From “ Jus’ Chillin’” to No Thin’: How to assist Alternative School Students with Personal Change and Growth Through Relaxation and Feedback Techniques
Introducing the Jus’ Chillin’ Factor
“Jus’ Chillin’.” When inquiring about how one of our alternative students spent the night, weekend, or holiday; “Jus’ Chillin’” is usually his universal response. Like most teenagers this generally means that untold hours were spent playing video games, talking on the phone, or veggin’ in front of some sort of electronic device. Rarely does it mean, “I spent the most amazing transformative, life altering time thinking about how I can turn my life around.”
Chillin’ is what they hope is a normal teenage response, and it is indeed. However, they could write volumes on surviving in horrific situations, or creating drama for themselves and others if they were inclined to divulge such tightly held secrets; so “chillin’” is the one-word, avoidance response. Delving past this non-committal phrase is one of our daily challenges. I have had the most wondrous time teaching in an alternative setting, rising to the challenge of finding ways to get past the Chillin’ defense.
How does teaching in our alternative setting differ from the traditional classroom? A two to one ratio of students to adults does significantly differ from the traditional classroom setting. Our day is divided into two sessions of two and one half hours each. The students submit to a wand, relinquish all electronic devices, hats, and sun glasses before entering their classes.
Our students have been displaced from the general education setting because of their particular behavioral experiences. Many of the systems that these students were in didn’t fit them; nor did they fit the systems. They are not “Jus’ Chillin’” when their case is presented to the Hearing Board and learn of their alternative placement. These students are attached to a huge paper trail documenting their offenses and the numerous strategies used to remediate each individual situation. Many are discouraged and angry about their placement and come to our program as a sort of “last resort.” Some are grateful to have been given one more chance, some are very angry that the placement is their only choice.
The students, who seem to advance more quickly, are the ones who, early-on, reach acceptance, and decide to take advantage of the new opportunities. These students choose to plow through and eventually grow through the transition process. Most of the students do not grasp this difficult concept and struggle with their placement. I have witnessed these struggles in several alternative settings. Assisting the students to accept the placement is part of the challenge involved in the recovery process. As the “shell shock effect” wears off a space is created for healing and growth. Some students embrace the opportunities, admit that it was their behavior that necessitated the placement; but, most, maintain that they were innocent “victims”. This victimization insignia often cements the student into the denial phase.
Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief are palpable, both in the student and the parent/guardians as some move from the Hearing Board, through court proceedings, and drug and substance abuse programs. Assisting the students as they move through the grieving process is an interesting dance. Each dance is unique and requires a mix of hip-hop, salsa, limbo, and twisting. All seem to share the hurt, anger, and shock evident when they enter this alternative world which is much more confining then their “base” or school of origin.
There are many one-to-one opportunities with teachers, and so few peers that this is not the typical experience. The initial reaction of some is to resort to the familiar “street” survival behavior; that is, to find out whom in here is “with me” or “like me.” In such a small setting, if no one is identified as “like me,” the student’s typical response is challenged. Another reaction to the fitting-in struggle might be: “How can I make them look ‘like me’?” If there has been gang involvement, the learned response is to figure out who will align themselves with the new student. If there are none who “belong,” or whose will cannot be bent or converted, a new response is necessitated. This response requires change. As Barbara Johnson says, “No one likes change except babies in wet diapers.” This kind of change opens up a vein of vulnerability.
“How do I get them to like me?” “How do I fit in here?” “Where do I belong?” These types of questions are difficult to answer for any teenager; but significantly more painful for students who may be two to three years behind in their academic programs, or who have not been properly identified as emotional or learning challenged. Not only are new responses required, but exposure of the real self becomes an option. This real self is often contrary to the picture that has been drawn by the massive evidence in the cumulative folder. The data- paper-trail documenting the students’ past experiences is weighty and substantive. To expose the non-thug image is uncomfortable, foreign, and threatening.
“What if they don’t get me?” or “like me for who I really am?” In John Powell’s, Why am I Afraid to Love?
, he says: “ All of us experience at some time or another a feeling of loneliness and isolation. From time to time we experience a very painful void inside ourselves that becomes an unbearable prison. ….We seek to fill this void, to satisfy this hunger.. we go out to find others who will love us…. The paradox is this: if we try to fill the void of our loneliness by seeking love from others, we will inevitably find no consolation but only deeper desolation.”
The pain of self awareness may be intense, especially when the person has no clue who they really are. Many of these students have only had association with groups of teens who have followed the path that resisted the system. Having the students recognize the grief stages through writing, readings, or discussion, I believe is critical towards moving them through towards their academic goals. When a student is frozen in the blaming or denial stage, it is extremely difficult to move forward academically. Every new student introduced into the program asks, “Why am I placed here? How is this placement going to benefit me?” The denial and shock phase varies with each individual in our transient population.
Breaking Through the “Chillin’ Factor
I have tried many approaches in assisting these students with this transformative process. Simple tools and soft skills are needed in the beginning. It is almost like the training that we address with the very young when we prepare them for pre-school.
I have worked with students using the All That I Really Needed to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten
principles, in which Robert Fulghum suggests:
Implementing techniques to explain how the brain functions has been a life-long goal. I began studying the brain in the 1970’s while teaching high school psychology. A few of the ideas that I have developed over the years include: Introducing the students to simple hard boiled eggs in a vinegar bath demonstration. This idea is coupled with the structure of the brain and the protective fluid between the skull and the brain, and the emotional idea that shells are like ego-defense mechanisms. The exterior lobes are frontal and temporal lobes built with jelly beans and gummy worms are methods used to illustrate the purposes of the global lobe. Students are led to construct the interior of the brain, identifying the hypocampus, the center for new learning, the amydula, the location of the flight or fight response, and other control centers in the interior of the brain.
