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Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on November 16th, 2016, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 17, Issue 37 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 17, Issue 37

No place like ommm: Schools are incorporating mindfulness as a way to help children develop better

By SHELLY CONE

Close your eyes and picture yourself by the bank of a river. Next to you is a tall tree with branches stretching out across the sky. A slight breeze begins to blow loosening the leaves from the branches. The breeze begins to swirl the leaves around, blowing them away. Now imagine all of those leaves are your problems, just floating away from you on the breeze.

This is the type of mental picture fourth- and fifth-grade kids at Robert Bruce Elementary School create when they participate in the guided meditation that’s a part of their Monday afterschool program. The program is under the auspices of the Student Nutrition Advisory Council (SNAC) and focuses on nutrition, education, and physical activity. This year the curriculum includes yoga and meditation. 


FINDING FOCUS
Most of the students at McKenzie Jr. High School in Guadalupe easily fall into the mindfulness exercises they practice twice each day, however, five minutes can seem like a long time to a middle school student. Some of them struggle to calm themselves, but most appreciate the focus they achieve afterward.
PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM

The goal of SNAC, a division of UC CalFresh Nutrition Education Program, is to get the students learning about wellness. To do that, program administrators teamed up with 4-H Yoga for Kids, a program created by the University of Arkansas, Division of Agriculture Research and Extension, which was recently adopted by the University of California Agriculture and National Resources. The idea of incorporating yoga and meditation is to teach the students how to be present in the now and to gain greater control over their feelings, emotions, and behavior. It’s part of a growing mindfulness movement that includes any number of activities, like yoga, coloring, or meditation, that requires the person to focus the mind in the present. It’s become a trend with adults, and is increasingly showing up in schools. 

Rosalba Torres is a community education specialist with UC CalFresh’s SNAC program. She began incorporating meditation and yoga this year to a group of about 40 students. She wasn’t sure if they’d embrace the practice, but about half of them really took to it. 

“Yoga is not for everyone. I’m surprised they liked it. Not all of them, but most of them,” Torres said.

The students struggle with the poses, trying to hold them without tumbling. The goal isn’t to achieve perfect form, but rather concentrate on developing patience to hold the poses, which forces their minds to focus. The kids like the yoga, and a group of them are planning to begin a leadership group to teach other students the practice, but surprisingly, the majority of the group prefers the quiet peacefulness of meditation.

“I think what they enjoy most is the meditation part. They need to discover a way of calming themselves and catching up with the day, and getting rid of the pressures of school, homework, and from friends,” she said. “When they are doing the meditation part, some of them even have a hard time getting back up from a sitting position afterward because they are so relaxed.”

Torres, who practices yoga and meditation herself, said she knows the benefits firsthand and was excited to bring the activities to the students. She took a training program that teaches how to present mindfulness specifically to students, and now she’s looking forward to seeing them reap the benefits of better focus and an increased ability to relax and rid themselves of anxiety.

She said that a lot of the attitude issues and behavioral problems the students have can be helped by practicing yoga and meditation, and according to research, she may be right. 

Studies show that mindfulness activities produce benefits in the practitioner. 

In a 2014 study appearing in the Journal of Applied School Psychology that analyzed the effectiveness of a yoga-based wellness program, researchers found that students who participated in the program experienced “significant reductions in anxiety, depression, and global psychological distress.” 

And, in a 2015 study of the effects of yoga in preventing depression, anxiety, and aggression among students in a low-socioeconomic school, research published in Educational Research and Evaluation, “suggested a potential of the program to reduce children’s anxiety problems, in particular.”

Mindfulness is a much more intense practice traditionally. Following Buddhist practice it’s a way to reach a deeper spirituality. For many practitioners, however, like Torres and the many other schools and companies that encourage the practice for their students and employees, it’s not about reaching deeper realms of personal enlightenment, it’s an effective way to alter thinking patterns and to provide people with a tool to better soothe the mind. Call it mindfulness lite, but it has a profound effect on relaxation, focus, and coping skills, practitioners say.

Dr. Pedro Guimares of Central Coast Behavioral Health said that even though practicing mindfulness is much more than just a way to get rid of the rigors of the day, it has become a popular way for people to simply deal with stress and relax. He added that no matter what approach is used, especially for children, the final product of mindfulness is awareness.

He said that’s what is leading the popularity of such activities that condition the mind to be present, like yoga, which requires breathing and concentration when holding poses.

“For children I believe it’s great. It will start teaching them to start paying attention, not just in body but also their mind,” he said. 

And like Torres said, it does have a positive effect on behavior. Guimares said that behaviorally children benefit as well because it tends to help them make better choices. 


