Mindfulness Exercises for Concord Students

Monitor staff

Sunday, May 21, 2017

‘Get into your mindful bodies. Find your anchor spot. Focus attention on your breath,” said Broken Ground School student Sadaf Khan, cupping a Tibetan singing bowl in her hand.

“When your mind wanders, focus back on your anchor spot.” she said. Sadaf then tapped the bowl once with a wooden mallet, letting its humming peal wash over the classroom. Her fourth-grade classmates closed their eyes and, for a minute, quietly meditated.

Every Tuesday, Margreta Doerfler visits Michael Komorek’s classroom at Broken Ground in Concord, where, singing bowl in hand, she helps the students through mindfulness exercises.

Last week, after Sadaf volunteered to lead the students in meditation, Doerfler took over, later asking them to raise their hands – ever so slowly – all the while focusing on the sensations they feel. Afterward, she asked them what they had noticed.

“Raise your hand if it felt heavy. If it felt tingly,” she said.

Rooted in Buddhist meditation practices, mindfulness was secularized and converted into a stress-reduction therapy in the ’70s by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. It’s since been adopted as a treatment tool for depression, anxiety and stress, and both the corporate world and the military have used it to boost morale and productivity.

Its conceit is simple: Focus on the present moment, and observe without judgment.

“Mindfulness is moment-to-moment awareness. It is cultivated by purposely paying attention to things we ordinarily never give a moment’s thought to,” Kabat-Zinn wrote in his book Full Catastrophe Living.

Doerfler, a senior clinician at Riverbend Community Mental Health, which partners with the Concord School District, said she started practicing mindfulness to help her get through a hip surgery recovery.

Having found the practice useful, she pitched it to teachers at Broken Ground in 2015. Word spread, and she’s since done trainings at the Christa McAuliffe School, Penacook Elementary, Abbot-Downing and at Concord-area child care providers.

“I feel like everybody is interested in it and wants more of it,” she said.

Concord is far from the first school district in the country to experiment with mindfulness. A movement to use mindfulness in the classroom has been gaining momentum for a decade, and the pace of its adoption has only quickened. Mindful Schools, a California-based nonprofit, claims to have trained teachers in all 50 states and reached 750,000 students worldwide. MindUP, another nonprofit, says it’s reached nearly a million.

Proponents of mindfulness point to research that shows improvements in emotional regulation, attention, compassion, and reductions in stress and anxiety for long-term mindfulness practitioners and argue that the practice will translate particularly well to schools. Mindfulness, advocates say, can help students pay attention and behave better – but most importantly, it can help mitigate the effects of trauma and toxic stress, something increasing numbers of students bring with them into the classroom.

Studies of MRI scans suggest that mindfulness, over time, might be able to reduce the brain’s reliance on the amygdala – which deals with fight-or-flight survival instincts – and strengthen the brain’s pre-frontal cortex, which deals with reason, decision-making and planning.

“By slowing down to notice what’s in our experience, we’re able to choose our response instead of just reacting to situations,” Doerfler said.

There’s a growing body of research about the effects of mindfulness in general, and while there’s little published about its usefulness as an intervention in schools, major trials are underway. The U.S. Department of Education is funding a $3 million study to follow 2,000 elementary school students in 30 high-poverty Chicago schools over four years, and in the United Kingdom, Oxford and University College London researchers will follow 6,000 teenagers who use mindfulness in schools over a seven-year period.

In Concord, the district surveyed teachers in the 11 classrooms who used mindfulness last year and found that the majority reported gaining back some classroom time. All reported that mindfulness was “very helpful” in getting students to settle down. Every teacher also reported that it was either “very helpful” or “somewhat helpful” in helping with student relatedness, attention, impulse control and emotional regulation. This year, the district will survey students directly to get more granular data about how the program is working.

But for his part, Komorek, fourth-grade teacher at Broken Ground, is thoroughly convinced. A longtime practictioner at home, he’s been using mindfulness in his classroom for two years now and said he’d found it “extremely useful.”

His students perform a mindfulness exercise basically every day, he said, typically between recess and their reading block. It helps them wind down from the tumult of play and refocus them on the classroom.

“It’s a great transition for them,” he said.

He nodded in the direction of his students, who were sitting quietly, at work on the exercise Doerfler gave them.

“This is a very high-energy class. So to have them like this right now – you can tell that it’s working,” he said.

But Komorek said the benefits of the daily practice extend well beyond classroom management.

“They are more mindful – of everyone in the class, how everyone is feeling,” he said. “But also of themselves, their feelings and how to calm themselves.”

(Lola Duffort can be reached at 369-3321 or lduffort@cmonitor.com.)