Mindfulness in the classroom: One deep breath at a time

How mindfulness is becoming a growing strategy for managing stress and trauma in local schools

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There's a quiet revolution happening in local classrooms. It starts with closed eyes, one long, deep breath, followed by another.

Through practice, this movement can lead to a more open heart, a sense of a calm, and a clear head.

It's called mindfulness, and it's being utilized in schools from the Berkshire hills of Western Massachusetts to the Green Mountains of Southern Vermont. It's a tool that's so accessible and simple to use, even elementary school students can achieve it.

In Debra Alibozek's kindergarten classroom at the Berkshires' Richmond Consolidated School, about a dozen children gather in a circle each morning and each afternoon, allowing their typically energetic bodies to settle gently into a seated position onto the multicolored carpet that covers nearly half of the classroom floor.

Alibozek, better known in the school as "Mrs. A," and fellow teacher Pamela MacDonald, aka "Mrs. Mac," take turns leading mindfulness routines for their students.

Sometimes, the class members each hold out a palm to represent a starfish, a shape that they trace with a pointer finger from the opposite hand. As they slowly trace up one side of the arm of their "starfish," they breathe in through their noses, and as they trace down the other side of the starfish arm, they softly exhale through their mouths. This technique is known as "starfish breathing."

Another method the children learn is to respond to feelings of anxiety, anger or fear by touching each finger tip to the thumb of same hand, one at a time, while saying to themselves with each finger touch, "I am so calm" or "I am so focused."

Recently, kindergartener Kayleigh Dimassimo used the latter technique in the middle of the night after being startled awake by "a scary dream."

"I just did my, `I am so calm. I am so calm,' and then I went back to sleep," she told her teachers and classmates.

"That's so good," said Mrs. A, smiling at and praising her young pupil. "See how it can help you."

Alibozek said these kind of mindfulness exercises are practical and helpful because they can be simply taught, easily learned and adapted for and applied to any stressful situation.

"[The kids] don't need adults to help them. They're finding their own ways," the teacher said.

Minding the mind

Elements of mindfulness have been employed for centuries in personal and spiritual practices, such as yoga and meditation. But Michele Rivers Murphy, a Pittsfield-based research associate and consultant for the Center for Educational Improvement, says the modern applications of mindfulness are considered powerful tools for mental and physical health and well-being for people at any age.

"Nobody is immune to stress and trauma," she said.

The acts of breathing and being aware of one's senses and surroundings, Rivers Murphy said, are non-denominational.

"Mindfulness is about having an intentional awareness in the present moment," she said.

This, said Rivers Murphy, can be accompanied by cultivated breathing exercises, thoughts of gratitude, even movements ranging from stretching to hiking.

Rivers Murphy co-authored the new book, "Mindfulness Practices: Cultivating Heart Centered Communities Where Students Focus and Flourish," with CEI Executive Director Christine Mason and Yvette Jackson of Teachers College and the National Urban Alliance.

The collaborators say that the big reason mindfulness exercises are now being implemented in schools is because of the role mindfulness has been demonstrated to play in supporting healthy brain function. Better brain function leads to better cognitive responses and subsequently helps to address the rise of trauma and stress among school-aged children and their teachers.

"One of the things we teach teachers is that unless you understand the way your brain works, you can't help [your students] or yourself," Rivers Murphy said.

When a person experiences stress, certain parts of the brain trigger the adrenal glands to produce more of the hormone cortisol as part of the body's natural stress response. Chronic stress results in higher hormone levels. And as cortisol wreaks havoc on the brain and body of students and teachers, it can also affect the function of a school, from student performance to the expense of absences.

The good news is, stress can be managed.

Modern mindfulness applications have been studied since the 1960s and `70s, thanks to leaders in the field like Jon Kabat-Zinn, a molecular biologist and founding executive director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Kabat-Zinn developed and has trained others — including educator and licensed clinical mental health counselor Deborah "Deb" Lewis — in the widely used Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction technique for coping, pain and stress management.

Lewis developed and has been operating the Mindful Paths Counseling & Wellness Center in Manchester, Vt., since 1997. She recently received grant funding through the health-focused nonprofit RiseVT to teach mindfulness strategies to more than 100 students and teachers across Molly Stark Elementary School in Bennington and at Pownal Elementary School.

"Mindfulness is paying attention on purpose, in this moment, with non-judgement. There's not a cultural belief system to learn or anything," Lewis said.

"When someone is mindful," she said, "they're not acting in a distracted way. They've got eye contact with you, they're excited, they're listening to you and have good answers coming back because they're giving you their attention."

In schools, she said, the benefits of having mindful students is obvious.

