Mindfulness studies help Summit grade schoolers overcome daily challenges
The shoes and socks are lined up against the wall outside Ms. Leslie’s room on the first floor of Summit Cove Elementary on a Friday morning. Inside, a class of first graders is focusing on being more in tune with their minds and their bodies.
The tone is set by the melodic trickle of an electric fountain and the undertones of meditative music softly flowing from a speaker. As each of the 21 pupils sits crouched on his or her yoga mat, the environment has the feel of new-age psychology rather than traditional classroom instruction.
“Focus in on the breath, in and out through the nose,” Jen Leslie tells them, also barefoot. “If you like, you can close your eyes. Notice the rise and the fall of your chest with each inhale and exhale. Just go within.”
Leslie has taught in the Summit School District for almost a dozen years, 10 of them at Summit Cove. Her forte is special education, but in the last handful of years she began an inquiry into the study of mindfulness to get through some of her own personal struggles. Having realized the benefits, and recognizing how valuable it could be for her students, Leslie addressed what she felt was a gap in the standard curriculum.
“Mindfulness is all about being aware — being aware of how you’re feeling, and your behaviors,” said Leslie. “Kids need tools, and they need to be able to learn how to regulate their emotions. Because we don’t often teach that.”
In once-a-week sessions that mix brief lectures about the brain, a progression of yoga poses, self-checks and participatory storytelling, she guides students through how to cope with feelings of stress, jealousy and anxiety.
The goal is for pre-kindergarten through fifth-grade children — between the occasional wobbly Warrior 1 or plank position — to familiarize themselves with what’s going on in their lives by being more present in the moment so they can fend off obstacles in daily life before they become more significant setbacks.
Color-coded posters adorn the room’s walls and emphasize being kind and thankful, as well as how to stay in the green zone of happiness and calm rather than the disappointment and boredom of the blue, or sadness and anger of the red. Ryan Gregory, the teacher for this group of first graders, believes it’s made a world of difference.
“It’s been super beneficial for the kiddos, I’ve just seen a huge transformation with how they feel,” said Gregory. “Those zones of regulation that Jen teaches about really kind of bring them to, ‘Why am I feeling this way, and what can I do to get back to where I need to be?’”
Before the school’s full implementation of the mindfulness program about two years ago, Gregory — a Summit Cove teaching veteran at the grade level for eight years — recalled “putting out more fires,” which took critical time away from academics. Today after a session, kids return to regular class quiet, relaxed and ready to engage in active learning, determining for themselves when they need to take a break.
“Now it’s kind of on them,” said Gregory. “It gives them more ownership rather than us saying, ‘Well, you need to get out of here, this isn’t working right now.’ It allows me to go teach more one-on-one.”
Each of the Summit School District’s six elementary schools, as well as the middle school and nontraditional high school Snowy Peaks, have incorporated some amount of mindfulness trainings into classrooms. Aside from her work at Summit Cove, Leslie has also taught teachers and school counselors at Dillon Valley and Frisco elementaries how various techniques can improve individuals’ decision-making and response to tense situations. Chief among the mood-altering strategies are the use of “calm-down baskets” — for which Leslie won an Education Foundation of the Summit innovation grant last year; lending tools such as wind spinners so kids can blow out emotions like candles on a birthday cake; and other fidget and distraction devices.
Those students with established behavioral problems, consistently acting out due to conditions ranging from attention deficit disorders to depression, are perhaps even better served by the unique coaching. But Leslie is also quick to point out that the elevated self-awareness produced from the science-based meditative properties is really for everyone, no matter the age.
“It’s not just for kids,” she said. “It doesn’t matter how old you are, I think, as long as you’re willing to learn the techniques. Kids are like sponges though, and the younger you teach them, the more they start to get it and they start to incorporate it.”
Since ramping up mindfulness coursework at Summit Cove this school year, students now go home and actually tutor their parents how to live and communicate more effectively.
In turn, Leslie has hosted a monthly after-school class for parents to learn more about the advantages of finding peace within one’s self.
She acknowledges universal acceptance of the unconventional teachings, be it from fellow faculty, some families or the occasional older student, remains elusive. Those who are at least willing to give mindfulness a shot, Leslie said, eventually see the rewards, especially given the demands of the 21st century public education system.
“I think that there’s more stress now in the younger population,” said Leslie. “Things are so ‘Go, go, go, go, go’ that we don’t take time to just stop, take a break, breathe and ground ourselves. And it’s just another tool or technique to be aware — to be aware of your surroundings, be aware of others and be aware within yourself.”
Eagle County Schools opens classes for around 6,800 public school students.