Walk into any second grade classroom at Alta Vista Elementary school and you may find students “smelling the flowers and blowing out candles.”(Shown in the photo). This is a mindfulness tactic used to help make students aware of their breathing, self-regulate their emotions, and prepare for their next task. With help from Tamra Cajo, a mental health therapist with The Florida Center for Early Childhood who works with students at Alta Vista, second grade teachers are learning mindfulness practices to bring into the classroom and help their students succeed.
“The children at Alta Vista come from really diverse backgrounds, so sometimes we need to help ground them, and help them regulate their feelings before we can even think about reaching them academically. This has been a really phenomenal program for us.” said Caitlin Sedlik, who has found that meditating and mindfulness has helped not only her classroom, but also her own family and the families of her students.
The second grade team meets once a week in the mornings with Cajo, to learn mindfulness techniques they can bring back to the classroom. While their students are in P.E., art class or computer class, the teachers join Cajo in a dimly-lit room with eucalyptus oil, clay and a calming atmosphere. The environment is a safe place to discuss classroom struggles, and learn mindfulness practices for a variety of situations. The teachers say this time is a personal training to get back to mindfulness, rather than just reacting to the everyday stress that happens in the classroom.
“Teachers are notoriously bad at self-care, but when we’re calm we teach better,” said Sherry Chappell, a second grade teacher in Cajo’s mindfulness group.
For others, mindfulness helps them feel prepared and ready for the day, whatever may happen in the classroom.
“Sometimes students just need a break, so bringing in mindfulness helps them learn to be intentional and empathetic toward everyone. It helps them feel prepared and gives them a safe environment to work out their feelings,” said Alex Cleworth, who was named Alta Vista’s teacher of the year. “It’s not just for the troubled child, but for everyone, even healthy people need mindfulness and a chance to process their emotions and refocus.”
The teachers are finding that the techniques and practices learned are truly making a difference in the lives of their students. Jeri Bunnell recalled watching a student put mindfulness into practice completely unprompted while on the playground.
“I watched this young boy stop playing with his friends and withdraw from the group. At first I was worried something had happened, but I noticed him sit down, take a few deep breathes and do one of our mindfulness activities. Later when I asked him what had happened, he said he thought he was ‘playing too rough’ and needed to calm down before someone was hurt during their game. I was really proud of how he recognized that and self-regulated,” she said.
In addition to the teacher training group, Cajo is bringing mindfulness school-wide with “mindful Mondays on the school morning news, and in her monthly “parent café” trainings, a free parenting class open to anyone.
“Ultimately, mindfulness is just teaching us all to recognize our emotions, see where our thoughts are going, and help separate the facts from feelings and be able to verbalize that,” Cajo said.