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Mindfulness trainers reaching out to school principals

Sixth graders in Anaheim practice mindfulness to help them open up their minds.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC
Sixth graders in Anaheim practice mindfulness to help them open up their minds.

There’s a sound in teacher Leslie Young’s sixth grade class that students hear nearly as often as the school bell. It’s a soft, lingering note from a metal chime that Young plays several times a week.

“Boys and girls, we know that our muscles hold a lot of tension," she told the class on a recent day. "So we’re going to do our progressive relaxation to get some of the tension out of our muscles."

This day was more hectic than others. Besides the high energy from the lunch and recess they just finished, these students took part in a lock down drill earlier in the day.

School puts pressure on these 11 year-olds, but so do a lot of things outside school.

“Seeing parents worry about money, seeing people losing their homes, this has a huge effect on our students,” Young said.

She has the students tense and release their stomachs, chests, shoulders, and hands while making sure they breathe – all while a video projection behind her shows waves lapping on a beach.

“First you’re going to start with your right foot and we inhale for four, and we really just tighten the right foot – here we go. One, two, three, four,” she said to the students in a measured voice.

For the last three years Young, a teacher at Madison Elementary School in Anaheim, has been using mindfulness techniques with her students to help them relax and improve their learning. Mindfulness trainers believe now is a key moment in the mindfulness movement as they branch out to train other school employees while making sure quality control goes hand in hand with the growth.

Researchers say that mindfulness can rewire the brain to get rid of stress that can block learning.

“I don’t get as frustrated,” student Kaylyn Ngo said after the exercises. She said the relaxation exercises help her at school and with her piano and kung fu classes.

“When I’m going to sleep, I’ve had a long day so my mind is still thinking but when I do mindfulness it usually clears up my head so it’s easier to relax,” said student Dylan Thai.

Teacher Young said students are more productive and engaged after the exercises. She learned the techniques three years ago at a workshop organized by the Orange County Department of Education.

Last summer 45 people learned mindfulness skills at one such workshop in Fullerton.

“And let’s take a full breath here, just feeling ourselves standing in this moment,” trainer Beth Mulligan told the group as they did yoga-like exercises.

The department did something different for this week-long session, it invited school principals and counselors.

“I must support my teachers,” said Ligia Hallstrom, the principal of Wilson Elementary School in Santa Ana.

She wants to learn if mindfulness could help teachers on her campus who are on the verge of burning out.

“I don’t want them to have a quality of life that when they come to school, they’re dreading to come to school.”

With her encouragement three of them are now learning mindfulness.

Organizers said that the buy-in from principals and counselors will help spread mindfulness.

“My hope is also to continue our evaluation and our measurement because we’re measuring kids perceived stress, we’re measuring their ability to self regulate and control their behaviors,” said Lucy Vezzuto, the coordinator for student mental health and school climate for the Orange County Department of Education.

Her office’s approach to train principals is attracting the attention of other trainers.

“It needs to be a concerted, multi-pronged effort to bring it to all the different stakeholders in a school community,” said Diana Winston, director ofmindfulness education at UCLA.

Quality control is important, she said, so she and others are in the process of creating a mindfulness teachers’ association that may be up and running by the end of the year.

“It’ll both accredit training programs, including school based training programs and then for those who go through the programs, they can then join the association and then have a credential,” Winston said.

Vezutto welcomes the creation of an oversight group. Her office has trained over 700 educators and others on mindfulness and stress management in the last three years but she said that’s still far from meeting current needs.