Pittsfield schools pilot yoga, 'brain breaks' as classroom supports


Photo Gallery | PHOTOS: Heart-beaming yoga class at Conte Community School

PITTSFIELD — Place your hands on your heart, right hand over left. Sit up straight. Take a few deep, yogic breaths. Relax, and connect first of all with your own heart. Next, think of a loved one and envision healing energy and kind, loving thoughts going from your being, from your heart to the heart of a loved one.

If you've given this a try, then you've experienced the practice of "heart beaming."

It's little exercises like this that are being studied and used in schools locally and nationally to help students and teachers better manage the rigors, stresses and rush of the school day.

Working to help Pittsfield schools pursue this practice more regularly are three progressive education practitioners: Pittsfield's own Michele Rivers Murphy, Ph.D., consultant and research association for the Center for Educational Improvement (CEI); Christine Mason, Ph.D., executive director for the CEI, based in Alexandria, Va.; and Yvette Jackson, Ed.D., chief executive officer of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education based in Syosset, N.Y.

"We're trying to really shift the paradigm of mindset in Pittsfield schools," said Rivers Murphy. "It's not an easy shift and you have to have progressive teachers, but it can really help."

Last year, she wrote for CEI an article about Jessica Bazinet, a first-grade teacher and a leader of a Positive Behavior Support Group at Allendale Elementary School. Bazinet incorporates the use of yoga balls and taking "brain breaks" every 10 minutes in class, allowing students to get up and move and release some energy for a minute or two. "If I let them explore, play and be excited, when the time comes for the lesson they give me more of their attention," Bazinet told Murphy.

Mason said issues like poverty, major life changes, trauma, etc., can lead people to be distracted or develop behavioral issues in class. "You can often go into a classroom lesson and after even 5 or 10 minutes, you see kids start to squirm," she said.

Back on Jan. 28, Mason and her two colleagues visited Conte Community School to lead a free heart-beaming yoga class for fourth-graders and distribute a book of exercises published by CEI. But by the end of a 30 minutes session of stretching, deep breathing, and wishing positive thoughts for friends and loved ones, the entire gymnasium fell quiet, and initially reluctant and chatty students were following the directions. "It's relaxing," said fourth-grader Danyah Shuler after the class.

Another student, Teasia Jefferson, described how Conte classrooms offer "sit and break" chairs, where a stressed out student can quietly get up from their desk and sit for a few minutes without the teacher having to discipline them. Principal Kerry Light explained that the school uses what's known as a "responsive classroom" approach to promoting positive behaviors. Classrooms conduct morning meetings and closing circles each day, allowing students to check in with teachers about how they're feeling.

Fourth-grader Guage Statley said he likes the idea of doing more of this in school because, "It makes me feel happy."


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