Program to address teacher and student stress runs into Executive Council funding hurdle

By: - May 26, 2022 5:13 am

Milford Republican Councilor Dave Wheeler (center) speaks at an Executive Council meeting on May 4. (Ethan DeWitt | New Hampshire Bulletin)

The idea came to Emily Read Daniels in 2017. Teachers appeared to be observing greater stress levels, both personally and among their students. If given training, Read Daniels thought, they could take control over those emotions and re-establish balance and calm in the classroom. 

In the following years, Read Daniels, a certified school counselor, developed the training plan, drawing on the “polyvagal theory,” an approach to behavior management that uses the body’s nervous system to restore a state of calm. She called it “The Regulated Classroom,” and began holding training sessions in schools. In early 2020 she developed a handbook that teachers could use to learn the techniques themselves. 

That March, New Hampshire public schools shut down in-person learning. Any semblance of “balance or calm” evaporated within a day.

Read Daniels saw an opportunity for her training. Two years on, she’s busier than she could have imagined, leading training sessions for thousands of teachers in the state coping with the behavioral effects of returning to in-person classes after months of Zoom classes and mandatory masks. To assist with that, she secured more than $800,000 in federal funding through a state contract in January. 

“Schools are starting to realize like, ‘Okay, we’ve been in this now for over a year, this is not good, our teachers are a hot mess, so we’ve got to be starting to do something about the teachers,’” she said in an interview. 

But a continuation of that funding could be facing a hurdle. Department of Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut is hoping to extend the contract for The Regulated Classroom for another year, but some executive councilors are not fully on board.

One, Republican Councilor Dave Wheeler of Milford, has accused the program of being overly expensive and bringing “Eastern religion” into the classroom. The Department of Education has temporarily withdrawn the contract from the Executive Council’s agenda. Edelblut said it will return once the department provides additional information to address councilors’ concerns.

A physical approach to stress

As Read Daniels explains, the training program is about learning how to experience a “safe state” within one’s own body. A person’s heart rate, digestion, and blood pressure can all reflect that state. 

“A regulated state is an optimal state of health and well being,” she said. “But stress has an impact on that state.”

The Regulated Classroom program seeks to reduce stress among teachers and students. (Courtesy of Emily Read Daniels)

Children might be distracted by factors within the classroom, or they may be experiencing trauma from stressors outside the classroom, Read Daniels says. Teachers may have the same issues. That results in a “dysregulated state,” which she says can affect attention. 

The problem can start with teachers but quickly spread to students, she said.

“What we’ve been seeing for the better part of 20 years is an increasing crisis in educator fatigue, compassion, burnout – that kind of thing – as a result of all the increasing demands on teachers and educators and decreasing resources,” Read Daniels said. 

“So they’re coming into the classroom in a heightened state, and our physiological states are contagious. So if I’m coming in and I’m feeling anxious, I’m likely to have an anxiety-provoking impact on my kids.”

Read Daniels’ program includes exercises that teachers can undergo to bring themselves into that regulated state, and includes group exercises that teachers can perform with students. 

“Teachers say, ‘Well, I feel like my stomach is clenched,’ or ‘I feel like my chest is tight. It’s hard to breathe,’” Read Daniels said. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, so you’re noticing that you’re experiencing stress in your body, you’re experiencing a degree of dysregulation in your body. Let’s try this practice and see if that shifts it for you.’” 

The techniques can include rhythmic practices someone might perform to bring about a “safety” state of mind. They could be breathing exercises, clapping exercises, or qigong, a Chinese exercise that involves slow movement and attention focus. 

To learn those techniques, and develop ways to integrate them into daily classroom activities, New Hampshire educators have two options from Read Daniels: They can take a course to learn the practices directly, or they can take a “train the trainer” session that allows them to pass it on to other educators. The courses include a $300 “toolkit” for teachers with a weighted scarf, stress balls, essential oils, a massage roller ball, a “monkey fidget,” “Mad Mattr” sculpting material, and other items; the instruction lessons cost $1,000 per educator.

