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Kids Learn When They Feel Safe: Prioritizing Social Emotional Learning with Peace of Mind

“I’ve never had to talk a 2nd grader down from a panic attack — until this year.”

By Linda Ryden, Founder of Peace of Mind Inc

Photo of two students sitting on the floor of a classroom in lotus pose, meditating

In my twenty years of teaching, I don’t remember ever talking down a 2nd grader from a full-blown panic attack… until I had to do just that earlier this year.

Kids have always had challenges at school and at home, but in this new “post-ish” COVID world, kids are still struggling to adapt and are dealing with things that their adults never had to. At a time when virtually all discussion on education seems to focus on recovering lost learning, I am deeply concerned that we’ve jumped too quickly to focusing on scores when our kids need much more than just academic support.

Consider this: the average 2nd grader is seven years old. That means that almost half of his life, the half that he is most aware of, has been entirely experienced during the pandemic.

For many of us (at least the lucky ones), the pandemic has been an aberration, a blip of a few years in a life that looked very different. But for kids — this is their reality. And it has been hard. Kids missed out on so much and when they came back to school after almost two years of being mostly at home, their bodies were two years older even though, developmentally, many of them were still back in 2020.

During the pandemic, while we teachers were madly trying to master the technology and other challenges to learn to teach virtually, and parents were scrambling to figure out how to work on Zoom alongside their children, kids were having their one-and-only chance to be in 2nd grade — at home on a computer.

Politicians, school leaders, and the media all said that once we got back to school, the most important priority was helping our kids deal with the trauma of what they had been through. There were well-meaning plans for implementing social emotional learning (SEL) programs during the height of the pandemic — and even government funding to support them — but unfortunately, most schools today are back to business as usual.

As test scores came in and it turned out that kids didn’t learn as much during a deadly pandemic — unsurprising considering the fact that many lost family members or knew students who had — the priorities changed. Learning loss suddenly seemed like the biggest problem and schools doubled down on academics. SEL programs are now collecting dust on bookshelves while our kids fall apart under the weight of academic expectations.

If I’ve learned one thing as an educator, it’s that if kids don’t feel safe, they can’t learn. So I have to ask… What are we doing?!

We all know that, before COVID, many of our kids were dealing with trauma. Since COVID, we know that all of our kids are dealing with trauma. COVID has widened the huge opportunity gaps that already existed caused by racism, poverty, and access to technology. During this time when we should be redoubling SEL efforts, many people have begun to weaponize it — lumping SEL in with the erroneous attacks on Critical Race Theory, making it even harder for schools to attempt to address the social and emotional needs of our students. Some parent groups argue that SEL programs are a distraction from the more important focus on academics.

SEL is a foundation for learning, never a distraction from it. In fact, students’ abilities to manage their emotions and regulate their behavior is critical to creating school environments that are conducive to learning. Federal data shows that roughly 1 in 3 school leaders have noticed an uptick in student fights or physical attacks this past school year. What we need is more focus on helping students manage their feelings, not less.

Let me give you an example of what this can look like:

The other day, I was shepherding 150 4th graders back into the school building after recess. There had been a bunch of conflicts during recess and tensions were high. The kids were loud and unruly as we attempted to line them up to fit through a narrow doorway one-by-one. Finally, I stopped everyone and said, “Let’s all take a few deep breaths before we go through the doorway. All of this outside energy just isn’t going to fit inside your classrooms.”

Because all the students at my school have been learning how to do mindfulness meditation since they were in Pre-K, everybody stopped what they were doing and took three deep breaths. They didn’t have to sit down in a lotus position. They just stopped what they were doing for a brief moment and allowed themselves to regulate their emotions and tune into what they were doing and where they were going.

Imagine how long it would have taken their teachers to settle everyone down enough to start the math lesson that was scheduled for three minutes after recess.

Of course, teachers need support as well. Teacher working conditions are student learning conditions, and if our teachers do not have the resources to attend to their own emotional needs, they will not be able to be there for their students.

At Peace of Mind, we have spent 20 years in the classroom creating a mindfulness-based SEL program that works. The students at my school are the proof. Allowing kids time in the school day to attend to their feelings, worries, anger, and other big emotions is crucial. Giving children time in the school day to just be a person, not a number on a math or reading scale, and to be seen as enough just as they are allows them to focus on their work.

