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Taylorsville Journal

Training brains for learning gains through mindfullness

Jul 25, 2018 04:07PM ● By Jet Burnham

Students learn to slowly trace up and down each finger as a reminder to breathe in and out. (Jet Burnham/City Journals)

By Jet Burnham | j.burnham@mycityjournals.com

With mental illness on the rise in youth, educators are realizing the need for emotional regulation training. When students at Arcadia Elementary get stressed or angry, they know what to do. Arcadia is in its second year of the Mind Up Curriculum.

“This is social-emotional learning at its best,” said Arcadia’s social worker Denni Dayley. The program teaches students to be self-aware and regulate their emotions. It gives them the control, said Dayley.  

She said through self-regulating, students have healthier relationships, better social skills and the ability to manage their anxiety and anger. 

Mary Dennis, school psychologist, said this program is better than other social emotional programs she has used. 

“I believe Mind Up and the concept of mindfulness is stronger and will change our educational system for the better,” she said. “A key difference in this program is the focus on the brain, helping children understand what happens in brains when we experience strong emotions and why we react the way we do.” 

School librarian Angie Winward, who teaches the curriculum to students during their weekly visits to the library, said it appeals to students of all ages. 

“Older kids like the science of the anatomy,” said Winward. “They’re more interested in the brain part of it. But even the younger ones could understand there was part of their brain they had to settle down to let the learning happen.” 

Students learn the amygdala (in charge of emotion) can prevent the prefrontal cortex (decision-making, reasoning, sorting) from being able to learn.

“You can’t get things through that system if your amygdala is too fired up,” said Winward. “So, our intention with the mindfulness is to teach the students how to settle down the amygdala and prepare for learning.” 

Winward reads picture books with characters and situations kids can relate to. Then they learn age-appropriate techniques that use their imagination, hands and bodies to practice focus, breathing, observation and self-awareness skills. 

 “The first step is to be aware of what’s going on,” said Winward. “Sometimes, kids have an emotion that they can’t say why or even what it is.” 

Teachers participate in the training with their classes, establishing a common vocabulary with students, which aids in understanding. 

“The whole school is talking about it, and they are talking about it in the same way,” said Winward. “I feel like our school is really unifying together in this purpose.”

Instead of reacting to an angry or panicked student with words and questions, teachers know how to prompt students with a breathing technique that will calm them down within minutes. 

Susan Oveson, a kindergarten aide, reinforces the mindfulness techniques by taking her students to look at the techniques shown on the Mind-Up bulletin board outside the library. The students use the visual prompts to apply techniques such as hot cocoa breathing, rainbow breathing, the mindful finger and the five senses technique. 

The program has helped students who deal with a variety of stressful issues at home. 

“They come however they come to school—already with an attitude because something's happened at home, whether it was good or bad,” said Winward. “Mindfulness is trying to focus on the moment and let go of all the worries of the future and the past.” 

The school community council made the decision to introduce the Mind Up program two years ago to address the emotional education of students. 

“It feels like finally we’re getting the whole picture and really getting a well-rounded education and child, and it’s making a big difference,” said Winward, who is also head of the council.

Dayley and Dennis often participate in the mindfulness trainings and have noticed students employing the techniques on their own. 

Dayley has seen students realize they are angry, and instead of reacting impulsively, they stop and take some deep breaths. 

“I’ve seen it happen over and over—it’s pretty awesome,” she said.

Dennis said the mindfulness techniques can help anyone—from those who have an anxiety disorder to those who just had a frustrating experience at recess. 

“Mindfulness techniques benefit all who use them,” she said. “Taking time to be present can strengthen our entire community.”

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