NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – Mackenzie Moon knew this was the job for her upon seeing the listing for an advocacy center coach at Carter-Lawrence Elementary in Nashville.

On any given day, she’s seen doing yoga, breathing exercises, reading, or reflecting with children who experiences ‘strong emotions’ while in their class.

“Maybe kids get a little riled up. Maybe they get angry,” Moon described. “I’ll go down, get the student, bring them here. They’ll sign in, we’ll choose what we want to do: either breathing, movement, grounding, or mindfulness.”

Metro Nashville Public Schools are using advocacy centers for elementary students who are having challenges with their behavior, with leaders calling it an expansion of their approach towards restorative practices over the years.

“In addition to providing those immediate supports and needs for our students, we also, long term, want to make sure we’re able to provide conditions for our students to have a strong foundation in the elementary school grades where they’re able to develop those social skills that they will indeed practice as they matriculate to middle school and to high school as well,” said Dr. Michelle Springer, MNPS Chief of Student Support Services.

(Advocacy center coach reads to chile while performing breathing exercise (Source: WKRN)

This is the first year where 72 elementary schools have an advocacy center as the program is spearheaded by Dr. Mary Crnobori, MNPS Coordinator of Trauma-Informed Schools.

“We saw our students going through so many experiences outside of school, whether it was in the community or larger society or individual home experiences that impacted their learning and school success and their social-emotional health and well-being,” Dr. Crnobori explained. “We know that those things, and all life experiences whether positive or challenging, can really impact the developing brain and body, the physical health and the emotional immune system, but also the developing brain and we knew that conditions matter for our kids.”

She added that they wanted to improve school conditions to make sure they’re supporting children in the best way possible, and that’s where the idea for advocacy centers came about.

“The advocacy centers essentially are a place where kids can come when they’re experiencing strong emotions or having some difficulty when self-managing their emotions or behaviors, and they just need extra connection and support from a caring and nurturing adult,” said Dr. Crnobori. “So this is a place where they can come for short periods of time to help build skills in the areas of guided breathing and calming strategies: movement, yoga, some kind of grounding practices. It could be listening to calming music, using what we call fidget tools.”

About 150 students have been to Moon’s advocacy center at Carter Lawrence Elementary in the three months they’ve been in school.

“A lot of the time if there’s a behavior thing that happens, they were mad at someone so they lashed out at them or yelled at them or something like that, basically the questions are like ‘What was going on? Why were you feeling angry? How were you feeling at the time? What was going through your mind? How could we have made a better choice instead of doing what we did?'” Moon explained. “If they are experiencing big emotions during the day, these kids are not going to learn.”

According to Dr. Crnobori, one-on-one interaction was also key.

“That connection and reflection with a caring adult…so an adult to really give them that sacred space to ask and listen to student’s voice, to hear their sharing of the experiences that they’re going through, and then really validate their feelings and help them build skills and be ready to self manage and get back to class and learn,” she said.

After about 15 to 20 minutes, they get sent back to class with the hope their emotions don’t get in the way of their education or that of their classmates.

“Think about a student who typically might experience dysregulation and perhaps there’s some disruption in the classroom. The teacher has to stop, provide direct support to that student, other students must go on and continue to learn on their own, and then that student is removed from that classroom potentially for a set amount of time. There is a loss of instruction across the board for multiple students,” said Dr. Springer. “This provides an opportunity for our students to have a safe place to go so that they can regulate and re-enter back into the classroom in 15/20 minutes in some instances, as opposed to days out of a classroom or hours out of a classroom to assist with this.”

The mayor and Metro council allocated $3.7 million in this year’s operating budget to fund the advocacy center positions, with an additional $4 million spread out over three years in ESSR funding.

“It’s a multi-million dollar investment that we believe will pay off dividends for years and years and years to come,” said Dr. Springer, adding that school suspensions are already at a minimum so far this school year.

According to MNPS leaders, the Middle and High School levels’ approach for the same goal is for Restorative Practice Assistants (RPAs) and Peace Centers. They said it’s similar to the advocacy model, but with a stronger focus on conflict resolution and restorative circles for students and between students and staff. Additional RPAs are funded through the district’s ESSER 3 application, which is still pending approval from the Tennessee Department of Education.