Classrooms adding ‘M’ for meditation

Sacramento Bee: Math tests, soccer matches, the cafeteria bully. Grammar diagrams, global warming, dad losing his job. Now add this to some 8-year-olds’ schedules: a second- period class on dealing with stress. Before graduating another generation of workaholic, road-raged adults, a number of California schools are intervening as early as kindergarten, reworking adult relaxation techniques for little ones. Read more here.

Oren Sofer is one of the instructors hired to deliver this new curriculum. On Wednesday, he navigated his way through the playground at Bridges Academy in east Oakland, arrived at Portable Classroom H and pushed open the door.

“Hi, Mr. Ooooooo,” the third-graders chimed, then began chanting, “mind-ful-ness, mind-ful-ness.”

Sofer asked the students to show him their mindful bodies. As the students quieted down, he held up a Tibetan singing bowl.

“Let’s begin by just listening to the sound of the bell,” he said gently. “Let your eyes close.”

He tapped the side of the bowl. “Raise your hand after you hear the whole bell.” He waited. “Now, take that hand down to your belly, and let’s take a few breaths together.” Sofer visits this class, and eight others, 15 minutes a day, three times a week for five weeks to teach mindfulness – the ability to be aware of what is happening in the present moment without judgment.

Based on an adult stress-reduction program, the rhythmic breathing and meditation exercises are adapted for elementary- school students’ vocabulary and attention spans. The Community Partnership for Mindfulness in Education, based at Park Day School in north Oakland, developed and funded the curriculum to teach students skills to calm down and pay attention.

“Right now, our country is facing extreme hardship,” said Laurie Grossman, one of the program’s founders. “And it trickles down to the kids.”

Numerous studies have tracked a rise in diagnoses of mental health problems and mood disorders among children over the past 10 years. Educators in Oakland report seeing the consequences of an increasingly digitalized, increasingly anxious society in their classrooms. Mandatory No Child Left Behind testing especially has spiked the stress level in classrooms among students and teachers, they said.

Studies from UCLA and Arizona State University have shown that mindfulness programs help elementary-school students regulate their behavior, control impulses, focus and plan ahead.

“When I tell them, ‘C’mon, let’s focus, concentrate,’ it doesn’t work,” said Pat Kaplan, a second-grade teacher at Bridges.

“A lot of the kids have a lot of things going on in their lives, difficult family situations and poverty,” Kaplan added. “They bring that to school, and it’s hard to let all that go and be focused on learning things that can seem very abstract and not related to their lives.”

So Sofer teaches kids skills that help them set aside distracting thoughts and be in the moment.

“Last time, we talked about mindfulness and eating,” he said, referring to a session where students had to touch, smell and listen to a raisin before eating it. “Raise your hand if you ate something mindfully.” One boy mentioned a burrito. “What did you notice when you ate it mindfully?” Sofer asked him.

“I wanted to eat it faster,” the boy said.

“Right,” Sofer said. “When we slow down, we notice how much we rush.”

Many kids find themselves applying mindful awareness to all parts of their lives:on the playground, at home, at church and at the dentist’s office.

“When I’m in church, I get nervous when I have to speak,” said Jorge Tovar, 8. “I take a deep breath, and I feel better.” He also practices breathing deeply before falling asleep, when he’s angry,and before he swings across the monkey bars. “I can do three at a time.” In the past two years, 19 schools in Oakland, El Cerrito and Napa – and 4,600 kids – have completed the program.

Last fall, Clayton B. Wire Elementary School was the first Sacramento school to implement it. Many kids there, like the kids at Bridges, deal with a host of adult problems: domestic violence, drug addictions in the family, incarceration or deportation of a parent.

The south Sacramento school’s social worker, Mary Reilly, said she had little challenge persuading the principal and teachers to adopt the mindfulness curriculum. “It’s just a part of our culture now,” Reilly said.

Several kids do mindful walking with her at lunch, the school’s mascot Viking ship carries a flagreading “mindfulness” on her bulletin board, and kids talk regularly about generosity and kindness.

“My referrals are down. Anger management is way down,” Reilly said, though right now her observations are only anecdotal. “And things get resolved quicker.”

Gina Biegel, a psychotherapist from Kaiser Permanente’s San Jose Medical Center, is working with Oakland’s Park Day School to develop a formal study of the mindfulness program to begin next fall. The teachers there believe the results of that study will match what they’re already seeing:

Not only are kids managing their stress and getting along better with others, they’re using mindfulness to enhance their drawing, acting, running and sleeping.

“I use it before my shows,” said Siena Bogatin, 11, who will play Veruca Salt in the Berkeley Playhouse Youth Company’s stage performance of “Willy Wonka Jr.” this month. “I go by myself and close my eyes and zone out of everything else that’s happening.”

Olivia Talley, 7,uses mindfulness to settle nerves and focus before soccer games. She credits it with her team’s wins. But she added, “If you lost a game, it calms you down.”

Almost all of the children report teaching their brothers, sisters, cousins, friends and parents about mindfulness.

“My mom comes home and she says, ‘You wouldn’t believe what happened at work today. So-and-so did this,’ ” said Mateo Galguera, 11. “I just say, ‘Mom, take a deep breath.’ ”

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