Mind Matters

Schools incorporate approach to calm, focus students

Talking to elementary-age children using the language of neuroscience might seem an unusual approach. It is catching on in Wilmington, however, as local elementary schools incorporate the practice and vocabulary of “mindfulness” into their curriculums.

According to LOUISE WALSTON, a guidance counselor at SNIPES ACADEMY OF ARTS AND DESIGN, this focus on mindfulness has been a gamechanger. It involves developing students’ social and emotional awareness through meditative practices and by teaching children how their brain works.

Walston’s interest in mindfulness was sparked two years ago, when she and a school psychologist at Snipes, an elementary public school in New Hanover County, began to explore issues of chronic stress among their students. They became particularly interested in the work of Eric Jensen, a former educator whose research and advocacy centers on the effects of poverty on children’s brains.

The Snipes officials’ research led them to a curriculum called MindUP, offered by The Hawn Foundation. A key component of the curriculum is mindfulness.

When it comes to helping students deal with chronic stress, Walston explains, “this is actually one of the tools (Jensen) mentions that’s highly effective: how to self-regulate their emotions and how to calm themselves.”

After seeing initial successes using the lessons in small group sessions last year, Snipes, along with several other local elementary schools, plan to incorporate MindUP’s “core practice,” which uses deep breathing and meditation to redirect a student’s focus. Most classrooms will begin the day this way, though Walston hopes to see the practice spread throughout the day.

Using chimes as cues, students begin the day by concentrating on deep breathing. The opportunity to center themselves allows them to shift their focus from the outside world and be present as learners.

“It’s just centering you in that moment.” Walston says. “Okay, now we’re getting ready to learn, here’s where you are. Tune out those thoughts of what I was just worrying about or what I just did.”

Incorporating this practice throughout the day, particularly in moments of transition, is something Walston believes will minimize problematic behaviors in the classroom.

Another key component of the program consists of lessons on how the brain works.

Students learn to identify three main parts of the brain: the prefrontal cortex, the hippocampus, and the amygdala.

The prefrontal cortex, students learn, is the “wise leader in me,” allowing them to make wise decisions, Walston says. She adds that the hippocampus is their “memory saver,” where all their life

experiences and learning are stored. To make wise decisions or do well on tests, teachers will explain, these two parts of the brain must work together.

Then there’s the amygdala. Students learn that it functions as their “bodyguard.”

It’s the amygdala’s job to keep you safe, Walston explains. It activates the “fight, flight, or freeze” mode and prompts reactive behavior.

While the vocabulary may seem challenging at the outset, Walston has seen students embrace the lessons.

“It’s the first thing I’ve seen in a really long time that the kids just get. It gives them hope and optimism,” she says.

Mindfulness gives students power over their behavior, Walston says.

“That’s what most of the kids want,” she says. “They need to feel some sense of power, somewhere, that they control something.”

Incorporating mindfulness into the curriculum has also empowered the teachers, giving them more tools in addressing and correcting classroom behaviors.

“It keeps you out of a power struggle, to simply say ‘I recognize that your amygdala may be on because I see your tense muscles.’ The more specific you are, the better it is.” Walston adds.

Teachers are then able to address students’ behavior in a non-punitive way, one that grants students the opportunity to analyze their own behavior and offer corrections.

“You can say ‘Why don’t you take a break, and in ten minutes we’ll come back, and we’ll figure out what caused your amygdala to go on,’” Walston says.

There are a number of ways parents can incorporate or support the techniques, Walston points out. Among them are touching base with teachers, understanding what their children are learning in school, and reinforcing positive behavior by celebrating what she calls “the little victories.”

Perhaps the most important for parents, however, is modeling positive, mindful behaviors themselves, Walston says. Here, she emphasizes quality – creating space where one can be truly present with their child.

“Maybe mindfulness means that, for one hour on Sunday, when I’m not working, we’re going to sit at the table and have a sandwich together,” Walston says.

“And I’m going to be present to hear what’s going on in their life. TV off, we’re just calm, you know? Just being non-judgmental and present to me is the definition of mindful.”


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