By Juli Fraga
When mindfulness teacher Laurie Grossman instructed a class at Reach Academy to let their eyes rest and close so they could focus on their breathing, one student's eyes remained wide open. Instead of following Grossman’s cues, the student refused to close her eyes and stared at her friend.
This kind of response is not unusual for students who come to school after having experienced trauma, such as the death of a parent, emotional neglect and homelessness. Neurological research shows that tragic experiences can affect brain development and impact a child’s ability to concentrate and relax. As a result, students who grow up in these circumstances believe that it's important to always keep a watchful eye on their surroundings.
“The trauma that our children carry affects their ability to learn,” says educator Mason Musumeci, a former literacy teacher at Reach. Because the children have witnessed such high levels of conflict, their bodies are often knotted with feelings of worry and fear, emotions that propel them into the fight or flight mode -- a continuous state of stress that impacts their physical and mental health. These issues prevent them from feeling safe enough to focus in class.
Four years ago, the staff and faculty at Reach Academy in Oakland realized just how much their students needed additional tools to help them regulate their emotions. In an attempt to offer more psychological support, they reached out to Grossman who is a teacher and co-founder of Mindful Schools. The definition of mindfulness, says Grossman, is to "pay attention, on purpose, to the present moment."
While at first students practicing mindfulness struggled to close their eyes and trust Grossman, they soon recognized the potential benefits.
STUDENTS TAKING THE LEAD
Eventually, Musumeci’s students became so comfortable with their new life skills that they clamored to lead the practice themselves. One student was eager to start first by taking his classmates through a mindful breathing exercise.
Then he gave his peers additional instructions, such as, “Sit up straight, remain still and silent. Close your eyes and focus on the breath. See if you can feel your breath in your nose, your chest, and your belly."
Before the children began practicing mindfulness, the teachers had struggled to help the students recognize their emotions, pay attention in class and communicate their feelings verbally instead of using their fists. After beginning the practice, a sense of serenity entered the classroom, and the teachers and school administrators recognized how much mindfulness had changed the school climate.
SHARING THE STORY OF MINDFULNESS
One of Musumeci’s most rambunctious students enjoyed mindfulness so much that he came to school dressed as “The Master of Mindfulness” on “Super Hero Spirit Day.”
When his classmates asked him why he had chosen this as his superhero, he told Musumeci, “When I practice mindfulness, I feel calm and it helps me to learn.” The class shared his story with Grossman, and she asked them how they could share the practice with others. The students wanted to write a book.
For three months, Grossman met with the kids in Musumeci’s class several times a week. They brainstormed about the information they wanted to share in their book and ended up deciding it would include three major points: a definition of mindfulness, the specific ways mindfulness has helped them, and how other children can benefit from the practice. They worked with a local artist to help bring their stories to life.
Their book, Master of Mindfulness: How to Be Your Own Superhero in Times of Stress is a mindfulness book written by kids for kids. The book teaches other children how mindfulness can help distill family conflicts, sad feelings and sibling rivalry.
Writing the book also served as a form of narrative therapy for the students. Through the writing process, they realized just how much mindfulness has helped them to respond instead of react to the trauma and stress in their lives, such as the death of a parent, divorce and poverty.
"Children are often powerless to harness personal control over their life circumstances,” says Musumeci. "Mindfulness taught our kids that they have the ability to make wise choices, and it's strengthened their resiliency."
The student authors began eighth grade this fall, and they continue to use mindfulness to help other children, too. In June, four of the student authors went to Park Day School in Oakland and spoke to a fourth-grade class and two second-grade classes about Master of Mindfulness. And at Reach Academy, mindfulness continues to be an integral part of the school curriculum.
In the end, mindfulness taught these children that they are all connected by way of the breath, and this awareness has helped them to feel calmer while strengthening their sense of community.
Juli Fraga is a psychologist and writer in San Francisco. You can find her on Twitter @dr_fraga