Sarah Dennehy, M.Ed, RYT
What Is "Connected Classrooms?"
Shanthi Project’s 13-year anniversary was just a couple of weeks ago. Thinking back to the first class we taught at the Northampton County Juvenile Justice Center (JJC), it’s thrilling to see how far we’ve come and how much our programming has evolved.
When our founder Denise Veres began teaching at the JJC and got to know the kids there a bit better, she found herself wondering what trauma they had experienced in their young lives that had led them there. After researching the school-to-prison-pipeline, Denise created our trauma-informed in-class mindfulness program and began teaching it in an Easton elementary school. That program became Calm+Kind+Focused Classrooms, and over the last decade, we’ve had the privilege of teaching it to over 15,000 students.
Through the years, Shanthi Project has gathered data so that we can provide the most relevant and responsive programming for the schools and children we work with. Calm+Kind+Focused consists of 16 sessions over an eight-week period, with a post-program survey in which classroom teachers provide feedback that can help us improve our program. One of the most frequent questions we’ve received has been, “How do we continue practicing mindfulness after the program ends?” Our latest initiative Connected Classrooms began to answer to that question and quickly grew into a new vision of what Shanthi Project could offer our school communities.
Let’s take a closer look at why Connected Classrooms started, what it’s all about, and where it’s going.
Why It Started
We know from our research that Calm+Kind+Focused Classrooms is effective, but nothing compares to seeing it “click” with a student firsthand. The other day, a second grader stopped me in the hallway to let me know she’d made up her own mindful breath. She proudly demonstrated “Eagle Breath” and told me she’d used it before taking a test. Ask any of our instructors, and they’ll happily tell you similar stories of children applying the strategies we teach.
However, there are still plenty of times I see students not using mindfulness strategies when they’re upset or frustrated. Just because we’ve taught them how to respond to a difficult feeling doesn’t mean they’re always able to use the skills in the moment. It’s tough to do! Adults, with all our wisdom and life experiences, still lose our cools sometime, too.
In order for kids to use mindful strategies, they need to cultivate a consistent mindfulness practice. And for kids to cultivate a consistent practice, they need adults to lead them. They need a mindful classroom all year long, not just during the eight weeks when we’re there leading Calm+Kind+Focused. So we asked ourselves, how can we help teachers create these mindful classrooms?
What It’s All About
Connected Classrooms was designed to assist the classroom teacher in setting up and executing daily mindfulness routines, a student check-in system, and individual and group mindfulness activities throughout the entire school year. The initiative also encourages teachers to maintain their own mindfulness practices.
The goal is to provide all the materials and instruction so the classroom teacher can easily insert mindfulness throughout the school day (in five minutes or less), with optional longer group activities on topics like kindness, gratitude, and compassion. A short morning meeting to begin each day is encouraged. We designed the program not to be time-consuming or cumbersome—we’ve done all the prep work so the teacher can focus on nurturing a connected, supportive, and regulated classroom.
Shanthi Project has been piloting Connected Classrooms throughout the 2022/23 school year with 12 teachers from area elementary schools. All but two of the teachers were already familiar with our Calm+Kind+Focused curriculum, having had it previously in their classrooms.
As the program developed, we realized that it serves as a response to the needs of teachers, as well as their students. Since the pandemic, we’ve gotten many more requests for teacher-wellness presentations and trainings about burnout and self-care.
An important component of Connected Classrooms is the teachers' own mindfulness practices. Our research has shown that our in-class mindfulness program is even more effective when the classroom teacher participates alongside their students. When kids see buy-in from their teacher, they’re much more likely to engage. It just makes sense that a mindful classroom begins with a mindful teacher. In addition to the daily practices and activities for the students, there are short practices included in the Connected Classrooms program that are just for the teachers. These practices take five minutes or less, and they're meant to fit into the beginning of the day before students arrive, and during lunch and prep time.
Where It’s Going
Over the past three years, the need for mindfulness and social-emotional learning in schools has grown. Many schools have begun to see it as a priority, right up there with academic programming. We know that for children to be able to learn, their nervous systems need to be regulated.
Shanthi Project’s vision has been evolving along the way. We started by going into a few classrooms in one school, and we now visit hundreds of classrooms in several school districts each year. We’re now looking beyond creating mindful classrooms and moving toward creating mindful school communities.
A mindful school supports the well-being of not just students, but staff, too. Mindfulness practices become a part of the school culture. There are special rooms devoted to regulating the nervous system, and mental health is a priority for all. It’s in a culture like this that people thrive, because they feel seen, heard, and understood.
A mindful school community takes this idea beyond the walls of the school. Parents and caregivers are part of the conversation and therefore able to model mindful practices in the home. Community organizations can offer their expertise as they help to expand the vision.
Shanthi Project’s mission is to teach social-emotional resiliency through the practice of mindfulness. Our vision is to create resilient communities nurtured by individuals with self-awareness and compassion, regardless of their past experiences. Every great journey begins with a single step. Shanthi Project began with a single class, and look how far we’ve come! We’re grateful for everyone who has joined us on this journey, and we’re so excited to see where it takes us all.