Mr. Ant a calming presence at Sumiton Elementary

By NICOLE SMITH
Posted 2/2/20

SUMITON — When children enter Mr. Ant's room at Sumiton Elementary School, they are automatically transported to an outdoor discovery zone and, most importantly, a safe haven.   

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Mr. Ant a calming presence at Sumiton Elementary

Posted

SUMITON — When children enter Mr. Ant's room at Sumiton Elementary School, they are automatically transported to an outdoor discovery zone and, most importantly, a safe haven.   

Behavioral interventionist Anthony Sellers started working with students at the school on Jan. 7. He's not labeled as a therapist for the school's roughly 600 children; rather, he's someone to simply listen in a classroom that is a retreat, of sorts, to students.

Sellers is employed by Youth Advocate Programs (YAP) in Jasper and works at the school four days each week, thanks to a grant that the Walker Area Community Foundation awarded to YAP.

The YAP used the funding to implement the Whole Child Initiative program in county schools.

Sumiton Elementary School is serving as the pilot for that program, with support from the Walker County Board of Education.

The Whole Child Initiative address childhood trauma. Part of the initiative is understanding the "zones of regulation," which is where Sellers comes into play. In addition to providing a classroom for one-on-one student support, he is helping to educate teachers at Sumiton Elementary and other county schools on how to recognize the zones of regulation. A clear understanding helps educators know when a child may need emotional therapy. 

An explanation of the zones of regulation is detailed on a wall in Sellers' room. Color-coded posters with graphics are placed on the wall to answer the simple question of "How are you feeling?" A green poster is used to represent a student who is focused and cheerful; the color blue is used to express sadness, sickness or boredom; a yellow poster is meant to represent anxiety and frustration; and red is used on the far end of the spectrum to represent anger and meanness.

Below each poster is suggestions of activities for children to take part in as a way to control their emotions — activities that can be done in Mr. Ant's classroom.

Sellers said the design of his classroom came from a love of the outdoors. A makeshift campsite invites students to build a fake fire, all while surrounded by trees and stuffed bears. At nearby tables, children can use Play-Doh, play Connect 4 or Jenga, or explore in a sandbox.

A soothing radio is in one corner of the room, surrounded by bean bag chairs, a blanket, and a giant teddy bear. A couple of swinging chairs are also suspended from the ceiling. 

"Creating this environment is creating a safe space — a place that they feel is inviting," Sellers said. "It's not clinical. It's a place that they can come and run their hands through the sand while they talk to me if that makes them feel safe."

He added, "I love the outdoors. I grew up playing outside, and kids don't do that anymore, so I just wanted to create a campsite. I wanted to create nature. Studies have shown that unrestricted, outside playtime helps kids develop better."

Teachers let Sellers know when a child appears to be having a bad day or is disconnected, and instead of being sent to Mr. Ant's classroom, he goes to get them. Sellers said sending children outside the classroom can actually be viewed as a threatening act.

"I feel that sending kids out is negative, and we want to create positive intent," he said. 

Sellers has about 20 students visit him regularly, and he's already seeing an impact on their behavior and how they cope with their feelings.

A number of emotional issues are addressed in Mr. Ant's classroom.   

"Some of the stories are gut-wrenching," he said. 

Part of Sellers' work is understanding trauma and how adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can impact a child's life forever. ACEs can include various situations such as witnessing or experiencing abuse, growing up around substance abuse and divorce.

"If a child has two or more of the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), they are considered to have trauma," Sellers said. "If a child has four or more, it increases 14 times the number of suicide and self-harm and 11 times the level of drug use. If a child has six or more, it cuts 20 years off their expected life span."

Furthermore, he said the suicide rate has increased 76 percent among teens in the past decade.    

 "As adults, we think often, 'Kids are young. They'll forget about it. It won't affect them. They won't remember this.' They do," he said, "and if we don't help them build bridges from the things they're going through now and teach them how to deal with that, it might not be outward now, but when they're older, it will haunt them forever.

"There are all kinds of things that come from trauma that was not helped when they were younger. That's what I hope to see change."

He said that in a child's life, there are two places of influence — the family and the school.

"I think it's important for the school to partner with the parents, to be a safe place. It's good for the students to be able to come in and feel safe to talk with Mr. Ant when they're having a hard time getting over something or getting through something," he said. "That helps them learn how to self-regulate, recognize their emotions and get through their emotions. This is going to help them succeed in life, instead of using other ways of coping, which our county suffers with so much."

Prior to Sellers working as an advocate for YAP, he earned a bachelor's degree in Christian ministries and he has served as a pastor for 10 years. But something was missing.  

"I knew that wasn't enough for me because I really care about kids," he said.

Sellers then pursued and earned a master's degree in educational psychology from the University of Alabama.  

"When I told my wife about it, I told her, 'I want to be able to understand what hinders kids from learning and being successful and help them get on the right path,'" he said.

When Sellers was working as an advocate for YAP and the opportunity came along for him to serve children at Sumiton Elementary, he said it was a "blessing."

Sellers is a native of Walker County and is actually back at home at Sumiton Elementary, where he once attended school. 

When asked what it feels like to be back at the school, he smiled and nodded thoughtfully.

"It feels purposeful. It feels good to make an impact where I grew up," he said.