Q&A with Danielle Riley
Positive Behavior Specialist at Phillips Middle School in Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Q: What does being a Positive Behavior Specialist entail? What do your days look like?
A: I do a little bit of everything. My priority is caring for our students and making sure they feel heard, respected and safe. I also collaborate with our guidance counselors and our social worker to make sure that every student feels supported and nurtured during the school day. My office serves as a kind of “safe space” for these kids, and when they come in, I try my best to provide an environment where they can calm down, open up and temporarily remove themselves from the chaotic environment or situation they may have just found themselves in. Many of these children have been overlooked, and haven’t learned (or been encouraged) to verbalize their feelings, so I also make an effort to get them to express their emotions. My goal here is to get to everyone–to hear everyone’s story–because everybody has something to tell, something to offer. I’m here to listen.
You played a critical role in advocating for Y.O.G.A. for Youth programming to be part of the school day at Phillips after being part of the after-school program for several years. Can you talk about why you were a strong proponent of this move?
The Y.O.G.A. for Youth program was initially brought to my attention by Nicole Deinert of Phillips Middle School, and I knew it was something that had been successful in other parts of the country. I believe in the idea that mindfulness and yoga practice are beneficial to everyone, and even more so when we’re talking about young people–in our case middle schoolers, who are experiencing that often-tumultuous transition period before high school. I felt very strongly that it would be a good fit for us, and so I met with a couple teachers I thought would be receptive to the program and asked if they would be interested.
My family is Quaker, so I was raised with the practice of mindfulness in terms of centering in meditation. I’ve also done some yoga as an adult, and found that it’s always left me feeling better than before I did it. It really does have a calming effect. I mean, I work in a middle school! It can get hectic; public school in general is a hectic existence. We live right now in a really hectic time, what with all this technology that we’re exposed to and conditioned to engage with. With cell phones and the Internet, our students can’t really get away–even when they’re home they’re still plugged in, so learning to be still is really important, and learning that at such a young and formative age is even better. It’s even a struggle for me, now, as an adult. It’s that question of, “Do I go home and put on Netflix? Or do I choose to work to be still?” It’s not an easy practice, but the rewards are tangible. A sense of return to self. Becoming truly present. Mindfulness and yoga can provide a pathway to a sense of return to self.
I also strongly support the research aspect of the program. We love data in public schools! We want to see that the numbers are demonstrating that this practice of yoga and mindfulness is more than fluff. I think the kids find the research fascinating, too, because seeing science connected to something that they’re personally experiencing and feeling–the changes that are happening inside themselves–connects them in a global way when they can see that data.
You took the Y.O.G.A. for Youth teacher training to prepare for the program at Phillips. What was that experience like?
It felt very strenuous, but in a good way, you know? It was 40 hours in total, and very intensive. We were taught basic poses, mantras and breath work, in addition to techniques for presenting that content to youth. I would recommend the training to anyone, as it was a very thorough and rewarding experience. We practiced sitting in silence, in meditation. It sounds easy, but in reality, it asks a lot of you to be still–especially when you’re combining sitting with the focusing on the breath in silence, it can actually feel like a lot–but that’s what made it so great. We need to have more demanded of us in terms of slowing down. We let ourselves be drawn to everything outside of ourselves too often, so participating in the training was rewarding on a personal level, as well.
What does presence mean to you in terms of the kind of work you do?
It means being very focused on the person in front of you. We’ve convinced ourselves today that we have to multitask; there’s this sense of constant urgency. But to me, being present with a kid means exactly that. A new thing I’ve implemented this year when a child walks into my office is turning off my walkie, closing my laptop and G-chatting the other counselors to let them know that I’m not available for that time period. I feel like I’m being selfish in the best possible way, because it shows the child, “This time is your time.” And really, that’s how it should be. That’s when true connection happens.
What are you most excited about regarding this program? What do you hope it will achieve?
I hope that we continue to expand it until it becomes something we just do for everyone. I’d like to see it build community among the children, to create a space for empathy, kindness and compassion. I’m particularly excited to see how the kids share their experiences and feelings about it amongst themselves, how they talk about it with one another. So many of our students feel very disconnected–it’s a hard time to be interpersonal with one another. Learning to sit with discomfort and build that emotional connection with oneself–the idea of being able to just be with yourself, as you are when you do yoga, for example– is really a selfless practice of working toward building relationships with each other and collectively meeting each other’s needs.
How have students reacted to Y.O.G.A. for Youth thus far? How has the program at Phillips been received?
Students really like the program. We weren’t sure what to expect, but it’s clear they’re very practiced in their knowledge! It’s been delightful–I recently had to take over for a teacher who was away for a day, and the kids were like, “No Ms. Riley, that’s not how you do it.” They were ready to rock and roll. We also need to give credit to the teachers for that–Ms. Gibson and Ms. McDonnell–who have been incredible in their effort and implementation for their students.
Is there anything else you’d like to add about Y.O.G.A. for Youth?
Just that it’s a tremendous program, very well-explained and well-presented–which is not something I’d say for every youth initiative that I’ve seen. It’s done in such a thoughtful way, and it demonstrates research with a human face. I’m excited to see how all of it comes together for these children. They deserve it.