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A Journey to Mindfulness

By Julie Chamberlain, Jennifer Perilla and Erica Herrera | December 2019

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Anxiety affects more than 40 percent of U.S. students and is the leading mental health issue among youth. At Tyler Elementary School, in Gainesville, Va., we noticed that students were entering kindergarten unable to manage their emotions and displaying disruptive behaviors. Older students were anxious about tests and academics, with frequent trips to the nurse and school counselor. Discipline infractions were increasing, and teachers were showing signs of burnout.

We knew we needed more than a program or an idea; it had to be a total philosophical shift from reactive to proactive. Offering students, families and staff skills to use any time, in any situation, could be transformative. For adults and students, mindfulness changes the brain, emphasizes focus on the present and leads to happier people. Therefore, a mindful-centered school made sense.

Mindfulness vs. Meditation
What is mindfulness, and how is it different from meditation? Mindfulness, as defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn, means, “Paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment and nonjudgmentally.” Mindfulness is about noticing whatever experience you are having, including all thoughts, feelings or physical sensations. It is not about blocking out thoughts or removing stress; mindfulness helps change the relationship with stress. Mindfulness can be practiced anytime, anywhere by purposefully being engaged with all senses focused on the present moment and without judgment of thoughts and feelings that may be attached. Mindfulness is not the same as meditation – meditation is an intentional internal practice, with an inward focus increasing calmness, concentration and emotional balance.

Our journey began with the principal, school counselor and school social worker brainstorming ways to become a mindful-based school. During the teacher workweek that year, we shared a presentation on growth mindset, mindfulness and empathy with faculty and then with students on the first day of school. Each team of teachers brainstormed ways to implement mindfulness in their classrooms. We implemented schoolwide events, including a family mindfulness night and the Great Kindness Challenge.

Our core focus areas are: awareness, focus/attention, emotions and acceptance. Implementing our mindfulness philosophy has resulted in increased test scores, decreased referrals and lowered anxiety. We’ve also seen a significant difference in how students acknowledged and took control of anxiety.

Lizard vs. Wizard
Central to mindfulness is understanding how the brain works and how to create balance between internal feelings and what is happening around you. Students are taught that the amygdala is where the fight/flight/freeze reaction occurs. This is similar to a lizard that reacts instinctively when a perceived threat approaches; his amygdala is on high alert. When the lizard brain is activated, information cannot pass to the prefrontal cortex, the “wizard brain” (the wise decision-making part of the brain) because it is blocked by the emotions of the lizard brain. It is great for protection but does not allow one to focus, decide and reason – essential skills needed in school.

By practicing mindful activities, students build their capacity to respond instead of react when the lizard brain is activated, and they can instead use their wise wizard brain, ultimately allowing their hippocampus to store it into long-term memory and create new neuro-pathways. Following are some of our approaches to helping our elementary school students practice mindfulness.

Mindful breathing: Breathing is central to mindfulness. Deep, full breathing calms the amygdala and helps the wizard brain think clearly. With lights dimmed and calming music or a guided mindfulness app playing, students sit in a comfortable position. They are invited to close their eyes or choose a focal point in the room. We then focus on breathing slowly. It is okay if the mind wanders; the purpose is to recognize that and bring it back to focus on breath or a focal point. It is wise to start with a short period of time, increasing as the students become used to the technique, with a shared debrief on what was easy or challenging. Students who have difficulty sitting still can add a sensory component such as tapping their leg as they inhale or exhale.

Belly buddies: Students choose a small stuffed animal or squishy to use when they practice breathing. Students lie on their backs and place the belly buddy on their abdomen; the belly buddy will rise and fall with inhale and exhale.

Five-finger breathing or shape breathing: Students hold their hand upright and trace around each finger, breathing in as the finger traces up and breathing out as the finger traces down the other side.

Mind bubbles: We read “Mind Bubbles,” by Heather Krantz, to demonstrate we all have thoughts that come and go. Students are allowed to pop bubbles, and we point out that this is a natural reaction. Next, they watch the bubbles float around and recognize the desire to pop them but are encouraged to respond rather than react. This helps students make the connection that we can respond to thoughts/emotions instead of acting on instinct. This exercise builds self-control.

Anchoring: We tell students, picture yourself on a sailboat riding the waves of your emotions. Some days are calm, and your boat gently bobs. Other days are rough, tossing your boat around. As a captain for your boat, would you choose your lizard brain or wizard brain? Your wizard brain is wise and knows when to drop an anchor to keep your boat steady, even in choppy waters. An anchor is a word, phrase, symbol or technique, such as breathing, that brings one back to the present moment, a core mindfulness practice.

Brain dump: Students are asked to write down all of their thoughts, such as homework, friend issues, activities, etc. They then review it and indicate which thoughts are related to the past, present or future. We open a discussion about what they recognize about their thoughts. Awareness of one’s thoughts, without judgment, is an important exercise in mindfulness.

Mindful movement: Yoga and mindful walking are simple ways to include mindful movement during the day. Students can listen for new sounds and record them or spot items in the colors of the rainbow. Books for this activity include “Yoga Bunny,” by Brian Russo, and “Good Morning Yoga,” by Mariam Gates.

Mindful body: Awareness of how and where emotions are felt allows one to respond mindfully. One tool is a body map identifying emotions with colors, symbols and words and where they physically happen in the body. Explain that having uncomfortable emotions is normal, but they come and go. Have students close their eyes and tell them an uncomfortable object will be placed in their hand. They are instructed to pay attention to how the object feels and fully explore it. They sit with the uncomfortable feeling and are directed to focus on their breath. Books for this activity include “Angry Octopus,” by Lori Lite; “Shubert Learns to Be a S.T.A.R.,” by Dr. Becky Bailey; and “Listening to My Body,” by Gabi Garcia.

Mindful calming bottle: Students can create personal or classroom calming and feelings bottles. While reading aloud “Moody Cow Meditates,” by Kerry Lee Maclean, students listen to the feelings Moody Cow experiences and how he is able to calm down. Students choose colored glitter to place in a bottle to represent a feeling they have. We emphasize that feelings are not good or bad, but they can be pleasant or unpleasant. A calming bottle is a great tool as a focal point during mindful breathing.

Mindful chime or singing bowl: To begin a mindful practice, use a chime or ringing of a bowl, encouraging students to be still until they can no longer hear the chime. This builds their capacity to slow down, pay attention and be purposeful.

Staying in the present moment is a challenge. The mind wanders between the past and the future, which can lead to stress and unhappiness. A quote from Lao Tzu expresses why mindfulness is so critical: “If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.” We hope these activities will enable more moments in the present.

Julie Chamberlain is a school counselor at Tyler Elementary School, Gainesville, Va. She can be reached at Jennifer Perilla is a principal at Tyler Elementary School and Erica Herrera is a school social worker at Tyler Elementary School.