"They're paying attention to [the teacher] or paying attention to project they're doing," said Lewis. "They're not concentrating on negative thoughts to themselves like, `You're a stupid artist.' They're confident in themselves."

A tool for empowerment

When students — or anyone for that matter — are cared for, have their basic needs met, and are feeling relaxed and confident, their potential for success becomes limitless.

In her "Mindfulness Practices" book, Rivers Murphy uses Lee Elementary School in the Berkshires as a case study for the positive gains a whole school can make by adopting this practice.

A few years ago, Principal Kate Retzel noticed an increase in red flags at the school from previous years: Students had more frequent and longer spans of absences, more kids were prone to outbursts, and teachers were calling out sick more frequently. At the same time, more students were experiencing challenges in their home lives, from domestic violence to food insecurity to disruption in family income due to job loss or parental separation.

In a clinical sense, more children in the school were experiencing collectively what the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention call Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs. As children were acting out in response to these experiences, the climate in the school became more toxic, leading to things like low morale and both staff and students missing school due to fatigued minds and stressed bodies.

So, Retzel thought, if negative thoughts and feelings could be transferred between people in the school, what about positive ones?

The principal began learning about what's known as a "trauma-informed" response to students exhibiting disruptive, destructive or distracted behaviors. The trauma-informed approach means that teachers, staff and administrators learn to look for the signs and symptoms of traumatic experiences in children and responding in a way that makes the student feel safe, validated and empowered with opportunities to change his or her behaviors and feelings.

Additionally, Retzel connected with Rivers Murphy to learn more about mindfulness and a "heart-centered" approach to teaching and learning through compassion.

"We chose compassion as our focus area and let teachers make it their own, in a way," Retzel said. "We were looking to tap back into the heart-centered side of why we became teachers."

Rivers Murphy worked with Lee Elementary members during the 2016-17 academic year to conduct a yearlong pilot in implementing mindfulness practices in the school while tracking progress with a newly developed School Compassionate Culture Analytical Tool For Educators, or S-CCATE. At the same time Rivers Murphy and her CEI colleagues conducted other pilots in school in other states across the country.

Throughout Lee Elementary, teachers used tactics like positive behavior modeling, facilitated play, giving students "brain breaks" during the day to stretch and dance, and more to help redirect negative thoughts and behaviors among students, and to give students constructive outlets for their emotions.

For students who can't verbalize their emotions, teachers carry around a visual mood card so kids can point to the expression which most resembles their own feelings.

Third-grade teacher Ruth LeCompte keeps a basket of toys and objects that can be held, squeezed or bent when students feel stressed. She also crafted a plush character named "Washington Worrywart," whose mouth can be unzipped so that students can give it their worries, little notes written on pieces of paper with instructions that read: "Write down your hopes and fears. I will hold them safely for you while you continue your day. I will share your worrisome thoughts, hopes and fears with your teacher. Take deep breaths and relax."

In Michele Puleri's fifth-grade class, they use an app to project yoga exercises onto a SMART Board before settling down to learn math.

It may take five minutes out of her class period but, Puleri said, "It's a miracle what happens and what I get back from students when they're focused."

Rivers Murphy also touted the returns on investment in mindfulness routines.

"We've found that you get 10 minutes back for every two minutes you put in," she said. "After you learn, it's free. It's a free life tool."

In the sixth grade, students' rekindled sense of compassion currently manifests into a student-run food pantry and food security initiative led by educators Kelly DeVarennes, Sonya Daly and Nancy Hanson. The CEI even awarded the group a $500 grant to seed the project.

"I don't think if you don't have something you should be judged," said sixth-grader Brooke Sargent.

Her classmate, Omari Smith, said kids and families who are struggling "need to know that there are people out there that want to help you."

Forward thinking

"Kids need to know they matter, that they're important, and that there are pockets of greatness everywhere in the world," Rivers Murphy said.

While simple in theory, the mindset of mindfulness is also something that needs to be taught and reinforced, she said.

Currently mindfulness teaching and practices tend to occur more at the elementary school and middle school levels versus high school and college levels.

Rivers Murphy said the CEI is looking to work with other institutions to discuss what could be implemented in higher education through teacher training curriculum and practice on campus.

Lewis, of Mindful Paths Counseling & Wellness Center, said the benefits of mindfulness become better when the whole family is involved.

"In the elementary schools, I encourage [the kids] to go home and tell their parents about three-part breaths, or to go to Google and learn about it together," she said.

"It's so important for parents to get this message along with their children," Lewis continued. "Everyone can use this mental calm and awareness in their lives."

Jenn Smith is a reporter with The Berkshire Eagle. She can be reached at jsmith@berkshireeagle.com, @JennSmith_Ink on Twitter or 413-496-6239.


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