In 2018, we founded our nonprofit organization, Peace of Mind Inc, to share these skills with children throughout the DC area and nationwide. Thanks to the Catalogue for Philanthropy’s support in so many ways, we have developed the capacity to reach and support schools serving over 4,000 students — and their teachers — in the DC area this year, and thousands more nationwide. But there is so much more to be done.

My students often say that “Peace Class” is the only place where they can truly be themselves, where they can stop working for a moment. Helping to bring social emotional learning, mindfulness, and conflict resolution into our schools is one of the primary goals of Peace of Mind.

But one thing that the COVID pandemic has taught is that we can’t rely on schools for everything. The need is so great, and schools are still enormously overstretched. With this in mind, we are evolving our Peace of Mind program to go directly to students at home, too. If kids are receiving Peace of Mind at school, our new Direct-to-Kids program will reinforce these lessons. If not, this can be a lifeline to kids who desperately need the skills to manage big emotions, relate to others, solve conflicts peacefully, and stand up for what they believe in.

Every day in my classroom, I see the effects of the pandemic — some kids have lost family members, others have lost their faith that everything will be okay. Some have developed anxiety about their own health or the health of their loved ones. We are living in unprecedented times. But, every day, I also see the impact that well-designed, mindfulness-based SEL lessons can have on our kids. I see the difference between kids when they walk into my classroom and when they walk out 45 minutes later.

We can’t keep putting off dealing with this trauma. Trauma will always find a way out. That’s why we need to bring more SEL in as a necessary part of academics — not a fluffy side project teachers do when they have spare time. Now is the time to fight for these programs. Our children’s futures and well-being depend on it.

Peace of Mind‘s mission is to educate students about mindfulness, brain science, conflict resolution, and social justice to help them develop skills to enhance their own well-being and become peacemakers. Peace of Mind creates, develops, and shares The Peace of Mind program, an innovative and relevant social and emotional learning curriculum that helps students notice and manage challenging emotions, build healthy relationships, solve conflicts peacefully, and stand up for what they believe in. Peace of Mind also provides training and community for educators who deliver the Peace of Mind program to students in elementary and middle schools in the Washington, DC area and beyond.

The author, Linda Ryden, is the creator of the Peace of Mind Program and author of the Peace of the Mind curriculum series, a cutting-edge combination of mindfulness-based social-emotional learning, conflict resolution, and social justice for Early Childhood through Middle School. Linda has served as a full-time Peace Teacher at Lafayette Elementary School, Washington, DC’s largest public elementary school, since 2003 and continues to teach Peace of Mind classes to more than 700 students every week. Linda is also actively engaged in her school’s efforts to sustain an inclusive and equitable school climate.

Linda is the author of six mindfulness-based children’s books, three of which are published by Tilbury House. Her work has been featured in The Washington Post, Washingtonian Magazine, Washington Parent, Washington Family, Teaching Tolerance, and Edutopia, among others. Linda brings a passion for teaching peace and over 30 years of teaching experience to her work with children and adults. She lives in Washington, DC with her husband Jeremiah Cohen, owner of Bullfrog Bagels, their two children, and their dog Phoebe.

Celebrating Women Entrepreneurs on the Chevy Chase Main Street Corridor

Celebrating Women Entrepreneurs on the Chevy Chase Main Street Corridor

By Anna Claire Walker, Chevy Chase Main Street Manager, District Bridges

Chevy Chase Main Street (CCMS) is one of six DC Main Street grants managed by District Bridges, a DC-based community development nonprofit. District Bridges’ mission is to enrich neighborhood vitality by bridging community engagement and economic development opportunities so individuals, businesses, and organizations can thrive together; a mission that has become even more important since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Designated in 2020, CCMS quickly became a vital resource for small businesses in Chevy Chase DC as they navigated the many challenges of the pandemic, assisting in the application of emergency funds and loans, negotiating leases, and providing resources around mask and vaccine mandates. While small businesses were impacted heavily across the board, a recent survey by the US Chamber of Commerce reveals that women-owned businesses were disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

CCMS includes 18 women-owned businesses, three of which are immigrant-owned businesses, across a variety of industries including retail, health and wellness, professional services, art, music, food and beverage. To commemorate Women’s History Month, let’s get a glimpse into some of the successes and challenges these hardworking entrepreneurs have gone through in operating their businesses along the CCMS corridor.

