Kids Offered Coping Skills At North Vegas School 'ZEn Den'

NORTH LAS VEGAS, Nev. (AP) — In this classroom at Ruby Duncan Elementary School in North Las Vegas there are no desks and few chairs in the spacious area that used to be a science lab.

There is a tent made of gauze and decorated with Christmas lights and a large furry pillow for kids who need a cuddly touch.

Welcome to the what the school affectionately calls its “Zen Den,” a reset room designed to instill healthy coping mechanisms among its younger students through therapeutic play, sensory-friendly stimulus and a calm place to talk to a calm adult.

Duncan students are able to come to the room to cool down after becoming agitated — or to prevent a meltdown — and learn how to handle their emotions.

The idea is to teach children while they’re still young how to process and refocus their feelings so that they don’t worsen to violent outbursts, especially as the kids get older and bigger.

A spike this year in the frequency and intensity of violence has led Clark County School District officials to discuss myriad possible solutions.

An attack this month on a teacher at a Las Vegas high school led district officials to announce they will distribute wearable “panic button” devices for teachers and staff to be able to summon help in an emergency.

Last month, alongside announcements of expulsion standards and funneling school entries to a single door, administrators mentioned rolling out more reset rooms for elementary schools.

Duncan Principal Amy Manning told the Las Vegas Sun that since the Zen Den started taking in children this year, classroom disruptions like talking out of turn and pestering classmates have gone down noticeably, and Duncan Elementary’s “exclusionary discipline” has gone down about 20%.

Exclusionary discipline is any punishment that takes a student out of their usual education setting, like suspension and expulsion.

Manning said teachers framed the Zen Den as a positive, safe space to work on students’ behavior. She said Duncan was one of a handful of district elementary campuses to launch on the project.

“We want to meet our students where they’re at, no matter what the mindset is that day,” she said.

If that mindset isn’t good, they can’t sit through class and learn, she said, so this space can help them reboot.

Jay Meyers, who has a background in working with children with severe emotional challenges, is Duncan’s behavior strategist and in charge of the room.

He hosts a “breakfast club” before school and pullout sessions during the day that children earn, as tracked on behavior charts.

The Duncan reset room features a bin of shredded scrap paper for kids who need crisp tactile sensation or to tear up something that isn’t valuable. Flute music and the lights are both set to low and soft.

There are bookshelves coated in paint that turns them into chalkboard surfaces, for kids who need to scribble or draw beyond paper. A toy kitchen for imaginative play. Glow-in-the-dark stars in a dim corner and a tubular, water-filled lamp that quietly churns up bubbles and knocks around colorful plastic fish for kids who need something to gaze at.

And there are several miniature trampolines and a freestanding punching bag with a few tiny pairs of boxing gloves for kids who express themselves physically — an urge that can be risky, especially when upset. The punching bag was the first item Manning said she bought for the room.

Reset rooms can also be found across the country — in and around Indianapolis, Fayetteville, N.C., and Dallas, for example. The Dallas Independent School District limited suspensions this year to only serious offenses. For minor violations, older kids can go to reset rooms on every middle and high school campus.

Manning and Meyers said their students had emotional issues and personal traumas to sort through long before the coronavirus pandemic. During school closures and the pandemic’s distance learning period, Duncan staff planned and outfitted the room.

Because the room is so well-known, it’s also used as a reward because it’s “the coolest thing in the whole school,” Meyers said.