Something as simple and as inexpensive as a few minutes of deep breathing can help children better control their emotions—and their behavior.
But this only works if students practice mindfulness daily, and at McKinley-Brighton Elementary School in Syracuse, New York, they do—for 30 minutes at the start of each day of summer school.
“When you have high poverty in a district, that brings chronic trauma from students’ life experiences” says Janel E. Milana, the summer school principal.
“Mindfulness changes the environment in the classroom. Kids can talk through their emotions instead of yelling and fighting and causing more trauma.”
SIDEBAR: Elementary mindfulness
During that 30-minute opening period, students also practice yoga poses, and teachers read books about mindfulness that teach children how to recognize their behaviors as choices.
Children who have to be removed from class visit the Student Support Center, wherein a teaching assistant leads them through mindfulness exercises or yoga poses before discussing behavioral problems.
McKinley-Brighton also has created a “mindful room” for this school year, in which students can relax in soft chairs and with special, weighted blankets.
There’s real science behind mindfulness, Milana adds. Yoga and breathing help a person shift their thinking from the more emotional part of the brain, the amygdala, to the more strategic prefrontal cortex.
“This summer, I have seen increased engagement” says Milana. “I’ve seen happier, calmer kids who are ready, focused and interested in what they’re learning.”
How children cope with adversity
With guidance and staff from the nonprofit Holistic Life Foundation, several Baltimore-area schools have replaced detention with meditation. Instead of going to the principal’s office, students who have acted out visit a “mindful moment” room. Here, a staff member will let them talk uninterrupted about their feelings. The staff member then initiates breathing exercises, meditation and silent reflection.
As the school year progresses, fewer students visit the mindful moment room because they learn to self-regulate their emotions in class when they sense stress coming on, says Atman Smith, a cofounder of the Holistic Life Foundation.
“It gives kids tools to navigate the ups and down of the human experience, whether it’s a heightened emotional state or the life-or-death situations that happen to kids in urban communities” Smith says.
“Through practice and being mindful, our kids have been able to keep a positive attitude and excel.”
It works for teachers, too
Punishing a traumatized student for acting out is the wrong approach, says Patricia Jennings, an associate professor in the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia and author of Mindfulness for Teachers: Simple Skills for Peace and Productivity in the Classroom.
Schools can change a punitive culture by training teachers to practice mindfulness and meditation, Jennings says.
A study of more than 200 elementary school teachers in New York City showed reduced stress after these educators learned meditation and mindfulness techniques, Jennings adds.
“When you’re teaching, you have to manage emotions without any privacy” she says.
“Teachers should calmly express how they’re feeling and model for students how to calm down by taking a few deep breaths instead of raising their voice. It’s like turning down a thermostat.”