June B Sweet

June B Sweet is a stationery and gift shop with unique sweets from Brazil, where owner June Drummond was born and raised. CCMS assisted Drummond in one of the most pivotal moments for their businesses. A community member mentioned a grant program called “Great Streets” that they believed June B Sweets may be eligible for. Drummond looked into it, taking advantage of her and her husband’s background as lawyers to navigate the confusing world of grant applications. However, even with their combined expertise, the application process proved to be a challenging undertaking, so she turned to CCMS for help.

“I already had received some successful grants, but nothing up to the standards of the Great Streets program. It was beyond my capacity and ability to keep up with the due diligence, the paperwork, and the preciseness of the documentation. In the middle of COVID, I found the grant process overwhelming, but I got tremendous support from CCMS, and I applied in January 2021.” June B Sweets was awarded the grant and has used it to improve the facade of the store, which has gotten much attention from the community and boosted their revenue.


Photo of Ferrall Dietrich, owner of Core72, a woman with blond hair and glasses smiling at the camera, wearing a patterned scarf and pink top.

Ferrall Dietrich of Core72

Core72 is a retail store inspired by the “West Coast outdoorsy lifestyle” that owner, Ferrall Dietrich, experienced in her summers of traveling across the country with her sons — sleeping in a rooftop tent, visiting and camping through national and state parks.

“When I first opened, I was focused on providing women the technical apparel needed to be active outdoors — hiking pants, compression leggings, down jackets, base layers, etc. This focus has evolved over the years to embrace men’s apparel as well as general lifestyle — not just active but casual and relaxed apparel for everyday. The inspiration for our brand curation remains consistent through and lies with the unique, smaller companies that speak to me — because of their owner’s story, where they are made, their company ethos, and their quality.”

Dietrich became involved with CCMS upon its dedication in 2020 and has played an active role in community events, social media engagement, and has received grant funding from CCMS. “We received an improvement grant for our shop and replaced an aging floor. The store looks much improved and is more in line with our overall aesthetic.”

Core72 is celebrating their 10-year anniversary this March and Dietrich hopes for many anniversaries along the CCMS to come. “We just signed another 5-year lease with an option for five more. I’d love to keep it going for as long as possible — whether under my ownership and management or the next generations.”

Park Story

Photo of Meghan Evans, owner of Park Story, a woman with long brown hair wearing lipstick and dangly earrings, smiling at the camera, in a denim jacket, white top, and black pants.

Meghan Evans of Park Story

Another independent retail store in the community is Park Story, owned by Meghan Evans. What started as a dream of owning her own clothing line eventually became a life and style boutique featuring responsibly made goods by local and independent brands. Evans received CCMS grant funds to purchase computer equipment to support their point of sale system, as well as funds to work with a local woodworker who created custom tables and cabinets to improve the shop layout and function.

Evans didn’t always know she wanted to be the owner of an independent boutique and, when asked what advice she would give her younger self, she answered, “Consider all career options. I decided at a very young age that I wanted to become a lawyer and never considered any alternatives. I don’t regret my law degree or the time I spent practicing, but I do wish I’d explored alternative career options earlier.”

Even with women entrepreneurs on the rise, there is still a disparity between the access to capital between men-owned businesses and women-owned. When interviewed, both Dietrich and Evans noted access to capital as a significant challenge for new brick-and-mortar businesses.

CCMS aims to make that access more equitable through our Small Business Grants, as well as connecting small businesses to programs they may be eligible for due to specific identity markers.

Bert’s Jewelers

One of the oldest women-owned businesses in the neighborhood is Bert’s Jewelers, located in the historic Chevy Chase Arcade. Owned by Katarina Marzullo, the “Bert” in the name originates from her grandmother, Alberta, who started the business in 1968. COVID-19 greatly affected the jewelry store and repair shop, causing it to move from its street-facing location in the Arcade to a smaller storefront further inside the building.

CCMS is currently working with Marzullo to apply for grants such as the Bridge Fund 3.0 to ensure that this historic business can continue its legacy of selling and repairing fine jewelry in the neighborhood.

