“Mindful Moments” at Alta Vista Elementary School: The Florida Center for Early Childhood Reaches Out to the Community

The Florida Center for Early Childhood continues to build strong families by collaborating with Sarasota schools. Walk into any second-grade classroom at Alta Vista Elementary and you may find students “smelling the flowers and blowing out candles”—a mindfulness tactic that helps students become aware of their breathing, self-regulate emotions, and prepare for their next task—all with the goal of fostering success.

With guidance from Tamra Cajo, a mental health therapist with The Florida Center, second graders and their teachers are learning and practicing mindfulness.

As Caitlin Sedlik, a second-grade Alta Vista teacher explainss, “Students come from diverse backgrounds, so sometimes we need to help ground them and provide techniques for regulating their feelings before we can even think about reaching them academically. This has been a phenomenal program for us. I have found that meditating and mindfulness have helped not only in my classroom, but I also see positive results for my family and my students’ families.”

Thursday morning meetings with Cajo enable the second-grade team to learn mindfulness techniques they can incorporate into their classroom. While their students are in P.E., art or computer classes, teachers join Cajo in a dimly-lit room scented with eucalyptus oil and supplied with clay—all contributing to a calming atmosphere. This secure environment provides a forum for discussing classroom struggles while learning mindfulness practices. The teachers say this time is effective professional and personal training in order to get back to mindfulness—rather than just reacting to everyday classroom stress.

“Teachers are notoriously bad at self-care. But when we’re calm, we teach better,” said Sherry Chappell, another member of Cajo’s mindfulness group. For others, mindfulness helps them feel 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. It helps them feel prepared and gives them a safe environment to work out their feelings,” said Alex Cleworth, Alta Vista’s Teacher of the Year. “It’s not just for the troubled child, but for everyone:  Mindfulness gives us a chance to process emotions and refocus.”

The teachers are finding that the techniques are making a difference in their students’ lives. 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 he had sat down, took a few deep breaths, and did 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 managed his behavior.”

Besides the teacher-training group, Cajo is bringing mindfulness school-wide with “Mindful Mondays” on the school morning news and in her monthly “Parent Café” training, a free parenting class open to anyone.

“Ultimately, mindfulness is teaching us to recognize our emotions, see where our thoughts are going, help separate facts from feelings, and verbalize the differences,” Cajo said.

“Mindful Mondays” is another example of how The Florida Center is helping the community realize its potential, starting with one child at a time.