Read Daniels, whose organization Here This Now is based in Peterborough, started as a one-person operator, working with client schools in New Hampshire and beyond on an individual basis. But in December 2021, she worked with Edelblut to secure state funding to expand into more schools. By January, the Executive Council had approved the Department of Education’s $800,000 contract with Read Daniels. 

Under the state contract, New Hampshire educators and school districts do not have to pay for the materials themselves. 

With the money, The Regulated Classroom has plans to bring its trainings to around 2,200 educators, Read Daniels says, and has partnered with the National Education Association of New Hampshire in its efforts. Daniels has hired staff and expanded her office space, filling her work space with boxes of materials to send to educators.

“The uptake of it was much faster than Frank and I thought,” she said, referring to Edelblut. “Much bigger.”

Objections from Wheeler

This month, Edelblut and Read Daniels have pressed to extend the program, by adding an additional $800,000 in federal coronavirus relief money to the $815,400 that the state has already allocated to the program, and extending the end date of the contract from September 2023 to September 2024. 

But the program faces uncertain next steps. On the council, Wheeler is opposed to the content of the instruction. 

“It’s full of Eastern religion,” he said. “Putting religion into the public school classroom.”

Wheeler has also objected to some of the physical exercises outlined in the course.

“The teacher’s supposed to take off her shoes and socks and find a volunteer student to do the same thing, and then put their bare feet together so they can relate with each other,” he said. “In the classroom. It’s just not appropriate.” 

And Wheeler has criticized the cost of the program. “We spent $800,000 already, and this would be another $800,000,” he said. The $300 teacher toolkits are overpriced as well, Wheeler said. 

To Wheeler, a training program to show teachers how to regulate stress is unnecessary. “A lot of it’s common sense,” he said. 

Edelblut promises more information

In response to Wheeler’s concerns, the Department of Education pulled the contract temporarily on May 4 in order to provide councilors more information. Edelblut said that will include further information about the instructions and the materials.

The department intends to bring the contract back before the council in the coming weeks, Edelblut said in an interview.

Edelblut said the state’s interest in extending the program is clear: Schools are interested in doing the training, and the available trainings are booked up.

“That’s why we’re asking for additional funding,” he said. “It’s that there’s an overwhelming response from the teachers to deal with a number of dysregulated students in their classrooms. And this provides a resource for them.”

It is unclear how much longer the program might continue. Edelblut looks at the state’s involvement as short term.

“What we’re addressing is an acute circumstance of dysregulation among students who because of the COVID disruption are less familiar with the norms of our instructional model. So we’re trying to get that regulated back in place,” he said. “Beyond that, I’m not sure what will happen.” 

Councilors on standby

Some councilors have yet to make up their minds on the program. 

When the initial contract came before the council in January, Councilor Cinde Warmington had concerns about whether the state would have ownership over the materials distributed to teachers. She received assurances that the materials would be kept by the state. 

This time around, Warmington has some doubts about whether the program needs to be reauthorized into September 2024. 

“It didn’t seem like we needed to go that far,” she said in an interview. “We wouldn’t know what the needs were at this point.”

Warmington said she isn’t necessarily opposed to the contract but didn’t get a chance to get her questions answered when it was first brought up. 

Councilor Joe Kenney, a Wakefield Republican, said he hasn’t followed the contract closely. The request that Edelblut withdraw the item was made by Wheeler individually, Kenney said. 

To Read Daniels, the program is an appropriate use of the state’s remaining federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief money (ESSER), a subset of the American Rescue Plan Act from 2021. 

“This is exactly what the ESSER dollars are intended for,” she said. “So it’s a great way for the state to spend their monies because (the funding) was intended for COVID recovery. And that’s what this is all about. That’s why for me, yeah, I’m going to make hay while the sun is shining, meaning this is very strange to have this sort of strand of funding come through from the federal government. But it’s necessary, because our schools are a mess.” 

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Ethan DeWitt
Ethan DeWitt

Ethan DeWitt is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s education reporter. Previously, he worked as the New Hampshire State House reporter for the Concord Monitor, covering the state, the Legislature, and the New Hampshire presidential primary. A Westmoreland native, Ethan started his career as the politics and health care reporter at the Keene Sentinel.