GAINING AWARENESS
Students at Kermit McKenzie Jr. High School spend five minutes in the morning and another five minutes after lunch meditating or just focusing on their breathing. The mindfulness activity helps the students to get ready for learning.
PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM

“As you are more aware of your feelings and environment, that gives you a skill. That means when a child is going to act, they are going to be more in touch with reality. Being more in touch with the present gives them the opportunity to make a better choice in terms of their actions,” he said.

He said that teaching students mindfulness provides them with a lifelong skill that they can develop into adulthood. 

Adults in Lompoc and Santa Maria have discovered the importance of that skill as many of them are getting involved in regular mindfulness activities. The libraries in both cities offer adult coloring programs, which have become a popular addition to the selection of community classes offered. 

Librarian Joyce Fischer said she began offering adult coloring classes at the Santa Maria library once a month, and the program quickly found an audience, attracting 20 and 30 people per class. She said the classes attract all walks of life. Some come to make friends in a relaxing atmosphere of music and creativity, others simply find a quiet place and focus on their activity in solitude. No matter the approach, all of them find the peace they are looking for in the class. 

“You can just see it in their faces,” Fischer said. “The tension just starts to melt away as they color.” 

She said the coloring classes will be held twice a month, starting in January to accommodate demand.

Fischer said she actually implemented the program after learning about a similar class at the Lompoc library. 

Lompoc Library Director Sarah Bleyl said the program has enjoyed success from the start, however when she first pitched the idea to city department heads, most of them weren’t sure what to think about the concept. 

“I got a few chuckles,” Bleyl said. “But then someone said, ‘You know, there’s a set of markers and a coloring book in our break room, and people use them during their breaks.’”

While Central Coast adults are picking up on the benefits of a traditional childhood activity, a practice seen as more of an adult activity delivers benefits to students.

Sixth, seventh, and eighth grade classes at Guadalupe’s Kermit McKenzie Jr. High School have been practicing mindfulness for nearly three years. Each day the students spend five minutes in the morning and five minutes directly after lunch quieting their minds in preparation for learning. At the designated time, a school official announces over the intercom that it’s time to get calm, alert, and ready to learn, or CARL as they refer to it. Students rush to take their desks, and they are asked to close their eyes. 

Over the intercom a counselor tells them to get comfortable in their chairs, place their hands in their laps, and then instructs them to “now let your mind settle into your body by feeling yourself breathe.” The room goes silent, minus the occasional shuffling of feet or throat clearing.


PERFECTING PATIENCE
The concentration and patience needed in order to hold the poses in yoga help students to practice focusing their minds on the present.
PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM

Five minutes may sound like a short amount of time, but for a classroom of active middle schoolers five minutes can seem like forever. Some students calmly focus on their breathing, seeming to appreciate the chance to slow down. Others fidget uncomfortably, struggling to keep their eyes closed. The voice over the intercom intermittently reminds them to focus on their inhalations and exhalations. 

Principal Gabriel Solorio said he’s seen a difference in the students’ behavior since they started implementing the mindfulness exercise. They seem to transition much better from playing outside to getting back to work after they’ve had their five minutes of downtime. 

He got the idea from his wife who is a nurse. Along with help from the doctor his wife works for, they developed a regular routine, and decided to incorporate it at school.

“I thought, it’s good for your well-being, good for your soul. What could it hurt?” Solorio said. “It gets them to focus. When the lesson is being presented we need them to be in the moment, to focus on paying attention to the teacher,” he said. 

Despite its growing popularity and studies supporting its effectiveness, mindfulness is still a strange concept to some. Guimares said he explained to the students that this was something that is done at big corporations like Google, and that celebrities like Oprah Winfrey do it. Classrooms also display posters about why they practice mindfulness. 

“We had to explain to them that this isn’t just some crazy, whacked-out idea we decided to do out here with you guys, there’s some research behind it,” he said. 

Some McKenzie students, like seventh-grade student Victor Castillo, 13, admitted the practice sounded a little different to him at first, but that it only took him a couple of days to accept the idea. He said he doesn’t know how the mindfulness activity will translate into the rest of his life, but he knows it helps him in school.  

“It makes you relax your brain. It helps you focus in your class,” he said. 

Sixth-grade student Jennifer Cabrera, 11, said the activity took her a week or two to get used to but that she enjoys taking the short breaks during the day. 

“I think it just focuses you more on class, and I feel like it’s a good idea to do that before we even start class,” she said.

Solorio said he doesn’t have statistics but he’s seen an overall general improvement in student behavior. 

Torres, of the SNAC program at Robert Bruce School, said she believes she’ll see the same. 

She thinks the more important aspect of the students’ mindfulness practice is improvement to their overall well-being. She said that she has so much confidence in the program that she hopes to reach more students. 

“My hope is to be able to expand the wonderful practice of yoga to all elementary school children in Santa Maria, and in a more ambitious plan, to all schools in Santa Barbara County.” 

Editor Shelly Cone can be reached at scone@santamariasun.com.




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