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New Zen Zone at Donegan Elementary School Aims to Help Kids Learn
March 30, 2023

L-R: Erin Martin Medina, Rosa Carides-Hof and Jacqueline Montti sit on a sofa and chat in the new Zen Zone for students at Donegan Elementary School, Bethlehem.

Students at Donegan Elementary School in South Bethlehem now have access to a room where they can learn and practice self-regulation, mindfulness, stress management and other centering techniques aimed at ultimately enhancing their scholastic experience.

The school recently held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for its new Zen Zone, on the school’s second floor, which offers hope and how-to guidance to any youngster attending classes there. 

The mint-green room, which welcomes visitors with the reflective-silver word “Believe” on the door, contains soft, stuffed animals, fidget toys, a one-person trampoline, a yoga mat, a comfy sofa, tactile blankets and rug, an animated, toy “fish tank” and a secluded sitting area for quiet and solitude.

Donegan’s principal Erin Martin Medina explained that the resource will benefit students who struggle to stay engaged during daily lessons.

“Students who experience trauma in their young lives, at home or elsewhere, often struggle to learn in class due to distractions and other personal issues,” said the principal.

“But research shows that taking calming breaths, practicing mindfulness and focusing on the moment during stress promote concentrating and integrating new information.”

The Zen Zone is supported by a $5,000, 150th-Anniversary grant from St. Luke’s University Health Network (SLUHN).

"We are so grateful to be able to extend and strengthen our partnership with St. Luke's through the development and creation of the Student Zen Zone,” said Principal Medina.

“This is a space where students will be explicitly taught strategies for self-regulation that will ultimately transfer over to independent use in the child's classroom, home and community. The use of this space will result in better social and emotional health outcomes for our students and school community. 

“St. Luke's is the perfect partner to engage in this important work, and we are extremely excited to share future impact data with them."

The Zen Zone will be staffed by a certified mental health expert from the Shanti Project, a longtime partner of the school who teaches mindfulness techniques.

“Kids can come here and be taught proven strategies to use when they feel themselves becoming unfocused, angry or mad during class,” added Medina. “We hope they will take these techniques back to class and apply them.” 

Rosa Carides-Hof, Community School Coordinator with Lehigh University, working at Donegan adds, “It’s all about them knowing which tools work for them so they can use them to learn.”

According to Jacqueline Montti, St. Luke’s Family Development Specialist working at Donegan, the school’s “culture team” modeled and named the zone after a similar room for faculty and staff, which gives them a place to take a pause during a stressful day.

“This lets students see the adults modeling a positive behavior, which, we hope will inspire the youngsters to do the same,” she said.   

And many do need it for reasons beyond their control. Principal Medina notes that up to 90% of the school’s 450 students in grades K through five come from families that experience poverty, unstable living situations and food insecurity, common, precursors to social and scholastic problems.

“This facility provides a setting for a student to learn to use soothing and self-control skills that will reduce ‘melt downs’ before they occur,” she added.

But this isn’t the only student-centered safe space at Donegan. Each classroom has a small corner where students can find moments of calm, mindfulness or self-regulation during the day.

“We will encourage our kids to use the Zen Zone and the skills they learn there to help them grow into responsible and successful students and members of their community,” said Medina.