Wine & Organic

Photo of Eveline Ngassa, owner of Wine & Organic, a woman with short black hair wearing red lipstick and a red blazer, posing for the camera, in a blue striped button-down.

Eveline Ngassa of Wine & Organic

A newer business in the neighborhood is Wine & Organic. Owner Eveline Ngassa, originally from Cameroon and France, immigrated to the United States over 20 years ago. While adjusting to life in the US, she was struggling to find wine that had the taste and quality of the wine she was used to back in France, so she started her own wine shop with imported, organic wine. Her love of high-quality imported products doesn’t stop with wine, though. Over the holidays, she began selling European gift baskets with cheese, chocolate, and pate, all imported from her favorite suppliers from her life in France.

Ngassa has received marketing and event planning help from CCMS to combat the lower foot traffic of her location. Being a part of the Main Street has helped spread the word about the new business and promote their amazing products.

Artsy Beast

Photo of Melina Selimbegovic, owner of Artsy Beast, a woman with brown-blonde hair wearing dangly earrings, smiling at the camera, in a patterned blue floral dress.

Melina Selimbegovic of Artsy Beast

The latest addition to the amazing women-owned businesses along the commercial corridor is Artsy Beast, a boutique art studio that offers classes in ceramics, wheel-pottery, and painting.

“I never pursued art, my life did not allow for such things as following your passion,” says Owner Melina Selimbegovic. “Rather, being a refugee from Bosnia, it was to follow your survival instincts. After working to support myself since age 15, culminating in a successful career in finance, it all suddenly came to an abrupt stop during COVID. It was in this space of not working for a few months and being reminded of how fragile and precious life is that I opened my eyes to new possibilities.

While being on vacation, my husband planted a seed, a thought, to go towards the arts, and this grew. It quickly snowballed from a small teaching idea to an arts studio for our community. I always had it in me, but I have never been more aligned and have never felt more connected to my true self than I am today.”

While there are many challenges that face new business owners, Selimbegovic notes how important a supportive network is when starting out. She found that support in her husband, who encouraged her while on vacation to pursue a new venture in the arts.

“Perhaps the biggest challenge is not having a mentor, a partner, support networks, someone that looks you in the eye and says, You got this!, and stands by you and offers a helping hand to solve a problem of simply lift you up… It would be a gamechanger for many rising women entrepreneurs to have a dedicated and involved mentor to see and guide their business from kitchen table to retail.”

From legacy businesses with over 30 years of experience to brand new startups, women in the Chevy Chase commercial corridor are creative, dedicated, and community-minded. This Women’s History Month, CCMS aims to promote and support the endeavors of all the amazing women entrepreneurs in Chevy Chase DC.

Learn more about the work of Chevy Chase Main Street and District Bridges’ other Main Street programs on their website. You can also support their work by donating, becoming a member, and/or following them on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and over email.

Notable Organizations and Businesses Run by Chevy Chase Women

Green Space is Good for All of Us: Planting Trees with EcoAction Arlington

Green Space is Good for All of Us: Planting Trees with EcoAction Arlington

Two photos compared side-by-side with each other. The top photo was taken in 2008 and shows an apartment complex baking in the sun. The bottom photo was taken in 2021 and shows the same apartment complex, now with more shade from two huge trees planted in front of it.

“In the evenings, in the spring and fall and summer, there’s just tons of kids and young families and people playing out there,” DeShay Williams, Board Member at EcoAction Arlington, described the stark difference between the two photos shown above. Thirteen years after seven trees were planted in front of this housing complex, residents have seen a tremendous increase in shade cover. “It’s pretty exciting to see everybody out there just enjoying the space,” DeShay told the Catalogue, pointing out the tree swing they’ve installed. “That’s what motivates me to do this work… We’re trying to impact the quality of people’s lives — not just their physical health, but also their mental (health) — and how they enjoy their homes.”

It is well documented that tree canopy cover and proximity to trees greatly impact our physical and social determinants of health, from maternal mortality rates to feelings of safety and reductions in violent crime. This is why Arlington County launched the Tree Canopy Fund in 2007, partnering with EcoAction Arlington to plant more than 3,500 native trees in the last decade and a half to combat Arlington’s declining tree canopy.

