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A class act: How mindfulness is helping to transform schools

Alice Gomstyn By Alice Gomstyn

three students practicing mindfulness

First-grade teacher Heather Garris was having a rough day. Her school, Shore Acres Elementary, in St. Petersburg, Florida, had just reopened after stressful, weather-related closings. Getting back to life as usual was hard enough, but uncooperative technology in the classroom was making it worse. How would she pull herself together and keep teaching? Relief came from a surprising source: one of her students.

"Ms. Garris, you need to do some belly breathing,” advised Ethan Cox, 6. “It's going to be all right."

Heather Garris instructs her class

Heather Garris instructs her class.

Shore Acres Elementary is one of 15 public schools in Florida’s Hillsborough and Pinellas counties that have added a new element to its school day: mindfulness – the practice of being present in the moment and noticing what’s happening within you and around you without judgment. Known for helping people regulate their emotions and reduce stress, mindfulness has steadily gone mainstream, cropping up in fitness centers, boardrooms and, more recently, classrooms.

Inner Explorer, an audio-based program designed for schools (including Shore Acres), has seen its client base skyrocket from three schools in 2012 to more than 1,100 this year. Educators are getting on board for good reason: Studies show that mindfulness can encourage kids to develop self-control, compassion toward others and better stress management skills. What’s more, regular practice can improve students' attention spans, which in turn could result in higher grades and test scores.

Everyday practice yields results

Starting this year, about half of Shore Acres students – in a variety of classes from pre-kindergarten through fifth grade – take part in daily mindfulness exercises. During the lessons, students sit on the floor or at their desks, with their feet flat on the floor and their hands in their laps – what Inner Explorer co-founder Dr. Laura Bakosh describes as "a comfortable but alert" position. The program's 5- to 10-minute guided practice involves gentle hand movements and awareness of breathing set to soothing sounds, such as wind chimes and rainsticks.

Garris' student Ethan says his favorite movement is the Shark Fin, which involves holding your hands together near your forehead, like a fin, and then slowly moving them up and down from the forehead to the chest. Read more about Shark Fin and other kid-friendly mindfulness exercises.

"I like it a lot," Ethan says. "It makes me feel relaxed."

Exercises typically take place in the morning or after lunch and recess. Teachers have found that practicing mindfulness at such key transition times means "students are able to be refocused easily," says school counselor Melanie Every.

While the benefits of mindfulness practice tend to be cumulative, Every and others have seen quick results at Shore Acres. Bakosh attributes this to Inner Explorer’s alignment with the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program. The most widely used mindfulness approach, MBSR introduces a variety of meditation practices as well as practical ways to bring mindfulness into everyday life. “Both teachers and students benefits from stress reduction, improved focus, increased emotional regulation and a greater sense of well-being,” Bakosh says.

 

Children practicing mindfulness

Ethan practices the Shark Fin exercise with his classmates.

 

Students take the initiative

Across the country in Phoenix, Arizona, another school has adopted mindfulness practices. In 2015, David Crockett Elementary School partnered with the nonprofit group Mindfulness First. Much of the group's work at Crockett is focused on training teachers, who now lead exercises at the school with the help of an online curriculum delivered via an app. “Ultimately our goal is to create mindful teachers, because that is the way to make a sustainable, mindful school," says Mindfulness First founder Sunny Wight.

Every morning at Crockett, children do mindfulness exercises, including breathing and guided movements. They’re also encouraged to try mindfulness at lunchtime, but instead of exercises, Crockett staff use simple tools: cups. In the cafeteria, school staff place red cups on each table to remind kids to calm themselves down after playing outside. Once students have settled in, the red cups are replaced with yellow cups. If kids begin acting up at a particular table, staffers switch that table's cups to red again until students regain their composure. "It's an easy way to help them make the transition from unstructured playground time," says Crockett principal Sean Hannafin. Read more about what mindfulness can do for kids.

Mindfulness practice is especially helpful at Crockett because many of the school’s students come from low-income households, are homeless or are refugees. "Mindfulness is a natural fit for students with a lot of stressors in their lives," Hannafin explains.

Alyse Sabina, national program director for the Aetna Foundation (which has provided grants to support the mindfulness programs at Shore Acres and Crockett), shares Hannafin’s focus on using mindfulness to help reduce stress in children who may be experiencing more than their fair share of health issues. “In developing our mindfulness initiative, we focused on increasing access to mindfulness for vulnerable populations in order to advance health equity," she says. "Schools are a community hub and where children and teachers spend a good deal of their day. There is ample opportunity to expose them to tools that can help them mitigate the stressors in their daily lives and lead to positive outcomes."

The proof is in the numbers: After the first year of mindfulness practice, school suspensions dropped by roughly 50 percent and fell by another 50 percent after the program’s second year. Most students say mindfulness has helped them pay better attention in class, according to a recent Mindfulness First survey. And in early October 2017, officials learned that Crockett outperformed most Arizona schools with similar demographics on the state's new school assessment framework, which is based on standardized test scores and other data. "We believe the mindfulness initiative has been strongly been aligned to the growth we have been able to show," Hannafin says.

Students also practice mindfulness on their own, without a teacher's guidance, Hannafin says. He's seen them use it to avoid escalating conflicts on the playground and to relax before tests. He even remembers walking by a rowdy fourth-grade classroom headed by a substitute teacher and overhearing students encourage others to take a “mindful moment” and settle down.

"Seven of them stood up and became leaders to remind students that they needed to get back to learning," Hannafin says. "The teacher said it was something she'd never seen before."

Back at Shore Acres Elementary, students have begun practicing mindfulness outside of regular classroom instruction, too. Ethan's mom, Stephanie Cox, says she's been happy to see her son do breathing exercises at home, often to help himself calm down after a disagreement with his brother.

Mindfulness "is giving students a tool to have in their toolbox so they can gain a little bit more control of their emotions. It's helping students learn how to self-regulate," she says. "I think it's wonderful."

About the author

Alice Gomstyn is a veteran parenting blogger and business reporter. She is an admitted sugar addict but plans to cut back on the sweet stuff and load up on veggies like never before. Bring on the broccoli!