Elementary school in Garden Grove creates 'calming room' for students

John Murdy Elementary School in Garden Grove has opened a "calming room" to help students deal with stress, especially during the pandemic.

The calming room opened in August when school returned for students. It is designed to give students a break and offers tools like comfortable seating, calm lighting, toys, coloring and yoga. 

The room is a response to the increased rates of depression and anxiety for kids. According to findings published in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health, depression, anxiety and social risks have increased for children of color aged 5 to 11 years old. 

The study, led by researchers at Boston Medical Center, is one of the first to quantify the negative psychosocial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on children of color using pre-and mid-pandemic data. Rates of depression and anxiety increased from 5% before the pandemic to 18% during the pandemic. 

"When the pandemic hit and everything shifted online, we saw a level of stress in our students and our staff that we had never seen before and when it was time to bring the kids back and come back full time, we knew we needed to be purposeful and be proactive in how we're going to meet their social, and emotional needs," said Marcie Griffith, the Principal at John Murdy. 

Griffith said the students are dealing with a range of stressors, including loss. 

"You can't get to the real deep learning if your mind is busy with stress from home, like I didn't get breakfast, my pet died. We've had parents here that have passed in the last two years. We can't get to true learning unless we're also dealing with this. When they're [students] in here, they know they don't have to talk to us, but there's a safe person here that I can just sit here with and I can get through this," said Griffith.

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Griffith said she is proud of the space. 

"It touches my heart so much as an educator. I'm so proud of this. This is one of the proudest pieces in my time of education. I hear kids coming in here and being brave enough to say this room helps me because we're battling the stigma of people needing help," said Griffith. 

Education specialist, Bethany Garcia, is one of the staff members who run the wellness center. 

"It's really a place for our students to find their own peace, and we actually have it available for staff members as well," she said.

Garcia said they have it open before school, during recess and lunch, but students can also ask to go to the room during the day too. 

"If they are feeling a little overwhelmed or anxious or stressed throughout the day, they can come in here, or maybe something happened on the playground and they need to come in here and just relax. We fully understand that not one size fits all so while one student may really benefit from doing artwork, another student may benefit from yoga or relaxing on the cushions or practicing their breathing," said Garcia.

The number of students allowed in the room at a time depends on what each student is experiencing, and the room is kept quiet. 

I feel like it's a great place to escape from stress and anxiety. I feel like if you don't want to be social, this is the place to come. If you feel tired, you feel anxious, you just come here and relax. I like it because there's a lot of things you can do here. You can sit down, you can color, you can play with toys here. I feel like every school should have a retreat room," said Robert Gutierrez, a sixth-grade student. 

Sixth grader, Kelly Kue, also likes the room. 

"I think I like the pictures the most because I really like art and I think these pictures look calming and pretty. I have a problem where I worry about a lot of tests because I'm going to middle school next year and that means that we have a lot of tests. I worry about whether I am gonna fail this test, or can I pass it," said Kue. 

Kue said she can "be herself" inside the room. 

"In here, you don't have to worry about anything. You can just be relaxed. It's a place where you can separate from everyone else. Since we had to go on Zoom, even me, I used to talk a lot but when we went on Zoom, I didn't like socializing with people too much but now I'm back to being myself," she said. 

Thomas Tran, a sixth-grader, agrees and believes every school should have a wellness center.

"I can write in my journal peacefully without anybody disturbing me or peeking. Students get stressed out really easily like test scores are low or someone bullied them and they lost a game, but you can relax here and play with the toys or just relax in your mind," said Tran.

The room is used by staff, and students first through sixth grades. The Garden Grove Unified School District has 10 calming rooms in the district and plans to expand.

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