MC students create “Be Calm” rooms in local schools

MC students create “Be Calm” rooms in local schools

Dec. 19, 2019

During the fall semester, a group of Maryville College students had an opportunity to collaborate on a project that will benefit students in Blount County elementary schools for years to come.

In an effort to promote positive mental health for children, MC students enrolled in Psychology 200: Applied Projects in the Community recently completed “Be Calm” rooms in Carpenters Elementary School, Montvale Elementary School and Rockford Elementary School. The calming rooms – commonly found in schools, hospitals and prisons – are safe, quiet, low-stimulation areas that allow the user to relax, de-escalate or relieve stress.

The MC course explores how disciplinary concepts in psychology (research methods, health psychology, social psychology and developmental psychology) are applied in real-world contexts, according to the course description. By partnering with local groups and organizations, students gain knowledge of the community contexts in which they work and develop and implement a significant project. Through that project, students learn and practice communication and professional skills necessary for collaborative problem solving and career success.

The three elementary schools had previously considered implementing “Be Calm” rooms before being approached by Maryville College for the project, so the partnerships between the schools and the Maryville College class ended up being a great fit, said Dr. Crystal Colter, MC professor of psychology.

Colter co-taught the class with Dr. Kathie Shiba, professor of psychology and chair of the Division of Behavioral Sciences at MC. Through a Gerald W. Gibson Professional Development Fund and collaboration with key faculty and staff members on campus (including those involved with the Career Center, the Maryville College Works program and the Office of Community Engagement), the professors are piloting the problem-based learning course during the fall 2019 and spring 2020 semesters, with the hope that the course will become a model that will be used in other academic divisions at Maryville College.

The “Be Calm” rooms project was decided on last summer, when faculty and staff members who submitted the Gibson grant proposal met to consider a variety of projects for the PSY200 class.

“We noticed that many schools around the country were creating peace corners and other calming spaces for their students to learn to gain self-control,” Shiba said. “In fact, the Daily Times [newspaper in Maryville, Tenn.] had published an article in February 2019 that stated that Blount County Schools was preparing for an increasing wave of mental health needs in their students. We believed that the ‘Be Calm’ project was a great fit for our psychology and child development majors. Therefore, we decided to contact three schools to see if they would be interested in our students working on the ‘Be Calm’ initiative.”

Carpenters Elementary School and Rockford Elementary School were chosen because the principal and assistant principal are Maryville College alumni. Shiba said that Montvale Elementary School was chosen because she knows the principal and has also volunteered there in the past. All three schools were supportive of working with Maryville College students on the project, she said.

Before beginning work on the “Be Calm” rooms, students in the class first conducted community-based research to learn more about how and why the schools could benefit from the project. They also conducted psychology research to learn more about the purpose of “Be Calm” rooms and what features they should include.

Through their research, they learned that the school system was dealing with a number of behavioral and discipline issues, and the “Be Calm” rooms could serve as helpful tools in certain situations. Additionally, they found psychology research that supports the benefits of “Be Calm” rooms. For young students, hormonal changes are occurring that can increase aggression, and social-emotional skills are still developing, which can affect higher order thinking, such as problem solving and self-control. A change in environment, such as going to a calming room, can decrease anxiety and allow the student to calm down without feeling isolated from their class, then slowly integrate back into the classroom after calming down, they found.

In researching “Be Calm” rooms, the students learned that effective calming rooms often include several comfortable seating options that give the student a choice, making the individual feel in control. Simple, coordinating colors offer a distraction-free environment, and soft lighting, relaxing scenes, soothing music and even certain scents can create a calming space.

Using this information, the MC students split up into three teams, with each team assigned to one of the three elementary schools. The schools provided space for the “Be Calm” rooms, but it was up to the students to furnish them and create a relaxing environment within the space. To fund the supplies, students applied for – and received – mini-grants through the Maryville College Community-Engaged Learning Initiative, which is funded by the Corella and Bertram F. Bonner Foundation. The students also held fundraisers and received donations from the community, and the elementary schools provided some items.

“It was so useful to learn how to write a grant and learn how to ask for money in a professional way,” said Angel O’Neill ’21, a psychology major from Miami, Fla. “It’s a good feeling to know that what we did will benefit both students and teachers by allowing the teachers to have a tool that helps students de-escalate in a calm, positive way.”

The “Be Calm” rooms in the three elementary schools include different elements.

