It’s 11 o’clock, and a dozen purple yoga mats carpet the floor of a first-grade classroom at Cass Street School on the East Side. A fidgety group of youngsters dressed in simple uniforms sing in unison: “Red, I’m powerful, yellow, I’m bright, blue, I’m calm.” They sing through the entire rainbow, each color representing a chakra, or energy point in the body.
Mary Witte, petite, spirited and bespectacled, or Miss Mary, as the kids call her, selects one lucky student to ring the chime, signaling the start of today’s yoga lesson. Gently, she guides students through Sun Salutations, Downward Dog and Cobra as the pliability and resiliency of children become apparent. She speaks to them in a calm, quiet voice, but her passion for this practice is electric, as she flits around the room and checks in with each student, providing positive reinforcement and ensuring they are engaged.
For the past four years, Witte has taught yoga in Milwaukee classrooms to students in grades one through nine. While Witte was completing her yoga teacher training at Kanyakumari Ayurveda in Milwaukee, she met Susan Solvang and Nan Flaherty.
The three women all saw the potential for yoga and mindfulness practices to help students develop social and emotional skills for self-regulation and stress reduction, and resolved to do something about it. While Witte chose to work independently, Solvang founded the nonprofit Growing Minds in 2010 and developed a curriculum to align with the National Health Education Standards and CASEL’s Core Competencies, a system that addresses academic, social and emotional competence in students.
Flaherty is one of Growing Minds’ ten instructors who teach breathing and other types of exercises in schools. Instructors collaborate with teachers to offer the lessons for up to four years, with the goal that teachers will continue the lessons on their own in the classroom.
Across town on a Monday morning at Atwater Elementary in Shorewood, distractions tempt students like a siren song. Janet Reinhoffer, another Growing Minds instructor, conducts a lesson in breathing techniques with a group of third-graders whose diverse personalities poke through in their wardrobe choices.
Reinhoffer starts the lesson by asking both the teacher and students to “Get into their mindful bodies” – both feet on the floor, hands in their lap, back long and strong, and eyes closed. During the minute or so that kids are actively listening to the sound of the chime dissipating, they focus on their breath moving in and out of their bodies. Some students keep their eyes closed while others fidget in their seats.
Reinhoffer again cues them to “Place your hands on your belly or your heart to feel the breath move through your body.” Students choose one of several mindful breathing techniques that incorporate movement; for instance, the use of flower hands – allowing their hands to open and close as they inhale and exhale. Or take five – where students trace their hands and inhale until they reach the top of the finger and then exhale on the way down, continuing this sequence on all five fingers.
The Growing Minds program is tailored to the objectives of each school that it serves. To date, the organization has worked in over 20 schools throughout metro Milwaukee; a majority of them are part of the Milwaukee Public Schools system. That equates to about 200 classroom visits a year, affecting about 6,000 students.
The surprising part for most people is that mindfulness strategies are so simple, yet so powerful. “It’s not about controlling your thoughts – you’re just recognizing what’s happening when it’s happening and putting some space between the stimulus and your response to it,” says Flaherty. With practice, students become more adept at accessing their internal power and developing constructive habits of thinking and acting.
Audrey Blackmore, a student as Lake Bluff Elementary in Shorewood, learned mindfulness in first grade. Her mother noticed that she had a tendency to get anxious and emotional pretty quickly. The practice of taking time to follow her breath in a structured way really seemed to comfort her. For Christmas that year, Audrey asked for a chime so she could “play mindfulness.” She kept it in her room and would use it to have quiet time for herself and her stuffed animals.
Solvang frequently gets this type of positive feedback from parents, who appreciate seeing their children pausing to take five breaths at home to avoid arguments and calm themselves down. Some kids are even offering to teach their parents ways to be mindful.
“I witnessed my daughter doing deep breathing exercises one night as she lay awake, anxious about her first day of school,” says Lisa Menon. “It wasn’t long before she drifted off to sleep, managing that difficult moment herself.”
There is plenty of scientific data illustrating the positive effects of mindfulness training on mental health and well-being, showing that it improves attention, reduces stress, and results in better emotional regulation and an improved capacity for compassion and empathy. But little research has been done on mindfulness training for children and adolescents, according to Lisa Flook, a scientist with the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Growing Minds compiled its own research in MPS during the 2011-12 school year and again in 2014-15, but it was not a study with a control group.
Despite the lack of empirical data, Flook believes that teaching mindfulness in schools has benefits. “In general, research and academics put a strong focus on cognitive and academic skills; however, we know that this is only one part of the equation and that relationships and relational skills are a huge factor in well-being and satisfaction and meaning in life,” says Flook. “Skills like empathy, compassion, and kindness are often neglected or taken for granted when conducting research, but given how much they actually matter in our lives, putting more emphasis on ways to cultivate and measure these qualities could really transform education.”
In her work with schools, Flook has seen the importance of involving teachers so that they can support children in the practice based on their own direct experience. Monique Bates teaches an eighth grade class at Cass Street School and has been part of the program for six years. She leads five-minute practices, three to five times a day, when kids need to focus – usually in the morning, after lunch, before testing and at the end of the day. “It’s a key skill they need in life,” says Bates. “Stressors come when you are 16 or 66, and I always tell kids they need their own toolkit.”
“It’s almost like church, you get what you need out of it,” she continues. “Some kids stare into space, some close their eyes, others use the props and posters we have in the classroom.” And sometimes it’s Bates herself who needs the practice to manage her stress, she reports.
Initially, Bates was reluctant to set aside time for the exercises because of the necessity to maximize every moment in order to meet achievement expectations in the classroom. But once all the teachers agreed to adhere to the program, it worked. Since mindfulness became a schoolwide endeavor, Bates has noticed a significant decline in fighting among students at Cass – kids walk away from a heightened situation to be alone and collect themselves. With her group of students in particular, she notices increased sensitivity, kindness and concern about the well-being of others.
Solvang has seen that both teachers and students benefit from the training in similar yet slightly different ways. Their relationships with others improve at school and at home, and they report being able to focus better through distractions, pausing before reacting to strong feelings, and even falling asleep better.
As word spreads, there are far more schools in Milwaukee that want this type of training than Growing Minds or Mary Witte and her yoga classes can reach. Both Witte and Growing Minds provide programming at little or no cost to schools, taking on the burden of fundraising themselves. “Every one of our classrooms receives some sort of underwriting whether they are aware of it or not,” says Solvang. “And we have never turned anyone away because they could not afford the class.”
Although research on the results is still sparse, it’s hard to find a downside to providing kids – and teachers and parents – with the tools to manage stress and anxiety as they make their way through life’s challenges.
‘Deep Breaths’ appears in Milwaukee Health, a special issue from Milwaukee Magazine.