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Blog Aug 7, 2019

Mindfulness at Work at Malcolm X Elementary School

Every morning at Malcolm X Elementary School in Washington D.C., students gather in the cafeteria for Harambee — a schoolwide community building exercise modeled after the Kenyan tradition of the same name which in Swahili means “all pull together.” With a “good morning” chant, a series of recognitions, a moment of silence, announcements and finally dismissal to class, students launch into the day ahead.

Once in the classroom, teachers must get their students centered and ready for learning. Enter mindfulness — a meditation technique used to increase focus on the present moment and decrease stress. Mindfulness meditation is one of the many practices that Turnaround for Children brings to schools. In school year 2018-19, Turnaround rolled out mindfulness, using the app Headspace, in every classroom from pre-K through fifth-grade at Malcolm X.

Lasting anywhere between three to ten minutes, mindfulness sessions help students to center themselves. Taking deep breaths in and out, a calming voice on the app guides the students and teachers through the process. Students are encouraged to check-in with their hearts and bodies by grounding themselves in an awareness of their breath and thoughts. As the session wraps up, the students slowly bring their attention back into the room. “It’s just calming,” says third-grade teacher Sabina Senn. “It gets them ready for the day and gets them centered.”

In just one year, it is apparent how the schoolwide adoption of mindfulness has impacted the school environment. Reflecting on the previous school year, Turnaround partnership director, Dawn Foreman, recalled that after high-energy periods like lunch or recess, students often returned to the classroom feeling stressed due to conflicts that may have occurred. However, this school year was completely different. After the rollout of mindfulness, both the cafeteria and the playground became more peaceful; students were calmer and better able to regulate their emotions. Data from a recent Panorama survey of third through fifth-grade students at Malcolm X, found that 53 percent of students felt that when they get upset, they can calm themselves down quickly; this was up 10 percent points from the previous school year.

There is now a demand for mindfulness among the students. “Some kids like it so much they ask for Headspace,” says second-grade teacher Stephanie Craig. “After recess, when there is too much hype, they ask for it.” Some students now even practice mindfulness at home with their families.

Across grade levels, teachers report that students can focus better in class and they attribute this to practicing mindfulness. “Sometimes when your brain goes to sleep, Headspace can make your brain wake back up,” said one of Ms. Craig’s students. “We do Headspace so it can make our brains smarter,” said another.

“It helps them through the lesson,” says Kindergarten teacher Jacqueline Williams. “It helps them get very engaged and enables them to do deeper thinking.” Mindfulness meditation builds stress management and self-regulation skills which are two of the bottom three skills of the Building Blocks for Learning Framework. These skills are the foundation for all the skills and mindsets common among successful learners. Mastering these baseline skills are essential for healthy development.

Mindfulness has also had a positive impact on teacher mindset as well. Teachers now approach conflict using a calmer voice and ask students to take deep breaths.

What strategies do you use in your classroom to help your students self-regulate? Share your thoughts with us. Tweet @Turnaround #The180.