By Brenna R. Kelly
When 5th-grade teacher Amy Green turns out the lights and taps three times on the small singing bowl on her desk, her students know what to do.
“They sit up, get straight and close their eyes if they want to,” she said. She taps the small brass bowl three more times then runs a mallet around the bowl’s outer edge as a soothing sound fills the classroom.
Green reminds her students to breathe deeply, slowly, in and out through the nose.
“You can just feel the whole dynamic of the classroom change within a 10-second time period,” she said. “They all just stop and it helps them to reconnect with where we are and what we’re getting ready to do.”
Green’s students are practicing mindful breathing as part of Clark County’s The Be Project, a mindfulness curriculum designed to teach students social and emotional awareness, resilience and how to embrace a calm focus for learning.
The program, which is being piloted in eight schools, was the brainchild of Kara Davies, principal of Clark County’s preschool. Davies had been studying teacher retention and the factors that affect retention – such as student discipline, climate and culture – as part of pursuing a doctorate in educational leadership.
“I have a personal mindfulness practice and I’m really passionate about the benefits of mindfulness,” she said. Those benefits – including focus, calmness, stress relief and coping strategies – could improve student learning, she said.
So during the 2016-17 school year, Davies reached out to Allison Nelson, Clark County’s school psychologist, and three local mindfulness experts: Erin Smith, a yoga teacher; Cindy Reed, a social worker; and Katie Sherrer, a yoga teacher and former librarian.
They applied for a What’s Your Ambition grant from the Greater Clark Foundation that allowed them to develop a mindfulness curriculum based on four pillars: the brain, focus, awareness and resilience.
The result was a 66-page curriculum that includes 13 sample lesson plans on topics such as mindful breathing, dealing with difficult emotions, mindful movement, gratitude and more. For example, in one lesson students make snow globes to illustrate how stressful thoughts are like swirling snow. The snow, or stressful thoughts, make it difficult to see clearly and make decisions. But when students use mindful breathing, it allows the snow to settle and the mind to focus.
The lessons include adaptions that make them useable for preschool all the way through high school, she said.
The grant paid for two staff members to become trained yoga instructors in order to implement the movement portion of the curriculum. After testing the curriculum in the classroom and hearing positive feedback, Davies and her team decided to offer mindfulness training to all district employees over the summer. Nearly 100 teachers, administrators and staff members participated.
“I think it was an amazing turnout considering it was during the summer and was entirely voluntary,” Davies said.
At the training, teachers could apply to become model mindfulness classrooms. This school year, the district used a second What’s Your Ambition grant to train the model classroom teachers. They will then be responsible for spreading the curriculum throughout their school.
“We want it to be a true grassroots effort, teachers start it and teachers keep it going,” Davies said. “We thought that would be a more sustainable way to keep it going.”
The district now has model classrooms at the preschool, all four elementary schools, the intermediate school, the junior high and the high school.
“In some of the schools we did more than one model classroom because we had so much interest,” Davies said.
The model classrooms used the practices for the first nine weeks of school. Davies and her team now will analyze data from the classrooms to see if the practice had impact on student learning, discipline and the climate and culture of the classroom.
“What we have heard from teachers has been really positive and amazing,” Davies said. “We’ve got teachers who are coming in after lunch and their kids are all hyped up, so they are doing a few minutes of (yoga pose) legs up the wall or legs in the chair.”
Students are also are asking their teachers for time to practice mindful breathing or do mindful movements, she said. At Clark County High School, students have formed a mindfulness club.
“That was all student-initiated based on their experiences learning how to practice mindfulness in the classroom,” she said.
Some of Green’s students at Baker Intermediate School were initially skeptical about the mindful breathing breaks and yoga moves, but now they look forward to the exercises.
“I’ve had kids come up to me and ask when are we going to do a mindful break, can we do some breathing,” she said. “It’s becoming part of their routine now.”
Green attended the summer mindfulness training because she had been reading about the practice and quickly realized that it fit well with her style of teaching.
“I just love it,” she said.
After signing up to be a model classroom, Green had a yoga instructor come to her classroom a few times. Now in addition to the mindful breathing, her students do yoga poses.
She uses the mindfulness techniques anytime she can feel the class getting stressed, worked up or often at the beginning or end of the class.
“I’m teaching them that they can do the breathing anywhere,” she said. “They could be in the hallway, they could use it at home if something is going at home or before they take a test in another class.”
Some teachers may think that they can’t spare the time from their instruction to take a mindful break, but Green believes it’s worth it.
“I just feel like if you take time to do this kind of stuff, down the road the math is going to come. This is building confidence in the students,” she said. “If all teachers would do this for 5 minutes or 10 minutes, they would get so much out of it.”