Be calm, focus.
They seem like easy undertakings, but they can be a challenge — especially for kids.
In a gym full of fifth-graders Friday, Daniel Sunshine explained how mindfulness can be key in concentration and reaching a more composed state.
“You’ll see it’s actually really amazing what this can do for you in your life,” he told students at Jimmie Tyler Brashear Elementary School in Dallas.
The Dallas Yoga Center has been integrating mindfulness into its curriculum for years, but last October, Sunshine, director of the Mindfulness in Schools program, and his brother, David, owner and director of the yoga center, started bringing it to Dallas ISD schools.
With their mindfulness program, they want to equip students, teachers, and administrators with ways to focus better, which hopefully translate to success in the classroom and beyond.
“If a child is more focused on not only managing their emotions, but managing their behavior, than ultimately, their academics will be impacted positively I believe,” said Jamila Thomas, coordinator of Dallas ISD’s African American Success Initiative.
Thomas read about the encouraging results yoga and mindfulness had on a school in Baltimore, Maryland. She thought it’d be worth a try in Dallas ISD.
STORY, STUDIES SPARK INTEREST IN MINDFULNESS
After the story about the Baltimore school went viral on social media last year, the Dallas Yoga Center began receiving calls almost daily about bringing its own mindfulness practices to schools, corporations, and other organizations, Daniel Sunshine said.
He said that story, coupled with recent studies showing how mindfulness can improve emotional well-being and help people be more compassionate, have contributed to a surge in interest. So much so, that the yoga center is starting an official mindfulness outreach program repackaging and tailoring curriculum it uses at the center.
“All these studies are coming out and I think people are starting to see this is a really positive way to improve our lives, improve our communities,” Daniel Sunshine said.
“All these studies are coming out and I think people are starting to see this is a really positive way to improve our lives, improve our communities.”
He said many people think of meditation as something that must be done for maybe a set 20-minute interval in the morning and evening, which can be a difficult habit to keep. The techniques he teaches can be integrated into peoples’ everyday lives.
“Stopping and breathing for three minutes or noticing the connection of our feet to the ground while we are walking — more applicable tools for mindfulness,” Daniel Sunshine said.
At Brashear Elementary, students sat cross-legged on the gym floor, arms resting on their knees, and eyes squeezed shut.
As teachers hit Tibetan singing bowls, students listened until the ringing faded.
“How do you feel now? Who feels more calm?” Daniel Sunshine asked the group.
One boy declared the exercise made him feel like “a new person,” while another shook his head in disbelief.
“I feel too calm,” he said.
“Maybe ‘too calm’ can be good sometimes,” Daniel Sunshine said.
So far, the Dallas Yoga Center has reached third- through fifth-graders in a handful of south Dallas schools, but Thomas sees potential to expand to more.
The Sunshine brothers have monthly sessions with some schools, while others they have only visited once.
“I think that’s the beauty of this, is we provide the tools that you want to utilize and then you can use it how you deem appropriate for your campus,” Thomas said.
MAKING IT THEIR OWN
For Roger Q. Mills Elementary School, the Dallas Yoga Center program added another layer to its existing mindfulness practices.
Principal Tonya Clark said classrooms have had what she calls, “reset spaces,” since the beginning of the school year. The dedicated spaces offer a haven for students throughout the day to gather themselves, settle down emotionally, or cool off before returning to learning.
Since the Dallas Yoga Center’s visit in the fall, teachers have added breathing exercises to their morning and midday routines for some grades.
The school also has introduced a mindfulness room with sound machines and yoga mats and balls. The space is meant to be a preventative measure to detention, Clark said.
“They know if they go to the mindfulness room, it’s not a punishment. It is a space we use to center ourselves, calm down, and think about choices and be able to talk through some things with a limited audience,” Clark said.
A group of Mills teachers have also received social and emotional learning training including mindfulness from Dallas-based Momentous Institute.
About five or six years ago, the Momentous School began using mindfulness, said Heather Bryant, director of innovation and impact at the Momentous Institute.
“I feel like we’ve been able to see, especially in our older kids, them actually utilizing the techniques, and recognizing that it actually helps them.”
Teachers use an analogy of a glitter ball to introduce the concept explaining that their brain under stress is like a shaken snow globe.
“We know that to do our best thinking and learning, we need to be in our prefrontal cortex, but sometimes when we get really upset, excited, or scared, our amygdala takes over, so we have to have strategies to settle our amygdala down,” Bryant said.
The institute released a study last year showing that after a yearlong mindfulness curriculum, prekindergarten students experienced a boost in their working memory and organization skills. In kindergarten, those same students also received higher scores on standardized vocabulary and literacy tests.
It’s still early to give empirical data on what effect the practices have at Mills and other Dallas ISD schools, but for Clark, she’s seen a difference in behavior in some students with a history of disciplinary problems.
“I feel like we’ve been able to see, especially in our older kids, them actually utilizing the techniques, and recognizing that it actually helps them,” Clark said.
Photos by Sarah Bradbury:
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