The room at Carpenters Elementary School included light green, gray and yellow paint on the walls; a chalkboard paint wall to allow students to express creativity; signs with motivational phrases on them; an essential oil diffuser; water beads and sensory bottles to provide activities for sensory stimuli and stress relief.

“The Calm Room at CES is a sensory-friendly area that is open for everyone,” said Dr. Courtney Lowe Whitehead ’00, principal at Carpenters Elementary School and a Maryville College alumna. “In using best practices, our educators are equipped to assist students when they become overwhelmed and stressed.”

At Rockford Elementary School, MC students created a room that included comfortable chairs; a creativity station with art supplies; a relaxation area with yoga mats, pillows and a weighted blanket; twinkle lights; a poster with a soothing scene; and a fan/heater that allows for temperature changes.

“Both teachers and administrators have used the calm room with students,” said Nichole Johnson McCord ’02, assistant principal at Rockford Elementary School and a Maryville College alumna. “It has been used when students have asked for a break and it has also been used to calm students down so they can return to learning.  This room has been a nice tool to have for privacy and time to talk about strategies to use.  I am very thankful to the sweet Maryville College students for their hard work on this project.”

Comfortable seating options, artwork, a soft blanket, pillows and a sound machine were key elements in the calming room at Montvale Elementary School.

“The ‘Be Calm’ room at Montvale is a place where our students can go to refocus when they need a break from their daily activities,” said Donna Russell, principal at Montvale Elementary School. 

Russell said the school offers a “purple folder” opportunity for teachers when they have a student who needs a break from their classroom or activity.

“Each teacher has a purple folder that they can send with students on an ‘errand’ to give them a few moments … these errands can be to another teacher’s classroom or to our calm down room,” Russell said. “Staff members know when the student with a purple folder arrives to them that they are not in trouble but just need a break. Students can also choose to visit the calm down room on their own without being sent by a staff member, if they themselves feel they need it. The students who take advantage of our calm down room opportunity are able to sit in bean bag chairs, use our weighted blankets or listen to calming music as they hopefully alleviate the anxiety they are experiencing. Once they are refocused, they can return to class.”

Colter said that through these projects, MC students in the psychology course have learned that they have something to contribute – and that community partners bring valuable knowledge to the projects, too.

“In addition, they have developed and strengthened professional/career skills such as teamwork, communication, leadership and project management,” Colter said. “Finally, in emphasizing civic engagement, the course has also highlighted the value of democratic principles in community-based research. One exciting aspect of the process is that the project evolves over time, so we don’t know all of the details from the beginning – instead, we watch it all unfold as our students and community partners work together to build something special that meets community needs and both utilizes and enhances our students’ skills.”

The MC students admitted that during the process, they faced the same challenges that most students face when working on group projects, including scheduling issues and overall decision making within groups; however, they learned a number of valuable skills that will benefit them both in the classroom and in their future careers, such as communication, patience, compromise, perseverance, time management, conflict resolution and grant writing.

“This class got us out in the community and allowed us to work with individuals we wouldn’t otherwise encounter,” said Coby Tucker ’21, a psychology major from Kingston, Tenn. “We had the opportunity to learn on a professional level how to deal with different situations.”

Another important lesson was accountability, said Brian Runge ’23 of Knoxville, Tenn.

“I enjoyed contributing to the community and being involved outside of the classroom – but we’re on someone else’s clock, and we felt like we wanted to go above and beyond to help the school,” he said.

Kasey Lusk ’22, a psychology (counseling) Knoxville, Tenn., said that she hopes that the calming rooms are so beneficial to the schools that they consider adding more of them as the need arises.

“Knowing that we’re helping students makes me feel really proud of the project,” she said.

Maryville College is a nationally-ranked institution of higher learning and one of America’s oldest colleges. For more than 200 years, we’ve educated students to be giving citizens and gifted leaders, to study everything, so that they are prepared for anything — to address any problem, engage with any audience and launch successful careers right away. Located in Maryville, Tennessee, between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the city of Knoxville, Maryville College offers nearly 1,200  students from around the world both the beauty of a rural setting and the advantages of an urban center, as well as more than 60 majors, seven pre-professional programs and career preparation from their first day on campus to their last. Today, our 10,000 alumni are living life strong of mind and brave of heart and are prepared, in the words of our Presbyterian founder, to “do good on the largest possible scale.”