Inhale, Exhale — Phoenix School Takes On Mindfulness, One Breath At A Time

Published: Wednesday, December 7, 2016 - 5:00am
Updated: Wednesday, December 7, 2016 - 10:27am

(Photo by Mariana Dale - KJZZ)
'Deep breath in through the nose and let the breath out," Jyoti Weaver coaches her class.
(Photo by Mariana Dale - KJZZ)
“A mindful minute is when we take time to focus how we are going to act in the day and how we are going to treat others,” Safiya Dahir said.

Safiya Dahir, 8, says she has five siblings at home. Their squabbles are part of daily life.

When they take her stuff or hit her, she leaves the room, takes a deep breath in and exhales.

“In my head I say 'be calm, don’t hit them, be kind, they are littler than you,'” she said.

She calls this a “mindful minute.” It’s an exercise she learned in David Crockett Elementary School’s mindfulness program. It’s a collaboration between the south Phoenix school and non-profit Mindfulness First.

The increasingly trendy practice has emerged in therapy, meditation studios and in the last few years, schools.

“What we’re teaching is awareness, active noticing of our thoughts, our feelings our physical and mental impulses, everything that’s going on in the inside of your body,” said Sunny Wight, founder of Mindfulness First.

While the practice shares some ideas with Buddhism, Wight said this program does not teach students about religion or meditation.

All students at Crockett from from kindergarten to sixth grade have a half-hour lesson once a week where they breathe, stretch and even learn some neuroscience.

Some instructors volunteer their time, and the organization also has grants to help pay for the instructors, who extend training to teachers.

Students take a “mindful minute” when they come in from recess or switch activities. Teachers instruct them to focus on their breath and notice how their body feels.

Principal Sean Hannafin pushed for mindfulness at the school, where 96 percent of kids receive a free or reduced-price lunch.

“The students we come with stresses just like everyone does, but being in a Title I school and dealing with homeless populations and refugee populations, sometimes they have stresses above,” Hannafin said. 

Title I is a designation given to schools with large populations of students from low-income families.

Hannafin said the mindfulness program has increased the trust shared between teachers and students, and the school’s discipline statistics.

There were 30 students suspended at Crockett in the 2014-15 school year. The year after the mindfulness program was implemented, the total halved itself. 

Total suspensions dropped 37 percent in the same period. Hannafin said the school is on track to suspend even fewer students this year.

He credits mindfulness for some of the change. For example, students who get in trouble are first encouraged to take a “mindful moment.”

“It’s a time for reflection,” Hannafin said. “It’s a time to think about what happened and what they want their response to be.” 

Balsz School District Superintendent Jeff Smith said he supports Crockett’s exploration of mindfulness.

“I’ve been a long admirer of the idea of internally thinking though, stopping to consider how you are feeling about something before you react, but I’ve never seen a way to translate that to kids,” Smith said.

Studying the benefits of ‘slowing down’

Research on how mindfulness changes kids’ behavior, relationships and academic achievement is emerging.

Existing studies about mindfulness in schools have found the programs improve behavior, attentiveness and offer stress relief to students.

“Many of the kids are going to the school doorstep with enormous personal burden that we really haven’t seen in history,” said Amanda Moreno, an assistant professor and researcher at the Erikson Institute, a graduate school focused on child development.

She’s in the middle of a federally-funded study examining how mindfulness changes Chicago classrooms.

The $2.5 million U.S. Department of Education grant supports a four-year investigation of Chicago Public Schools’ use of mindfulness compared to more traditional social-emotional learning lessons.

Moreno said prior studies found other methods meant to teach children to regulate their emotions were not successful at helping close the achievement gap.

“Perhaps the reason previous studies had not been successful because their approach might be too cerebral,” Moreno said.

Or in other words, Moreno said, “too based on what are known as meta-cognitive skills. That means a child’s ability to think about their thinking.”

Whereas mindfulness focuses on visceral feelings in the body, like breathing.

In this new study, Moreno will assess academic outcomes, interview teachers, gauge classroom atmosphere, talk to students and school administration.

She’s already getting feedback from teachers about fewer classroom tantrums and, as a result, more time to teach uninterrupted.  

“So at the very basic level, mindfulness is helpful just because it helps kids to learn to slow down,” Moreno said.

Moreno said the ability for students to break down complex feelings or thoughts by focusing on a bite sized piece is a skill.

“Then they begin to feel like ‘oh, I actually can do this. I decided to pay attention only to my breath and I succeeded in doing that,'” Moreno said. “It creates a positive feeling that you then want to replicate into the other areas in your life.”

‘It’s not automatic’

Back at Crockett Elementary School, teacher Gail Plawinski calls on groups of students by color.

“Blue table, turn in your homework please.”

It’s one of many routines she implements to bring order to the room.

“So it’s not chaos, more like organized chaos,” Plawinski said.

For teachers like Plawinski juggling large classes, standardized testing, professional development and more, a mindfulness program might seem like another obligation.

“It’s not an automatic,” Plawinski said. “So I have to remind myself to be more mindful, in class and also out of class, too.”

She said the lessons were organized for her and the school makes time in the day for those “mindful moments,” which helps.

Plawinks takes a breather herself on the way home from work each day.

“I drive home down 44th Street, so I get the gorgeous view of the sunset and Camelback Mountain,” Plawinski said.

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