Shortly before 8 a.m. on a Friday morning, the sixth graders in Katie Reen’s English class at the University School of Nashville (USN) were chatting at their desks, animatedly discussing the school talent show scheduled for that afternoon.
But when Reen struck a handheld chime, the students fell silent and closed their eyes. Almost no one moved as Reen instructed them to think about what they wanted to accomplish during the day, and about the “jiggles and wiggles” they might feel about the impending show.
The students were participating in mindfulness, a practice of taking time to be aware of one’s thoughts and emotions. Mindfulness has taken hold in the corporate world and beyond as a technique to overcome personal and professional stressors and cope with digital distractions, but educators at a growing number of schools have found that it helps children thrive as well.
At USN, mindfulness is part of the program: Teachers incorporate different form of mindfulness practice in their classrooms throughout the day and year. The school’s between-class bell even sounds like a handheld chime.
USN teachers and students say mindfulness has helped students cope with academic pressures during tests and quizzes, and manage emotions about at-home pressures, such as divorce. Several studies have shown that it decreases behavioral problems and raises student achievement on standardized tests. Proponents say it makes it easier for students to learn and teachers to teach.
Becoming Aware: A Nashville State of Mind
Both public and private educators in Nashville have been focusing on “social and emotional learning,” based on the belief that students need skills to help manage emotions and relationships in addition to the academic skills they learn in class.
USN was the first school in the Southeast to work with Mindful Schools, a California-based non-profit that offers mindfulness training to teachers, focused especially on urban schools. And Metro Nashville Public Schools is the only urban school district in Tennessee to have a director of social and emotional learning. In 2012, the district was one of eight nationwide to receive a $250,000 grant to expand social and emotional learning from the NoVo Foundation and the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL).
Organizations like Mindfulness in Nashville Education and Alignment Nashville bring together area teachers from private and public schools together to exchange resources and ideas about how to improve students’ social and emotional learning.
Mindfulness might conjure up language like “emptying the mind,” but an important component of mindfulness is that the “clutter” doesn’t disappear.
“It’s not about clearing your mind; it’s just about becoming aware,” said Mary Agee, the University School’s mindfulness coordinator.
University School guidance counselor Helen Tarleton illustrates mindfulness by shaking a snow globe. “When you shake the snow globe, it’s really hard to see what’s going on in the present moment clearly,” she said.
“What mindfulness does is, your mind is cluttered like [a shaken snow globe], and you stop and pause, and take time to really focus. All that clutter kind of then settles, so you can see clearly what’s right in front of you.”
Journey to mindfulness
The middle school at University School Nashville began its journey to mindfulness about eight years ago. USN has about 300 students in grades five through eight.
Tarleton said she was frustrated that tactics like anger management groups, self-esteem groups, or support groups for children experiencing grief didn’t seem to be effective for her students, who often didn’t want to discuss family issues at school.
Plus, she added, those approaches don’t reach all students. Students without behavioral problems or difficulties at home also have social and emotional needs, but the school’s rigorous schedule didn’t allow time for a wellness class where she could instruct students in stress reduction.
“We needed something the teachers could do,” Tarleton said.
Tarleton learned about mindfulness at a counselors conference in Washington, D.C. in 2006 and recommended that a faculty member attend a conference held by the non-profit Mindful Schools in 2009. Tarleton and Mary Agee, then a photography teacher, flew to Oakland, California to attend.
Agee came back to Nashville convinced that Mindful Schools could be the key for social and emotional learning for the school’s middle graders. Middle school principal Jeff Greenfield also had conversations with the organization and observed mindfulness in an Oakland public school. He agreed.
Sharing the lessons
Greenfield asked trainers from Mindful Schools to come to Nashville and train all of his middle school teachers in the fall of 2010. The non-profit, which also offers online trainings, said they would — but only on the condition that USN partner with a local public school and help foster mindfulness there. Agee and Tarleton connected with Lynn Driver, an art teacher at Rose Park Magnet Middle School who was involved in Mindfulness in Nashville Education.
USN and Rose Park are, in some ways, very different schools: For instance, at USN, middle school tuition is more than $20,000 a year. At Rose Park, about 64 percent students meet the requirements for free or reduced lunch.
At USN, Greenfield asked teachers all to start off their days with mindfulness practice for at least the first six weeks of school. Rose Park’s Driver did not have the formal support of the principal or training. Instead, Tarleton and Agee visited her classroom and gave her feedback, informed by what they had learned in Mindful Schools training.
But, Tarleton and Agee say, despite the differences in school culture and student body, mindfulness has worked in both schools. They say that any teacher interested in the practice can incorporate it into the classroom.
Tarleton said she would advise other interested teachers to find resources in their own community.
“It’s developing so much now, especially in Nashville, that it’s not hard to do,” Tarleton said.
Agee is now the school’s mindfulness coordinator. She prepares materials to help guide teachers and students through mindfulness exercises. She hopes to eventually make the resources, like CDs and cards printed with different exercises, available to teachers at other schools.
According to last year’s annual student life survey, 56 percent of fifth graders at UNS reported that they use mindfulness in stressful situations, and 58 percent reported they use it to focus and concentrate.
“It just helps you kind of not think about the test and whatever you’re doing, and it gets your mind off of it, and you can focus a lot more and you’re not like, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s a test,’” said Alexander Haynes, a fifth grader.
Older middle school students are often less openly enthusiastic about mindfulness, Agee said. Only 41 percent of sixth graders at UNS reported using mindfulness in stressful situations, and 37 percent reported using it for focus and concentration.
But a sixth grader in Reen’s class was quick to volunteer how mindfulness was helpful when it came to schoolwork. If you don’t try to settle the clutter in your mind before studying, “you’re going to be thinking about chicken nuggets or something,” the sixth grader said.
And despite apparent waning enthusiasm in the older grades of the middle school, several students have told Agee they rediscovered and regularly employ mindfulness in high school, even though teachers don’t allot classroom time for it.
USN has held several workshops for parents from USN and the wider community that have been at capacity; Agee estimates 100 parents have now gone through the trainings.
Just as important to the success of mindfulness as student support is teacher buy-in, Tarleton said. “Imagine doing what Katie [Reen] did and standing in front of the class if you really don’t believe it. It’s not going to work,” she said.
In the years since USN formally incorporated mindfulness in its middle school, teacher enthusiasm has only grown. Bakari King, the middle school drama teacher, said he’s embraced it from the beginning. “Sometimes children, and I’m including myself even though I’m 34 years old, we need a reminder to slow down,” King said.
Mindfulness helped his students stay focused during daylong rehearsals before the school musical in August and reduces pre-stage jitters, he said But he doesn’t always tell the students that they’re exercising mindfulness when he leads them through exercises to help them be, as he puts it, “alive, alert, and aware,” lest they become wary of the term.
“These are vegetables. But, if you say it’s V8 Fruit splash, they might take it,” King said.
Updated: The description of how USN staff decided to use Mindful Schools was edited for accuracy.
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