Creating calm in the classroom: why one Toledo school is teaching mindfulness to students

Students from Robinson Elementary School focus on their breathing in the mindfulness classroom (WNWO).

TOLEDO, Ohio (WNWO) -- It's a type of classroom you don't see in many schools.

With yoga mats, calming lights and a focus on positivity; it's a classroom for mindfulness.

Robinson Elementary is the first school in the area to launch the pilot program.

All students have the opportunity throughout the year to step into Ms. McCullough's mindfulness classroom, and take a step closer to their inner selves.

"Mindfulness is really something we all already do, it's about noticing, it's about really being present to what you're doing, how you're feeling and what's going on in the environment and what's expected. What could benefit yourself and the environment, the people around you," said Jenn McCullough, the mindfulness educator at Robinson Elementary.

The class is a part of the school's curriculum where students do a number of mindful exercises. Like the mindful minute for example, where they sit quietly and focus on their breath, to a number of different yoga poses to work on focusing their attention.

"If I do the child's pose it just helps me calm down and think about my day," said Jonessa Hairston, a 4th grader at Robinson Elementary.

The child's pose is where a person kneels and bends the upper body down until the head is touching the ground in front of their knees.

The students are told to pay attention to where they feel each pose as they go through them.

"So really it's just life skills these kids are learning to help them deal with emotions, deal with focusing and staying on task to accomplish their goals," said McCullough.

The program is a collaborative effort between Toledo Public Schools, the Toledo Mindfulness Institute and the University of Toledo's Psychology Department. The psychology department is conducting research on the 300-plus students, to see how effective the practice is for improving cognitive brain function.

"So what these kids are learning is to use their own minds and bodies in a way that promotes better attention. Learning to focus your attention from something that's external from yourself to something that's internal, learning to concentrate better. And when you have this attention and focus and concentration, what you'll find is it also facilitates your ability to make wise choices" said Dr. Wesley Bullock, associate professor for the department of psychology at the University of Toledo.

Researchers say the purpose of the program is to help students develop a practice, which is like training for the brain, to help with focus, paying attention and better response to given situations.

"So there has been some tremendous research coming out of places like Harvard, that has done brain imaging to show that when someone is engaging in these mindfulness meditation techniques, they're actually resulting in positive changes at a neurophysiological level that promote greater concentration, greater focus greater emotional stability," Dr. Bullock.

Robinson Elementary was chosen by TPS administrators to test the program, because the school had the highest number of suspensions in the district.

"Well a lot of times before we would have people shout out, we would have outbursts throughout the day. Kids really are using the mindfulness system to deescalate, they also use the room as an intervention for their behavior," said Dr. James Jones, Robinson Elementary School principal.

Signs are posted around the school to remind students to stop and take a deep breath.

Dr. Jones said he has seen a dramatic change in his students over the past year, even with the behaviorally challenged students who tend to act out the most.

"They'll go to the mindfulness room and take a break and then they'll practice those techniques to deescalate the behavior and it's given them an ownership of their behavior and that's huge especially in an urban district," said Dr. Jones.

And Ms. McCullough says the results are self-explanatory.

"For example a second grade student came to me in the morning and said Ms. McCullough I had a really bumpy morning can I come in and do mindfulness before I start my day. Here's a child who is advocating for her own needs and she is identifying that she has a place and a program and tools that she can use to get herself set to go have a successful day. I think that speaks for itself," said McCullough.

The research began in the fall of 2017 and will continue through the 2018-2019 academic school year. The University of Toledo psychology department said the next step is to send graduate students to observe how the kids act inside and outside the mindfulness classroom, before finishing the study and releasing the final results.

To learn more about teaching mindfulness in schools you can contact Jenn McCullough at integrationyogawithjenn@gmail.com


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