Close your eyes

How Colorado schools are helping kids calm down — and learn — through mindfulness

First-graders at Denver's Munroe Elementary do a mindfulness exercise led by school psychologist Amy Schirm.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, school psychologist Amy Schirm stood before two-dozen fifth-graders in a classroom at Denver’s Munroe Elementary School. Piano music played softly in the background and a string of white holiday lights twinkled on the wall behind her.

“Close your eyes,” Schirm said. “I’m going to ring the bell three times. Just focus all your attention on the sound.” She struck a small metal bowl with a mallet.

“Let your body kind of feel heavy, like you’re sinking down into your chair,” she said. “Just take a minute to check in with yourself. How are you doing in this moment?”

The students were practicing mindfulness — concentrating on their present thoughts, emotions and environment. The concept is catching on in schools in Colorado and nationwide as a way to help students better focus their attention, process their emotions and develop compassion.

Advocates say mindfulness can be especially valuable in high-poverty schools such as Munroe, where many students face difficult home lives and need strong social and emotional skills.

Nearly all the students Schirm was addressing that afternoon followed her instructions intently, some with eyes serenely closed and others with hoods pulled low over their faces. `

“We’re constantly telling kids to pay attention, but we never teach them how, or what that means,”  said Schirm, who spearheaded the school’s foray into mindfulness last year.

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
A fifth-grader in Fallon Newman’s class practices mindfulness at Munroe Elementary School in Denver.

Mindfulness fills that gap, helping kids tune in to instruction and their own emotional lives.

At least 40 Denver schools are weaving mindfulness into the school day, district officials say. Last year, DPS began offering staff trainings on the topic and purchased two mindfulness curriculums: MindUP for elementary students and Learning to Breathe for secondary students.

“We’re definitely moving in a direction where we’re realizing and acknowledging that social emotional learning is essential to academic success,” said Meredith Furtney, supervisor of the district’s department of social work and psychological services.

Munroe teacher Fallon Newman said she’s seen a big difference in her students since introducing mindfulness, both through “mindful minutes” each morning and during Schirm’s Thursday afternoon visits.

They’re more articulate about how they’re feeling and better able to cope with stress. That means more time for learning instead of hours given over to pent-up emotion, Newman said.

She’s also noticed a greater sense of empathy among students. A glimpse of that came during Schirm’s recent lesson when she had students pair up and gaze intently at their partners.

There were giggles and some students said they felt silly, but there were also moments of connection.

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Two boys at Munroe Elementary in Denver practice “mindful seeing.”

“I felt like I know the things she knows,” said one girl, as the class debriefed.

Newman said some of her students have also become more attuned to her. She experienced it on a recent day when she temporarily took on seven fifth-graders from another class in addition to her own 26.

One of her students asked a surprising question: Was she feeling anxious about supervising the extra kids?

Newman admitted that she was a little apprehensive about the bigger group.

The boy responded, “OK, I’ll be on my best behavior.”

It was a heart-warming sign that mindfulness is paying off.

“It’s powerful stuff,” Newman said.

For some Munroe students, the practice instills a sense of calm that is often lacking in their lives. Take Chris, a fifth-grader with an impish smile who joined Schirm as she headed to a first-grade class to lead a brief mindfulness lesson last week.

For a long time, he’d been disruptive and noisy during such lessons in his own classroom. When Schirm finally asked why it was so hard for him, he told her he wasn’t used to the quiet.

Chris has an easier time of it now. In the first grade classroom, he stood tall in front of his smaller schoolmates, opening and closing a big expandable ball in time with their slow breaths.

At the 135-student charter school Carbondale Community School, the nudge toward mindfulness came last year from the school’s wellness committee. A teacher who was studying the practice as part of her graduate program led the charge.

Principal Tom Penzel said students and staff circle up in the commons area at the beginning of each week for a 15-minute “Mindful Monday” session. There’s a few minutes of guided meditation and then maybe a discussion about real-life scenarios where mindfulness could come in handy.

Examples include how to react when the least athletic kid wants to join the game or what to do when you feel a flash of anger toward a classmate. Penzel said it was students who asked that more time to be devoted to such scenarios.

“I’ve been amazed over time how much the kids are bought into it,” he said.

catching some zzzzs

One Colorado district moving toward later high school start times — maybe — while another shelves the idea

PHOTO: Chellseyy, Creative Commons

Of the two large Colorado school districts that were actively exploring later high school start times for the 2017-18 school year, one is moving ahead and one has dropped the idea for now.