In 2020, EcoAction Arlington partnered with a data science nonprofit to assess the insights they gleaned from managing the Tree Canopy Fund. Findings revealed that there was a common thread for neighborhoods with the lowest percentage of tree cover — communities with more minority residents and higher percentages of poverty. When Arlington County last measured tree canopy percentages in 2016, the average tree canopy percentage was 41%. Jill Barker, the immediate past Board Chair for EcoAction Arlington, points out that the data captured in 2016 do not provide the whole story. “The problem is that some areas have over 70% tree canopy and (other) areas have 25% tree canopy cover, or even less.”

These results reflect a nationwide and historical inequity in green space. An emerging body of research shows a “direct relationship between tree canopy today and discriminatory policies of the past,” such as redlining, with The New York Times reporting that the red lines that were drawn around predominantly Black, as well as Catholic, Jewish, and immigrant neighborhoods — intended to dissuade mortgage, health care, and infrastructure investments — “line up very closely with maps showing a lack of tree canopy today.”

With trees contributing significantly to our efforts to decrease global warning, and with climate change accelerating the number of heat-related deaths, EcoAction Arlington is prioritizing working towards parity in tree cover across the county.

“I hope people will realize that the (urban) heat island effect is real,” Jill emphasized. As part of a study conducted through Marymount University, she helped collect data for a heat island study done throughout Virginia by driving slowly on a predetermined route with a heat detector out the window. The University’s project produced a map that hadn’t existed before, and that the EcoAction Arlington team successfully used to demonstrate evidence of the effect to residents they canvass.

“When you put out the (heat) map next to the tree canopy map, it was astounding that it almost correlated precisely with the low tree canopy areas,” she continued. Because of tree disparities, heat islands can even be 10 degrees hotter than wealthier suburbs with more trees. “Up until now, people had the impression that if we (plant) trees in Fairfax, that’s going to benefit the whole region and that’s the end of the story. But it really isn’t the end of the story.”

Photo of a group of EcoAction Arlington volunteers standing in a line, each holding up a certificate, at their recent volunteer celebration

As part of EcoAction Arlington’s new Tree Canopy Equity Program, their team is targeting ten specific neighborhoods that would benefit most from sustained tree planting efforts, providing free, native trees to increase their tree canopy from current levels of 17-33% to 40%. Thus far, it’s been a deeply collaborative process, with volunteers engaging in door-to-door canvassing, tabling at neighborhood events, and reaching out directly to property owners to spread the word.

“You would think a free tree is easy to give away, but it’s not really,” DeShay shared when we asked about any surprises or challenges they’ve faced over their pilot year. Jill echoed this sentiment, noting that planting a tree can be low on people’s priority lists and that many people fear “expensive maintenance, the responsibility of watering the tree, and (having) the tree falling on their house or car.”

To overcome these barriers, the EcoAction Arlington team not only conducts outreach to increase awareness of their program and its benefits, but also supports residents throughout the entire process. They’ve hosted garden parties where residents can view available trees, get to know their neighbors, and speak with the tree stewards, master gardeners, and landscape architects who help them select the trees for their property. Various volunteers assist residents with applying for a new tree, reviewing and approving their applications to ensure it’s the right tree or shrub in the right place, and then organizing the planting.

Patience, a personal touch, and being community-driven is key to their approach. During their pilot year, for example, an affordable housing partner they worked with decided not to continue with planting 19 trees at the last minute because they were afraid they couldn’t pay for the watering contract. The EcoAction Arlington team applied for a grant from the Forestry Department of Virginia and asked if the funding could cover this watering contract as part of the tree maintenance. They said yes, encouraging the affordable housing partner to move forward.

“The most important thing to remember is that we’re all neighbors together,” DeShay stated. “We all live in Arlington (and) we all look out for each other.” From watering trees together to checking up on each other’s trees, the relationships that neighbors build with each other is critical to strengthening their health and wellbeing, as well as the health of the environment. This is immediately evident in the impact that EcoAction Arlington is making, with 33% of the people who have planted trees with them going on to plant trees on their own. “(We’re) planting the seeds for more trees,” said DeShay.

Photo of a young person standing on the street holding up a green sign that reads: Free trees planted in your yard

Learn more about the Tree Canopy Equity Program and its background on EcoAction Arlington’s website. You can support their work by donating, volunteering, and/or staying updated through email, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.