Kids use meditation, mindfulness to de-stress

Lying down on her back with her fellow kindergarten classmates, Samira Javed closes her eyes and brings her hands together near her belly button as a teacher leads the students through a breathing exercise.

“Let’s just be silent for a second,” Laura Patterson instructs the 5- and 6-year-old students lying at her feet at a Louisville school. “Think about that we’re right here in this room, right now. Let’s not think about anything (from) yesterday. Let’s not think about anything you want to do tomorrow, or anything else. … We’re going to take three big breaths, very slowly. Keep your eyes closed. Here we go.”

The exercise at Highland Presbyterian Church Nursery and Weekday School is an example of how some schools are using mindfulness - the practice of focusing one's awareness on the present moment - with or without meditation, to help students center themselves, combat stress and treat others with kindness.

The goal is to give children “coping skills for life,” said Patricia Salem, a counselor atSt. Agnes Catholic School, which has had a mindfulness program for about three years.

This school year, the Jefferson County Public Schools has an initiative called the Compassionate Schools Project, which includes teaching mindfulness practices and breathing habits for stress relief. It also has other elements, such as nutrition education and posture exercises. The project, which is a collaboration with the University of Virginia, local government and philanthropic givers, is being tested out in three elementary schools - Cane Run, Jacob and Slaughter - before being expanded to more schools, and it will be studied by the university.

Mindfulness is a new education trend that has been gathering steam in recent years and is practiced in school districts across North America, according to the Mindfulness in Schools Project, a nonprofit whose aim is to encourage and research the teaching of mindfulness in schools.

St. Agnes' mindfulness program started with a pilot program for fifth-grade students before expanding to kindergarten through seventh grade. Sometimes, eighth graders also are involved.

Along with focusing on their breathing and bringing intentional mindful awareness to the present moment, students learn about concepts like gratitude, appreciation of nature, respect, tolerance, compassion and being non-judgmental.

Prior to starting the program, Salem had noticed that many students were struggling with focusing, paying attention, worrying, trying to regulate their emotions and dealing with friendship issues.

The mindfulness program “helps kids have an understanding of how to cope with their feelings and behaviors in a way that is supporting emotional health, cognitive health and also helping them to manage their behavior and solve problems,” Salem said.

Mindfulness can be simply defined as “paying attention on purpose, with curiosity and kindness,” Salem said.

Meditation is a mind-and-body practice that usually involves sitting in a quiet place, with few distractions, and focusing one’s attention while keeping an open mind, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, which is part of the National Institutes of Health.

During meditation, the person is paying attention to the breathing as an anchor, Salem said. “The person is coming back to that anchor and addressing distracting thoughts or feelings that get in the way and bringing the attention to the breath … the still point.”

“You come to the breathing as a way to quiet yourself,” Salem said. “For a lot of children, it’s self-soothing during a busy day when there’s lots of distractions.”

At Highland Presbyterian, Patterson’s students do breathing exercises about three times a day, including when they're getting started in the morning. She said it’s a form of meditation.

“I really think it gets the kids to calm their bodies, sort of prepare for a day,” Patterson said. It’s a “part of our routine that they respond to very well, and we keep it short,” lasting only about four minutes.

Kindergartner James Federici, 5, said, “it helps us feel calm,” and classmate Samira, 5, agreed, saying, “it calms me down, and I like that.”

Patterson and fellow kindergarten teacher Alayne Vokurka use a book, “Mindful Monkey, Happy Panda” by Lauren Alderfer, to help teach the students about mindfulness. In the book, a monkey whose mind jumps from one thing to another learns from a happy panda, who explains: “True happiness comes from bringing all your attention to whatever you are doing right now. There is no need to think about what happened yesterday. Yesterday’s gone, over, done. And there’s no need to worry about tomorrow. Tomorrow isn’t here. But today is all around us. Bringing your mind back to this moment, right here, over and over and over again, is called mindfulness.”

The mindfulness curriculum at St. Agnes is worked into specific classes, such as religion or social studies, at the discretion of the teacher and principal. Younger kids might spend 15 minutes on it while older children might spend up to 45 minutes.

The curriculum is based on teaching by holistic physician and mindfulness coach Amy Saltzman, author of “A Still Quiet Place,” that Salem modified with a Christian point of view. For example, some students use the name “Jesus” as a mantra when meditating.

“Being a Catholic school, I felt developing the mindfulness program with a Christian perspective reinforced our Christian values and encourages patience, generosity, kindness and joy, and we incorporate traditional prayer,” Salem said.

Mindfulness practices and skills also support bully prevention, reinforce kind and emphatic behavior of students toward each other, and help them with stressors at school and home, Salem said.

St. Agnes Principal Julie Daly said the program provides “a focus and a purposefulness in being present with whatever task you’re doing or whatever learning you’re doing. I think that’s very helpful to students when we, as a society, ask so much of them.”

Fifth-grader Samuel Passafiume said, “a lot of times, I get very stressed out with sports like football and after-school activities and I have lots of homework.” But he said mindfulness helps him to slow down, take some deep breaths and “just chill out.”

The program also helps to cope with emotions and sibling strife, some St. Agnes students said.

"When I feel angry or sad, I just use mindfulness and it makes me calm again," said Maureen Lally, a 9-year-old third-grader at St. Agnes. "When I'm thinking about mindfulness, I think of waves. When I breathe, the waves are rolling into the shore, and then when I breathe out, the waves are going back."

Maureen’s mother, Kristin Lally, said she can tell that Maureen has really learned from the program.

“At dinner time, not too long ago, she was closing her eyes and chewing each bite real thoroughly and I said, ‘What’s going on?’ and she said she was ‘mindfully eating.’ I thought it was great,” Lally said.

St. Agnes parent Liz Braun said mindfulness teaching has been helpful not only for her children but for the whole family. Braun has two children at St. Agnes - Allison, 9, and Owen, 7, and a third child, Ethan, 6, who gets exposed to mindfulness at home. She’s also studied mindfulness herself at the Passionist Earth & Spirit Center on Newburg Road.

“This is a really helpful tool for us as a family,” Braun said. “I consider it mental health. I consider it physical health. I consider it brain health, spiritual health. It kind of covers everything.”

“Before, we were stressed out and constantly trying to multi-task and thinking of the next 10 things we had to do,” she said. Now, they have better balance and are "stopping, being present, enjoying, finding pleasure in the simple things. It’s been great.”

Assumption High School in Louisville is in its second year of exposing some of its students to mindfulness and has educated its teachers about the topic in workshops.

“We are encouraging teachers who feel comfortable to offer it whenever it feels appropriate,” said guidance counselor Beth Hicks.

This year, Hicks is going into sophomore theology classes and introducing the process of how to be mindful and how to meditate.

She said people operate on automatic pilot so much these days, but mindfulness helps you "be present to your life and to the people that are right there in front of you, to each moment, as much as you can."
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