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  • Writer's pictureShanthi Project

Mindfulness Education: It's Not Just Talk!

Updated: Jan 29

Even newcomers to mindfulness have no trouble finding seemingly countless reports of its benefits. Over recent decades, peer-reviewed research has shown, time and time again, that mindfulness can support mental health, improve sleep, increase focus, and much more. Still, reading about these effects can sometimes feel abstract. In day-to-day life, how does mindfulness really make a difference?

The case of Serena*, a local first-grader, shows just how powerful mindfulness can truly be. When we look at her inspiring story, it's impossible to miss our work’s capacity to effect meaningful change — and just as clearly, you'll see Serena's personal courage, too.

*We use the name Serena for purposes of anonymity.

Serena’s Story Begins At Home

The COVID-19 pandemic, along with its restrictions, changed the atmosphere of in-person education dramatically. Safe, at-home distance learning, while practical, had its drawbacks; the pandemic saw a clear and significant toll on students' mental health. Even once restrictions eased, challenges didn’t stop. Simply entering a classroom could feel foreign, and especially for the youngest of children, facing a social situation like school was unprecedented and challenging.

Serena was among these children who met significant difficulty in entering the classroom. Surrounded by so many new people and experiences, she grew overwhelmed by the emotions teeming inside of her: anxiety, frustration, hesitance, and even fear. As a first-grader, she didn’t yet have the tools to express her complicated emotions. She didn’t know how to communicate what she was feeling—so she said nothing at all. Since returning from the shutdown, she chose to stand in the back of the classroom, remaining silent each school day. Soon, Serena was diagnosed with selective mutism. 

Calm+Kind+Focused Enters the Classroom

That same year, Shanthi Project re-entered classrooms, too, bringing our in-class mindfulness program, Calm+Kind+Focused, to Serena’s elementary school. C+K+F runs twice a week, for eight weeks, with a Shanthi Project instructor leading short lessons about mindfulness topics — like self-awareness, compassion, and gratitude — that engage students through activities and movement.

Armed with a thorough curriculum, Shanthi Project instructor Miss Jo entered Serena’s classroom prepared to share mindfulness with a new group of students. When the classroom teacher pulled aside Miss Jo to explain Serena’s silence, “I just kind of rolled with it,” Miss Jo said. As a retired special education teacher, she’s seen many similar cases throughout her career. “You never know the backstory of a child,” she said.

But the more time Miss Jo spent teaching, the more she couldn't help notice. During the first few lessons, Serena didn't sit down or speak — still, Miss Jo saw her obvious engagement with the mindfulness material. Throughout each lesson, Serena communicated by nodding or flashing the thumbs-up and thumbs-down signs. 

Speaking Up & Sitting Down  

Miss Jo’s fourth session in Serena’s classroom began like any other. She started class with a Mindful Minute, guiding the first-graders through a short breathing and grounding exercise, which set a calm, focused tone for the day. That session, she explained how the brain behaves in stressful situations. “Taking deep breaths can help you to respond, rather than react,” she said. To help her point stick, Miss Jo asked the class, “Does anyone feel nervous when they go into a new situation?”

To Miss Jo’s great surprise, Serena raised her hand from the very back of the room, where she stood, and said, “I feel that way.” From the side of the classroom, the teacher’s aide’s eyes grew huge with shock, Miss Jo remembers. Still, despite understanding the significance of this moment, Miss Jo simply thanked Serena for sharing. Serena smiled widely, and Miss Jo continued her lesson.

Though Miss Jo kept her composure in the moment, “it was tough not to be reactive,” she shares. On her walk home, she slowed down to let everything marinate. “I don’t know how to describe that feeling,” she says.

That fourth lesson marked the beginning of a growing change. As Miss Jo continued visiting the classroom, twice per week, she saw Serena become more and more comfortable. Throughout the next six weeks, she participated, both nonverbally and verbally. During breathing exercises, she volunteered to hold the breathing ball. By the very end of Shanthi Project's sessions, Serena had migrated from her spot in the back of the classroom, fully joining the class in her own seat. 

It Comes Down To Mindfulness

Now, years later, Serena tells us that she thought she’d been alone in her anxiety and fear. Until Miss Jo created an opportunity to share, she simply didn’t realize that the other students in her class were facing similar challenges.

In this safe space, Serena found the courage to speak her truth. In fact, Miss Jo remembers that Serena wasn’t the only child who raised her hand when asked, “Does anyone ever feel nervous?” Other students did too — and they showed Serena that they were just like her. “Sometimes,” said Miss Jo, “even when others tell you how to approach a situation, all you need is someone else to show you that you’re not alone.”

Ultimately, a combination of factors likely played a role in kick-starting Serena’s breakthrough, many of them owing to the structure of Calm+Kind+Focused itself. For instance, one of the sixteen lessons in our curriculum guides students through identifying and naming their emotions. C+K+F teaches acceptance, too, no matter how difficult or complicated those feelings may be. “When we teach our lessons, we share that mindfulness encompasses awareness and acceptance,” Miss Jo says. Importantly for Serena, “our mission can help children understand and cope with uncomfortable emotions, allowing them to gain control.”

It helps, too, that C+K+F is not an academic pursuit, nor are its students assessed on participation. Without the pressure to speak or perform, some children find it easier to engage with the lessons. In addition, mindfulness sessions come consistently, providing a predictable structure upon which students can build with each coming week.

Shanthi Project instructor Jo-Ann Devereaux (left) with Rachel Gutshall (right), a classroom teacher at March Elementary.

Mrs. Gould, Serena’s first-grade teacher, speaks directly to the importance of C+K+F in facilitating Serena’s progress: “I do feel that this mindfulness practice was important to help her focus on her feelings and get to a calmer state during the day. She was extremely fortunate to then have Mrs. Gutshall, who continued this practice on an almost daily basis, where I am told Serena started to flourish!”

Mrs. Gutshall, who regularly practices mindfulness in her own classroom, reiterates its value, saying, “Learning how to practice mindfulness allows us to find peace in those difficult moments. Whether it’s a child who’s experiencing a difficult situation or an adult who is overwhelmed at a specific moment in time, practicing mindfulness will help you find the peace and calm that you need to succeed and push through when times are tough.” Throughout Serena’s second grade year, Mrs. Gutshall used this powerful mindfulness lens to guide her class.

Returning to the Present

Now, a couple of years after Miss Jo first entered Serena’s classroom, it seems mindfulness has made a big impact. She participates in class, sits among her peers, and continues to build meaningful relationships. To Serena, mindfulness means, “being calm and not worrying so much,” she tells us.

After all that had happened, Miss Jo can’t speak of her highly enough:

“Serena is an incredibly courageous little girl. The amount of strength it took for her to be in a classroom of her peers, knowing how she internally struggled, is remarkable.”

Though Serena may be an ideal testament to the power of mindfulness, we know that our programming impacts thousands of students each year, in ways big and small. Mrs. Gould notices it, too: “Even though students don't always talk about how they are feeling, you can see it in their behaviors and interactions. I feel that Shanthi gives them a way to help control some of these sensations. I think many have started to take in things happening around them with more sincerity.”

There are more children out there just like Serena — and it’s Shanthi Project’s goal to reach them with mindfulness education. As we expand our programming, we know we’re supporting students, teachers, and entire schools, helping our communities return to a calmer, more mindful place. “I wish it was something that all students in every school had access to,” Mrs. Gould tells us, “because it helps them create an inner peace that will have outward effects on a school as a whole.”

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