North Main Avenue fourth grader Brian Cruz, 10, reads his essay on the benefits of the Peace Zone program. (Photo: Michael Ein)

Pleasantville teacher creates “peace zone” for students (USA)

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Pleasantville teacher creates “peace zone” for students (USA)


(Reposted from: Press of Atlantic City.  March 7, 2017)

PLEASANTVILLE — Jayne Donato Dempsey’s fourth-grade classroom at the North Main Street School is a Peace Zone.

That does not mean it is always peaceful.

But it is a place where students can acknowledge their stress, anger and fear and learn ways to express and cope with it. 

“We are not happy all the time,” said Dempsey. “We have work. We have problems. But we want the norm here to be peace, to be a place where children feel safe.”

Dempsey developed the program a decade ago.

“To me, the Peace Zone means a place for letting all your anger out, being calm, relaxed and happy. Peace Zone in school is where you can be relaxed and learning.”  — Jeremias Hernandez, 11

“I entered teaching with unrealistic ideas of how kids would behave, sit and listen,” she said. “But I was also into energy work and yoga. I realized I was being pulled down by stress and anger. I thought I could leave or change the system.”

So she created Peace Zone to make school a positive, supportive place where students can let go of their problems and focus on learning and being successful.

Dempsey started the program at the middle school, where she was teaching at the time, then brought it to North Main Street Elementary School three years ago. Currently, eight teachers in six classrooms are using it, each modifying it to their own classroom.

“When I feel angry or upset I just follow the Peace Zone steps. I put my head down and close my eyes. I relax and imagine myself being at my favorite place. I imagine getting A’s and B’s on my report card. I imagine my parents being proud of me. Now I open my eyes and I am ready to start my day.”  – Christian Soriano, 9

The program was chosen by the New Jersey Education Association for the Classroom Closeup television series and will be featured March 19 and April 23 on NJTV.

The school will hold a special Red Carpet public screening at 5:30 p.m. March 16, which will also honor community partners.

Peace Zone students typically start their day with a 90-second mindfulness exercise where they put their heads down on their desks and think of being in their favorite place.

“Peace Zone isn’t just peace, calm and love, it’s about what brings you inside to your heart.”  — Jarel Belfield, 10

“Breathe in the excellence,” Dempsey tells them. “Breathe out the failure. There is a bubble of positive energy around you.”

Students in the program do daily affirmations and visualizations to create a positive environment.

Fifth-grade teacher Michelle Jacobs is in her second year using the program. She said students who had it last year asked to keep doing it. 

“The Peace Zone means to me that I feel really safe in my life. When we do the Peace Zone exercise, my teacher says, ‘Picture your family being safe and healthy.’ When I hear Mrs. Dempsey say it, I picture it in my mind.”  — Ruby Cu Mendoza, 9

Her class has the Peace Zone bear, a stuffed bear that anyone having a bad day, including the teacher, can hug or have sit on their desk.

“It keeps you calm and relaxed if you feel angry,” Gabriella Garcia, 11, said of the program.

“If you are having a hard time doing work, you let go of negativity and think positive and get it done,” said Jamal Reid-Young, 11.

Fourth-grade teacher Rhonda Farmer’s students literally turn negative thoughts into positive statements. Her students write down any negative thoughts or feelings they have, fold up the paper and run it through a class shredder. The shredded paper is made into pulp, then new paper, on which students write positive messages.

“It helps to think about letting (negativity) out,” said Emely Cruz, 10. “We turn it into something good.” 

“I had a student tell me that they used to scream a lot, and now they write it down instead,” Farmer said.

Second-grade teacher Deborah Gaskins modified the program a bit to mesh with her second-graders’ Team HERO campaign. Students recite their affirmations in their superhero power stance.

“They are younger, and the body movement gives them a way to use their energy,” she said.

If there is a problem, her students write down what is happening and why it bothers them. It stops the behavior but also tells Gaskins what is going on so she can address it privately.

Peace Zone lessons are integrated into the curriculum. Michelle McCline’s students did a graph tracking positive and negative behaviors in their classroom.

“When the Peace Zone calms me down, it also calms everyone else down. What the Peace Zone teachers do is that they don’t yell at us. They talk to us in a calm way. I think that everyone should learn the peace zone.” — Katelynne Ortiz, 10

“They’re kids, not robots, and sometimes they misbehave,” McCline said. “But now they are more aware of positive and negative reactions.”

Principal Teresa McGaney-Guy said the program has changed the culture of the school. She uses the principles herself and has students reflect on issues and talk about what they could have done differently.

“Kids love the peace zone,” said school nurse Noreen Bailey. “They say it calms them down. Students who are in those classrooms have said they want to be teachers.”

Dempsey said teachers are the role models for the program and it is up to them to emphasize the positive and set the norm. She recalled when a student called another one stupid on the playground and other students stepped up and said, ‘You can’t do that here. It’s a peace zone.’”

Dempsey has also shared the program with parents and is working on a handbook for them and a program next year. Students said they sometimes use the techniques at home when they are upset by going to a quiet place or listening to music.

“We don’t know all the outside influences on children,” Dempsey said. “But we have to set the norm. Kids are not told enough how wonderful they are.”

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