Schools use yoga, meditation to boost learning, ease stress
PLUMSTEAD, Pa. (AP) — From an area that looks more like a yoga and recreation room than a traditional classroom, a new kind of learning was unfolding at Groveland Elementary School in Plumstead.
Fourth-grader Jordan Pieczynski jogged in place beneath a ceiling covered in clouds. A few minutes later, first-grader Adrian Yaeger closed his eyes and smiled as he pictured himself having fun at recess. Second-grader Dustin Balascia bounced on a trampoline.
The activities — some calming and some stimulating — are part of an educational initiative to help students learn by first helping them become mindful of themselves, their emotions and their surroundings. Embraced by several area school districts, mindfulness and emotional support programs are increasingly becoming part of a student’s day, whether it’s kickstarting a class with movement, setting goals and intentions during yoga, or taking a few minutes in class to reset with a “brain break” or sensory experience.
Approaches to mindfulness lessons vary among districts. But educators in Central Bucks, Bensalem and Centennial schools expressed a common goal: to empower students to learn.
“The mindfulness piece should be a key part in all schools,” said Dave Heineman, principal at Groveland. “It helps kids get themselves to a point where they are ready to learn. They understand their bodies, and understand what they need to be successful.”
While some students eagerly join in the lessons, others need a little more convincing, said guidance counselor Michelle Fuentes, who introduced the program to Groveland earlier this year. That’s when she points at a display of the brain in the school’s mindfulness room and describes the biological and academic benefits to the breathing, stretching and sensory activities.
“When they learn they have the skills to help them access the pre-frontal cortex, which helps them focus more, they buy into it more,” said Fuentes, who said the mindfulness exercises are introduced to all students at the school.
Centennial Superintendent David Baugh, who launched a mindfulness program when he worked in the Bensalem School District in 2014, has seen the benefits in the classroom, where he said students are more energetic, more focused and more capable of handling anxiety.
“It helps youngsters develop self control and self regulation,” Baugh said. “This seems like a good thing — especially in these days of high anxiety. It helps regulate anxiety when people are having panic attacks. They are developing skills to handle it and (it) helps them focus in class.”
Baugh said a growing body of evidence suggests mindfulness practices have clear health and learning benefits. Scientists have been able to prove that meditation and rigorous mindfulness training can lower blood pressure and levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Neuroscientists have shown that the strategies help memory and decrease mind-wandering.
MRI scans show that after a two-month mindfulness practice study, the brain’s amygdala appears to shrink. This region of the brain, associated with fear and emotion, is involved in the initiation of the body’s response to stress. The 2013 study, published by Public Library of Science and also backed by Harvard studies, showed that as the amygdala shrinks, the pre-frontal cortex — associated with higher-order brain functions such as awareness, concentration and decision-making — becomes stronger.
Central Bucks West High School house principal Todd Cantrell said mindfulness practices are taught to students having anxiety about attending school or transitioning from middle to high school. The nine-week program recruits students who are struggling. In the long run, he said, the use of mindfulness strategies serve as a preventative measure — teaching students to manage and cope with stresses that could lead to unhealthy behaviors, ranging from procrastination to self-medication.
“We recognize stress is a normal part of life, but we can teach them to recognize it, manage stress and de-escalate it,” said Cantrell, who now instructs teachers from other districts, including Council Rock and Pennridge, on how to apply it in the classroom.
Bensalem School District instructional coach Lee Cousin said even a two-minute break to “reset the brain” gets students more active in class and engaged following the activity.
Baugh said all teachers in Centennial have gone through neuroscience training through the professional development arm of The Franklin Institute, which offers a program on “how the brain works best,” he said. Instructional strategies such as stretching breaks, the scheduling of multiple activities to break up a lengthy class and even just allowing students to stand instead of sit all class helps the learning process, he said.
“We are embedding this in the health curriculum because of the incredible number of challenges and problems kids are facing these days,” he said.
Heineman, from Groveland, said last year some students were so anxious they couldn’t get out of the car to come into school. With levels of stress in students rising, he was receptive to strategies to help kids not just learn, but cope. Fuentes enlisted Deb Cyb, an educator with a regional mental health advocacy group, Minding Your Mind, to help teach focusing strategies.
“Everybody is go, go, go,” said Cyb, offering a mindfulness talk at Groveland one recent night. “We are raising a fast-paced generation and anxiety is increasing, and we are not trained to slow down or even pause. But focused, calm thinking is how we learn.”
In a room of parents and students, Cyb introduced breathing and focusing activities that she’s taught students in area districts.
She demonstrated how people can be taught to control their minds better with practice.
“Paying attention is a skill; it’s about slowing down and becoming aware of how you feel when you are doing something… or noticing yourself getting distracted, and being aware you’ve been scrolling for an hour,” Cyb said.
Cyb challenged a few parents and students to give mindfulness a try by closing their eyes and doing breathing techniques intended to help participants quiet a busy mind, becoming more aware of the present moment.
After three attempts, parents in the room agreed focusing became easier with practice.
Cyb said exercising the muscles in the brain increasingly enables participants to give attention more fully to what they were focusing on.
“Think of your attention as a muscle, and like other muscles, it makes sense to exercise it,” she said.
Fuentes, who practices what Cyb teaches in the school’s mindfulness room, said the exercises are especially helpful for students who have difficulty sitting still for long periods of time or who have a stressful experience.
Jordan, the Groveland fourth-grader, turned to the room to help calm her after one of her pets was injured at home.
“Coming here made me feel happy again,” said Jordan, who also visits the room when she needs to find more energy to learn.
Video of lapping waves played on a screen as students from one classroom in Valley Elementary School in Bensalem sat on the floor, closed their eyes and extended their legs for a stretch and a few deep breaths.
“In with the good and out with the bad,” said Janine Rietzen, calmly instructing the students.
For Jamason Tapera, a first-grader, listening to the waves helps him be quiet.
“But it’s also peaceful,” he said softly.
Baugh said many of the mindfulness practices are common sense, but somehow are left out of most the curriculum of most teaching colleges. He hopes that changes.
“We know that a stressed brain has trouble learning, so we are intentionally creating a learning environment that is safe and more engaging,” he said.
Measuring just how effective the program has been so far is hard to gauge, but he added: “Observing a classroom after a break is fantastic — you can just look around and see the number of smiles.”