safe physically, emotionally, socially and morally.

• Emotional intelligence – managing feelings so individuals don’t hurt themselves or others.

• Social learning – respecting and sharing ideas.

• Democracy – shared decision-making.

• Open communication – “saying what we mean and not being mean when we say it.”

• Social responsibility – understanding that together we accomplish more; everyone makes a contribution to the organizational culture.

• Growth and change – creating hope for students and faculty.

At Heritage Landing, the program began months before its actual implementation, as the staff worked with students to identify emotions and become comfortable with expressing their feelings. Teachers first modeled the behavior, slowly working it into the school culture until it became routine. Now, the school community does not start its day without Sanctuary.

Each morning begins with a “community meeting” in each classroom. Everyone in the class [teachers included] gather together in a circle. They take turns asking the person next to them, “How are you feeling this morning?” followed by “Who can you ask for help?” “Do we need to check in with you later?” and “What are your goals for today?” The idea behind this activity is to broaden the students’ sense of support, safety and community. It also promotes future thinking, so that students can identify a goal and work toward it.

“Sanctuary gives us a common language and structure on how best to support students and staff,” explained Dr. Anthony Haan, principal of Heritage Landing. “We are able to model to the students that it’s OK to have a bad day, but this is how to handle it. The program opens the doors for that conversation. Students feel comfortable in the community now, so instead of saying, ‘I’m happy,’ they can say, ‘I’m annoyed, I’m frustrated, I’m overwhelmed’ and we can provide support or problem solve. An hour later, they are ready to be back in class.”

This action and reaction is different than it has been in previous years when it was, “‘I wasn’t able to verbalize my true feelings, therefore I bottled it in, didn’t do my work and snapped,’ which only leaves us addressing the resulting behavior,” Haan said. “But now we can address the trigger for the behavior instead of being in reactive crisis mode.”

The model has changed the mindset of teachers and staff from, “What’s wrong with him/her?” to “What happened to him/her?” This line of thinking creates an empathetic mentality within the classroom. A sense of community has been developed among the students.

“A student who fought with another classmate a year ago is now asking for that classmate by name to see if he can help him with a problem he is facing … that is powerful.” Haan said.

The emotional growth Heritage Landing has experienced since the implementation of Sanctuary has been significant. One student last year had a situation that led to emotional outbursts and school suspension. Recently, the same situation presented itself, but this time, the student was able to verbalize her feelings more positively and seek help.

“Sanctuary allows for the growth of everyone in the building,” Deborah Way, educational support counselor at Heritage Landing said. “It addresses student needs, staff needs and even our community needs. It brings us together, so we are all literally on the same page.”

The program even has helped with attendance. Children want to come to school and be on time. One student told his mother that he couldn’t be late to school because he didn’t want to miss the community meeting.

“Sanctuary has changed the dynamic of the entire school,” Way said.

But perhaps the most powerful testimony comes from the Heritage Landings’ students.

“Sanctuary has helped me a lot,” eighth-grader Evelyn Borger-Linceford said. “It’s opened my mind to how other people feel. We talk more openly since we started the community meetings and we aren’t afraid to share our feelings anymore. Everyone respects each other. It’s been a drastic and awesome change.”

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