By Derek Walter
Many of the children at Florence Griffith Joyner Elementary School in Watts start class with their eyes closed.
But it’s not because they’re sleeping or ignoring their teacher — they’re focusing on finding a place of calmness, thinking positive thoughts and letting go of things that may be weighing on their mind.
Their teachers are leading them in a series of exercises designed to promote mindfulness, a practice that is making its way into schools as a way to reduce stress and conflict, and increase academic performance among students.
At Florence Griffith Joyner, the teachers have been trained as part of a UCLA program called Calm Classroom. Kate Sheehan, the managing director of the UCLA Center for Child Anxiety Resilience Education and Support (CARES), said that parents and teachers have reported that the program is making a difference in student behavior. She said more empirical research is needed, but anecdotally she’s found many once skeptical teachers won over.
“The kids really take to it,” she said. “They’ll do their exercises together as a class, such as raising their elbows up and down in a motion called the butterfly. Seeing this room of rambunctious little ones moving their arms in unison, it’s so inspiring.”
As part of the program, teachers are provided with materials that allow them to walk students through simple exercises each day. It’s advised they do so during transition times in order to help set the tone for the next activity. For example, when the third graders come back from recess or lunch doing five minutes of breathing or having some other calm activity can help everyone get in a calm, learning mode, Sheehan said.
“There’s lots of research on mindfulness, but there are so many ways of doing it and so many different populations and settings,” she said. “We’re cautious not to say ‘this program will absolutely do this every time for you.’ But research consistently shows across different groups and types of interventions that we see increased attention because of even very short bursts of mindfulness or meditation practice.”
The Calm Classroom program comes from the Luster Learning Institute, which implements it in schools nationwide. The organization touts some success, citing a 21 percent improvement in standardized test scores, 75 percent decline in school violence, and 73 percent decrease in school suspensions in Chicago public schools.
Finding the time
Another California organization, Mindful Schools, works with kindergarten to high school students in the Emeryville area. The curriculum helps teachers lead their class through a mindful activity, such as being quiet and paying attention to what they’re doing, sitting very still, and paying attention to their surroundings, said Matthew Brensilver, director of programs.
The program allows for flexibility — oftentimes smaller children will gather on the floor with their teacher, while older kids may stay at their desk, he said.
“School environments are highly variable,” Brensilver said. “You can over-engineer one approach but our hope is we’re not just training teachers to teach mindfulness but to mindfully teach.”
While the exercises are designed to only take a few minutes per day, the school schedule is always under a crunch. Still, having enough time throughout the day and doing the mindfulness activities don’t have to be mutually exclusive, Sheehan said.
“Teachers do report that often they feel like they get time back because people are more settled and able to focus than at other times during the day,” Brensilver added. “There’s a carryover effect from this in that it makes the classroom more efficient.”
From punishment to proactive discipline
School psychologist Brittney Beer is a major proponent of mindfulness in the classroom. In Clovis she meets with small groups of students to help them.
“Data shows the more you do that at the beginning and you continue to follow up periodically, the less incidents you have” of disruptive behavior, she said.
Many of the schools that Beer works with use a program called Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. It seeks to deemphasize punishment, detention and other punitive measures and instead try to be more proactive about hitting problems before they start.
Beer teaches students strategies for managing their emotions or talking about issues they struggle with in a small group setting.
“In elementary school, it’s learning how to practice their breathing, count from ten, or go to a happier place,” she said.
Often, students appreciate just having someone to talk with about difficult emotions, Beer said.
“Finding a place for them to talk really pays off down the road,” she added.