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Power in the Pause: Reflecting on a Year of Mindfulness

I joined Shanthi Project after over a decade of teaching, curriculum planning, and creative leadership in higher education. Starting in October, I led Shanthi Project’s Calm+Kind+Focused in-class mindfulness curriculum as a School-Based Instructor in kindergarten and first grade classrooms at Clearview Elementary School in the Bethlehem Area School District. This was my first experience working directly with elementary-age students in a formal setting, and I was profoundly struck by their attention, compassion, and thoughtfulness.

Matters of the Heart

Part of the way through the program, I shared the Heartfulness lesson. Here, we teach students how to practice kindness through both our actions and our thoughts. As an entry point to the lesson, I prompted students to think about the things they hold close to their hearts. For example, when asked, “What are you grateful for?” answers ran the gamut from “my parents,” “my siblings,” “my pets,” and “my teacher,” to “Wawa,” “my iPad,” and even “hibachi.”

Leading a lesson in a first grade classroom at Clearview Elementary.

Next, I inquired “What does it mean to be kind?” In each classroom, we discussed ways we could demonstrate kindness to other people. Together, we imagined different scenarios when practicing kindness might be really important: when frustrated with a sibling who wasn’t sharing a special toy; when impatient with a grown-up who wasn’t paying attention; or when working together on a project with a classmate. As we brainstormed together, the students raised one scenario over and over again: it is important to practice kindness when welcoming a new student into their classroom and the school community.

The idea of a new student joining the classroom midway through the year resonated with the Clearview students because it was not uncommon. Throughout the 16-week curriculum, I saw a handful of students matriculate from out of town or a neighboring district. When asked about ways that they could demonstrate kindness to these new students, the kindergarteners and first graders replied that they could help the student find different places in the building, demonstrate the routines and rituals in their classrooms, or offer to play with the new student at recess. They were all eager to help new students feel welcomeand to make new friends along the way, too.

Putting Mindfulness into Action

In January, one of these new students joined a kindergarten classroom, and right away I could see that he had doubts about the mindfulness curriculum. By this time, the other students knew the cadence of our work together, but this student was skeptical. He looked around with hesitation while his classmates found their mindful bodies and listened closely for the sound of a chime during our opening exercise. The kindergarteners participated intently and raised their hands to offer ideas during our discussion, and even giggled openly during our mindful movement. The new student, on the other hand, stayed in the back of the room to observe.

A few weeks later, I arrived to find that the new student was in a visibly frustrated and angry mood. It was clear to me that something had happened earlier in the day that didn’t go his way. As students found their places on the carpet, his classroom teacher sat down next to him for the lesson. We started together, as usual, with some mindful breaths and opening movement. Meanwhile, the new student turned his back to his classmates and laid face-down on the floor to disengage.

In a first grade classroom at Clearview Elementary after the final lesson.

The other kindergarteners stayed focused, and we continued the lesson together. As usual, I asked the students to find their mindful bodies and get ready to practice listening mindfully to the sound of a chime. As the sound dissipated and we shifted our focus to the ambient sounds in the room, the new student slowly sat up to look around. He observed his classmates listening attentively, evaluating the sounds in the room, and paying attention to the world around them. His face changed as he started to listen, and his body language softened as he slowly reconnected to his classmates.

Next, I asked students to place their hands on their bellies for three breaths together. Inhale: fill up the lungs and the belly, let everything grow round and soft. Exhale: let all of the air go, reset, begin again. By this point in our practice, the new student was engaged. He returned to his seat and joined his classmates in curious, attentive inquiry for the rest of the lesson. By the end, he even got his wigglesand his gigglesout during some mindful movement.

His classmates, in turn, had demonstrated some remarkable kindness to their new friend. Rather than pointing, staring, or calling out the new student while he was unregulated, they did their best to lead by example. By participating in the lesson and showing the new student how to mindfully listen and practice belly breathing, they were sharing kindness with him as well.

An Example for Us All

This is the power of Calm+Kind+Focused. My job as a School-Based Instructor is to present students with the opportunity to pause and arrive in the moment: right here, right now. I invite students to notice both what is going on all around them and what is going on inside of them. Throughout the lessons, we work together to practice noticing and naming our feelings, and I encourage students to recognize when they are experiencing a challenging emotion or a difficult feeling. I teach them how to use their breath to calm an activated nervous system, and, ideally, to recalibrate their attention so they might make more thoughtful, constructive choices during periods of stress.

I’ve thought about that new student a lot in the weeks since I concluded my first year at Clearview. I’ve considered the ways this particular kindergartener’s behavior might be instructive for me: a teacher of mindfulness and yoga. After all, I’m not exempt from the complicated feelings or difficult emotions that I spend so much time unpacking and discussing during lessons. In fact, as an adult in this complicated world, a parent to a young child, and an educator navigating a variety of classroom experiences, I find myself in scenarios that conjure frustration, anger, discomfort, or impatience more often than I hope for.

Yet, my mindfulness practice is there when I need it: I have my breath and my body with me all of the time. Throughout the curriculum, I reminded students that we practice mindfulness when we feel good so that the tools are there for us when we most need themwhen we are mad, frustrated, or anxious. A mindfulness practice can transform momentary discomfort (like what the new kindergarten student felt) or an entire outlook on life.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that mindfulness is a panacea, but I do know the power of the practice in my own body, and for the last year, I’ve been fortunate enough to witness that power firsthand in elementary students, too.

A thank-you poster from all four kindergarten classrooms.

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