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Students in Zelda Sanchez and Bart Ramey’s second-grade classes at Atalaya Elementary School were asked to close their eyes and then raise their hands when the soundwaves emitting from a metal singing bowl had settled and there was nothing left to hear.
It is one of several exercises students may partake in a few times a day as a result of a teacher-led effort to integrate the practice of mindfulness at the school.
“We’re not trying to make it a religious practice or trying to make them into Zen masters,” Katherine Diaz, principal at Atalaya, said of the students, mostly in kindergarten and second grade, who practice mindfulness in the classroom. “For us in the school, mindfulness is the act of noticing. It’s how you react inside and out. How you’re acting and noticing the people around you.
“For the kiddos,” she continued, “it’s noticing when they’re stressed and how they react to it. Sometimes it’s having them take deep breaths and re-center themselves.”
Another tool in the toolbox
Diaz said teachers at the school first started implementing mindfulness at Atalaya about three years ago after attending a daylong training session at the Mountain Cloud Zen Center in the foothills of southeast Santa Fe.
They learned how mindfulness can be another tool they put in their teaching toolbox. When they returned to school, they came up with ways mindfulness could be integrated at Atalaya, including creating a mindfulness room where teachers take a break to reset themselves, just as their students are taught to do.
“Once we developed it, I thought, oh, we’ve got to bring this to the kids,” said Diaz.
And the kids say it works.
“It helps you to calm down,” one girl called out when a room full of second-graders were asked how practicing mindfulness helps them.
“It helps me to focus,” another girl said.
“My opinion is that it allows you to relax,” a thoughtful boy added.
Over in Cheryl Farrar’s kindergarten class, students practice mindfulness, too.
“When we’re out of control, Miss Farrar tells us to take anchor breaths,” one girl said of the practice of taking several deep breaths to calm yourself down.
Another young student said she now practices mindfulness at home.
“You can do it when you’re mad or sad,” she said. “When I get in fights with my sister, I’m like, I don’t want to argue.”
The kindergartners demonstrated others ways they practice mindfulness as a group.
One they call “pulling the boat.” They sit on the floor with their legs outstretched and touch their left foot with their right hand, and right foot with their left hand, while repeating out loud, “I am steady, I am strong, I can do most anything.”
Another exercise in mindfulness they practice is mindful eating.
Too often, we gulp down the food that feeds us without a thought, Diaz says. Mindful eating is taking it slow, and focusing on how your bowl of macaroni and cheese tastes and what the texture is like.
Like listening to the tone from a singing bowl dissipate into nothingness, mindful eating is a form of sensory mindfulness, as is feeling grains of sand shift through your fingers.
A calming influence
Not every school in Santa Fe Public Schools integrates mindfulness into their school day. District officials say it is most present at Atalaya and across town at Kearny Elementary.
“In the school setting, more and more it has become an acknowledged tool to address the emotional needs of students,” said Stephanie Hubley, principal at Kearny, who received mindfulness training in college while studying to be a teacher. “For faculty, it gives them the opportunity to recharge and take a quiet moment to get centered. For students, it’s a way on friendly terms to help students calm themselves.”
Hubley said there are no religious aspects attached to the practice. She said students are “invited” to take deep breaths and center themselves when a mindfulness moment – lasting about 30 seconds – is taken during morning announcements.
Interested in implementing mindfulness at Kearny, Hubley formed a small task force of teachers to consider how that could be done. A handful attended training at the Mountain Cloud Zen Center put on by the Rio Grande Mindfulness Institute.
One of the things that came from it was setting up what they call a “reflection room” for teachers.
“It’s kind of a safe place you can go where you know you’re not going to be interrupted,” said Jennifer Ortiz, who was a member of the mindfulness team that attended the retreat to the Zen center.
The reflection room has yoga mats and cushions on which teachers can stretch out. There’s a puzzle in progress if they want to distract themselves, stress balls they can squeeze and foot massage balls for some sensory stimulation, among other items.
When they introduced some of what they had in mind to implement mindfulness at Kearny, Ortiz said some staff members were skeptical.
“We had some staff members come and say, ‘What’s the deal here?’ I told them, ‘I hear you, because I was skeptical, too,’ ” Ortiz said. “But once they tried it, I think they realized that maybe this isn’t for them on a daily basis, but there are some aspects of this they could use.”
Teacher Sophie Hegmann was not among the skeptics. She has practiced mindfulness all her life.
Her parents introduced her to it, and she experienced something comparable to it while attending a Catholic school as a girl.
“They used prayer in a similar way,” she said of her Catholic upbringing.
Hegmann uses the school’s reflection room for 10 to 15 minutes of yoga or meditation.
“It resets my day. I come back in a completely different mood,” she said.
Anna Hagele, who teaches students in fourth through sixth grade at Kearny, is one of the teachers who underwent training provided by the institute.
It wasn’t her first exposure to it. She says she heard about mindfulness in college about 20 years ago in the context of a philosophy class she was taking.
“It implanted in me the idea of being present,” said Hagele, who has made mindfulness a daily practice since then. “It’s about allowing thoughts and feelings to come as they may and not dwell on them … A lot of times we make mountains out of molehills.”
Hagele’s 9-year-old daughter, Clare, attends the school and practices mindfulness before taking tests.
“It makes me feel focused, so you’re ready for the test and the only thing you think about is doing the test,” she said.
Taking care of teachers
The Rio Grande Mindfulness Institute has been providing mindfulness training to New Mexico teachers for about four years. In that time, they’ve provided instruction on mindfulness to about 800 teachers at 140 schools.
The institute defines mindfulness as “deliberately paying attention to the present moment.” And one of the institute’s tenets is that, for teachers to be present for their students, they must first learn to be present for themselves.
“The purpose of the training is to help caregivers like teachers become better at managing their emotions, and their stresses and their difficulties in their very complicated profession so the young people they serve can thrive,” said John Braman, who, along with Henry Shukman at Mountain Cloud Zen Center, conducts the training.
In addition to the daylong retreats at the Zen center, they’ll conduct training at individual school sites or for teachers, staff and counselors throughout a school district.
“Taking care of teachers is our primary focus and also one of the most important,” he said. “We firmly believe in the power of the emotionally regulated, calm teacher in the learning process.”
Braman says teachers face all kinds of stresses that can lead to low morale. Excessive workloads, class sizes, lack of resources, testing and the teacher evaluation process all add to the stress.
“Stress management comes up in a lot of conversations, but there’s another part that has to do with a sense of well-being and happiness. So it’s not just about the negative emotions teachers experience, but supporting the positive,” he said.
The Kearny teachers say they’ve seen positive results from students who practice mindfulness.
Hagele said some of her students are autistic and she can see it making a difference with them.
“I like introducing it to students. Students need that help self-regulating,” she said.
Ortiz, her colleague at Kearny, tells a story about how one day last year, she was with a group of about 60 students participating in a National Dance Institute program.
Full of energy and exposed to a lot of sensory stimulation, the kids were getting a little too rambunctious.
That’s when teachers stepped in and called for the kids to take a moment to practice mindfulness.
“It really helped,” she said, adding the atmosphere inside the gym completely changed for the better. “It reset them. It really worked.”