The 55,000-student Cherry Creek district — the state’s fourth largest — continues to consider proposed start- and end-time changes at all school levels. While the district is still collecting community feedback, the current proposal would set elementary school start times at 7:55 a.m., middle school start times at 8:50 a.m. and high school start times at 8:15 a.m.

Currently, Cherry Creek elementary schools start about 9 a.m., middle schools start about 8 a.m. and high schools start about 7 am. A recommendation will go before the Cherry Creek school board this spring.

Meanwhile, the 31,000-student Boulder Valley school district won’t change school start times next year because of the complexity of managing school bus schedules and the prospect of higher transportation costs, district spokesman Briggs Gamblin wrote via email.

Changes are still possible for the 2018-19 school year if the district can find a way to keep transportation costs at their current levels, he wrote.

The push for later high school start times has gained steam nationally with increasing evidence that when school schedules match with teen sleep rhythms, students are healthier, more focused, attend school more regularly and do better academically. In the last two years, both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have come out in favor of start times of 8:30 a.m. or after.

In districts that have considered changing high school start times or actually changed them, the logistics of bus schedules and after-school sports are typically the biggest hurdles.

In Colorado, some smaller districts, including the Montezuma-Cortez district in southwest Colorado and the Harrison district in Colorado Springs, have pushed start times to 8:30 a.m. or after for some or all secondary schools.

But large districts have been slower to join the club. Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest school district, briefly explored later start times for some high schools a couple years ago, but the effort did not lead to any changes.

In the Boulder Valley district, a task force spent the 2015-16 school year researching later high school start times, with one of the group’s leaders saying last August she hoped the district could move forward with changes in 2017-18.

In Cherry Creek, where changes to school start and end times have also been under consideration over the last year, a November survey on the topic drew 25,000 responses.

Seventy-three percent of respondents said they wanted high school start times to align more closely to the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation. When respondents were asked to pick between six high school schedule scenarios, the 8 a.m.-3:30 p.m. scenario was most popular — garnering more than 7,000 votes.

No thanks

Diet Nope: Colorado’s large districts still keeping diet soda out of high schools

After a state rule change last fall that allowed Colorado high schools to sell diet soda after a seven-year ban, many of the state’s big school districts have decided to stay soda-free.

Officials in six of Colorado’s 10 largest districts — Denver, Douglas County, Cherry Creek, Boulder Valley, Poudre and Colorado Springs 11 — say there are no plans to allow diet soda sales.

In some cases, such as Boulder, the district’s existing wellness policy already bans the soft drinks. In others, such as Poudre, the superintendent’s cabinet made the decision in the fall. In Denver, the district’s Health Advisory Council has recommended a continued prohibition of diet soda, but the school board hasn’t voted on the recommendation yet.

“We really commend the districts that are strengthening their own policies to continue to disallow diet soda,” said Sarah Kurz, vice president of policy and communications for the advocacy group LiveWell Colorado.

Three of the 10 largest districts — Aurora, Jeffco and Adams 12 — haven’t decided yet whether to bring back diet soda. Adams 12 officials say they’re gathering feedback from the district’s health advisory committee, 42 school wellness committees and all building principals. When that process is complete, any proposed changes will go through a policy-making process that ends with a recommendation to the superintendent.

Jeffco administrators say they’ll also collect data and public input before deciding whether to update the district’s wellness policy to ban diet soda. Aurora officials said there’s no timeline for a decision.

The St. Vrain district was the only one that declined to provide information about its diet soda plans.

“At this time, St. Vrain Valley Schools has no comment regarding this topic,” spokesman Matthew Wiggins wrote via email.

The diet soda issue popped up last summer shortly after new federal rules came out governing certain types of school food. Under those rules, diet soda can be sold to high-schoolers from vending machines and school stores. Colorado’s stricter rules — in place since 2009 — ban all types of soda in schools.

But officials at the state education department who brought the proposed rule change to the State Board of Education said the change would better align state and federal rules and reduce schools’ regulatory burden. Regular soda is still banned in schools because it exceeds maximum calorie limits under both sets of rules.

In August, and again in September, the State Board of Education voted 4-3 along party lines to change Colorado’s “Healthy Beverage Policy” and allow diet soda in high schools. Republican members in favor of the rule change said the seven-year ban hadn’t cut obesity and that it’s the job of parents not schools to ensure kids make healthy choices.

A coalition of health groups, including LiveWell Colorado, lamented the decision, arguing that diet soda has no nutritional value, harms teeth and diverts students from drinking healthier beverages like water.

Kurz said with the recent change in the state board’s composition — Democrats now hold a majority — it’s possible a vote now would go in favor of a diet soda ban. Still, with lots of big education issues looming, she doesn’t expect the board to take up the issue again.