One 20 year old male said after he participated in the egg and vinegar experiment that “my tough shell is my I don’t care attitude and my tough guy image…. If I let the fake me go than people will see that I am not (the tough; defend myself, fighting kind of guy) and mess with me.”
The construction of the lobes of the brains with jelly beans, and the interior parts of the brains with peanut butter play dough help the students grasp the concept of neurotransmitters, and the role of the limbic system in emotional responses like the fight or flight response. The following neumonic device, sung to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” which was created by my husband, is one more technique that I use to reinforce the power of the brain.
“Your brain needs oxygen to grow,
Water helps it; don’t you know.
A seventeen minute stretch
The way to stop
Your flight or fight
If you mind these rules here three;
Healthy and wise your brain will be.”
All of these lessons are geared towards discovering how behavioral responses can be changed. Another helpful idea is to have a chiropractor or health care professional discuss how the brain and spinal cord assist in delivering messages to the brain. Connecting good body posture, diet, exercise, and body mechanics helps to build the case for better nutrition, and relaxation techniques. One chiropractor addressed the particular needs of athletic students and suggested exercises and stretches that could be used to assist the students in their sport of choice. All of these activities, assist in building understanding of how the body functions as a complex organism, and how the brain delivers messages.
These activities are accompanied by reading and writing in content areas about motivated heroes, and creative leaders. These activities, along with listening and reading student responses create a space were trust is established. Once a basic trust is established other tools may be used.
Two additional tools that I have tried are the EM Wave
, and allowing the students to have a personal, safe space on a floor matt for stretching and relaxation. This may relate back to the kindergarten conditioning. Giving the students a matt seems to help with establishing a personal space. This space seems to allow a place for controlled movement; a place for personal, safe movement; a place where real relaxation is permissible; a place where no others are allowed; a place to “let go” and to be: a new form of chillin’.
The EM Wave demonstrates a way to physically show the students how their bodies respond to learning to relax and breathe rhymatically. The EM Wave finger sensor allows the user to see when they have succeeded in breathing rhythmatically. The sensor activates a bar tab that moves from red, to blue, then to green as the blood pressure and heart rate become syncopated. The ultimate goal is to have a greater percentage of green zone time. The user can visually see the changes and observe how their breathing affects their blood pressure and heart rate. The user gets immediate feedback demonstrating how breathing and emptying the mind allow for deeper relaxation. This new chillin’ might be called a “no thing” space.
Several ALC students that I had the privilege of teaching during the 2006-07 school year would request the use of the EM Wave often so that they could improve their green zone responses. The younger students grasped the concept, and desired to increase their green zone time. Most or the students are males; therefore, they often turn the exercise into a competition. One, 16 year old male, student demonstrated the program to an adult supervisor and then challenged the adult male to a competition. The student became the instructor and the expert. A year later, even though the student has moved on to another school, he still inquires about his “record.”
This year, three male students, and one female student placed in an Alternative Education setting have demonstrated similar results when pairing the EM Wave Program use after a session of stretches and meditation. The four teenagers registered a significant green score on the EM Wave Program* after the stretching and meditation. The EM Wave was used to monitor the heart rate and the blood pressure of the students after completing a stretching and guided meditation practice.
All of the students were surprised with their individual results. Their base lines had all been red with some blue and very little green zones prior to the use of stretching and guided imagery. All four students registered 76-77% green after completing the stretching and guided meditation exercises.
One student, whose time with us was limited because of a pending criminal conviction, allowed me to assist him in developing some coping skills before he left. My goal was to help him develop some self-help tools that he could use while incarcerated. His growth from the red zone to the green zone was finally accomplished when he agreed to try some stretching, and guided relaxation. His initial response was, “What the ----- happened?” His previous attempts were very discouraging. Of eight previous attempts he had 43% green only once, and 29 % blue. His red average over his first eight trials was 88% red. When he jumped to 77% green he was thrilled and said that the other inmates could call him the “Golden Child.”
One young lady, whose eight previous trials were 100- 95% red was delighted when she went to 76% green after one session of a stretching and a guided relaxation exercise. Another 18 year old male student, whose four previous attempts yielded only one green 31% result shot up to 76% green after stretching and guided relaxation exercises.
These results, though with a very small group, are quite startling to me. To visibly see the results, to see the delight and satisfaction in the eyes of the students, and to know that this technique is only a breath away gives me great satisfaction. To assist these students from jus’ chillin’ to being in a no thing place encourages me to continue to listen to the jus’chillin’ defense and to know that others will share this knowledge is all that I can ask for. A quiet space where acceptance of all that is acknowledged and where it is ok to be who they are; to know that they are ok, at least, for the time that they allow themselves to relax and to breathe.
What better way to gently grasp the concept of acceptance then to breathe and relax your way into understanding that you are the master over your bodily responses. To know that you have the control to allow yourself the space and the time to let go, to really chill, and to be in a no-thing space where there is room for acceptance and the potential for growth!
* The EM Wave program uses a finger blood pressure heart rate monitor connected to a computer program to demonstrate when the user is red, blue, or green zone. The green zone indicates a balance with the heart and head. This balance is registered by a green coloration in a vertical column.
 Powell, John. Why am I Afraid to Love? 1969, Thomas More Publishing, An RCL Company, Allen, Texas
 Fulghum, Robert. Ballentin Books, 2004
EM Wave. http://www.emwave.com/how_emwave_coherence.html