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Reading, Writing and Belly Breathing: The Importance of Yoga and Meditation in School


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PHOTOS COURTESY OF ADAM HUNGER

Teachers and students throughout New Jersey are turning to yoga, meditation and other methods of mindfulness to enhance their classroom experiences and ward off stress. The practices are being used across all grade levels.

Experts say even pre-kindergarten students can reap the benefits of learning how to sit quietly and focus on their breathing. “I explain to educators that these are tools to prime the brain for learning,” says Allison Morgan, founder of Montvale-based Zensational Kids, which has trained thousands of educators throughout the country and internationally.

“When we relax the nervous system, we’re better able to access the thinking parts of the brain,” says Morgan, an occupational therapist and yoga instructor. “Students often enter the doorways of our schools with emotional stress,  anxiety and frustration. Stressed brains are not learning-ready brains.”

MINDFUL MEDITATION

Second-grade teacher Lisa Sargenti starts every day in her class with a three-minute meditation. The kids find their places on the carpet, sit cross-legged, close their eyes and cup their hands onto their knees.

“It’s the most beautiful thing to witness,” says Sargenti, who teaches in Ridgewood. But she admits, getting second graders to sit quietly is a process. “We start with one minute at the beginning of the year,” she says. “You need to have a lot of trust to do the practice, so if they don’t want to close their eyes I tell them to gaze down.” Sargenti gently guides them through the breathing, reminding them to relax their shoulders and keep their spines straight.

The response from her students has been overwhelmingly positive. One even brought a singing bowl, a type of bell used to promote relaxation, to share with the class and use during meditation. “What the meditation does is set the tone for the entire day,” she explains. “At the end of the three minutes, I always thank them for their energy and effort.”

Sargenti has also seen students use the relaxation techniques to better manage squabbles. “One student was upset because another student made a comment to him,” she says. “He was able to maintain his anger by focusing on getting himself calm. If that happened [at] the beginning of the year, he would’ve just spiraled and not been able to let it go.”

Even Sesame Street has touted the benefits of mindfulness. One musical segment on the beloved television show features Grammy-award winners Common and   Colbie Caillatteaching Elmo to belly breathe as a way to calm his inner monster.

THE BENEFITS OF BRAIN BREAKS

Darren Petersen, superintendent of schools in Montvale, started incorporating mindfulness into the curriculum five years ago. Teachers use yoga movements and mindfulness activities during “brain breaks” throughout the day. Kindergarten students participate in yoga on an ongoing basis, he adds.

“The reaction has been very positive,” Petersen says. “Teachers, parents and students realize how movement and mindfulness tools can help students release stress and anxiety, build the muscles of focus and enhance resiliency.”

Many schools in New Jersey have partnered with Yoga 4 Classrooms, which provides training, support and an easy-to-use card deck that provides a mix of “yoga postures, brain boosting movements, [breathing] exercises, visualizations, activities and community building games.”

“[Our] model is to empower schools from the inside so they’re implementing yoga and mindfulness throughout the day in a way that supports their own school goals and structures,” says founder Lisa Flynn.

In Newark, officials believed yoga would deeply benefit students living in neighborhoods plagued by crime and low graduation rates. “I’ve seen cultures of schools completely change,” says Debby Kaminsky, who worked with former Newark Mayor Cory Booker to start the Newark Yoga Movement eight years ago. Kaminsky says the program has served more than 24,000 students in Newark from pre-K through 12th grade and trained about 2,600 educators. “Teachers have told me these five minutes save them 50 in the classroom,” she adds.

CALMER IN THE CLASSROOM

“If students learn in preschool and elementary school how to take a few breaths to pull themselves back from the neurological and chemical reaction that bring us to a point of stress, that’s something they will follow the rest of their lives,” says Carol Bowman, an associate professor of education at Ramapo College who  also teaches yoga.

At the college’s Krame Center for Contemplative Studies and Mindful Living, Bowman helps run retreat programs and training for educators and others interested in meditation and stress reduction. “We always tell our students to pay attention, but we never actually teach them how,” Bowman says. “For many students, that can be very difficult.”

Mindfulness in the classroom also helps teachers manage their own reactions and responses, she says. “I had one teacher in particular who told me within the first week, ‘You’ve changed me as a teacher,’” Morgan of Zensational Kids recalls. “She said ‘I never realized how much I used to scream in my classroom to get their attention—and that got them upset and stressed.’”   

That teacher learned to get her students’ attention through yoga movements and focused breathing. Says Morgan: “Now they are calmer, happier and ready to learn.”

HOW TO ENCOURAGE MINDFULNESS AT HOME

If we want our kids to be mindful in the moment, we should practice what we preach, says Morgan.

“When you notice you’re getting upset, stop yourself, put your hands on your belly and your feet on the floor and take five deep breaths. Practice a couple times a day. If this is difficult, you can try this lying down.”

To help manage stress, Morgan turns to “progressive relaxation, which is called melting butter. They can do this lying down or sitting up. I tell the children to take a deep breath in—as you’re breathing in tighten up your whole body like a frozen stick of butter. Then I tell them to let their butter body melt as if they’re lying on a warm piece of toast that just came out of the toaster. They can feel in their body a difference between being tight and really letting go.

When we calm down our whole nervous system, we get to those higher thinking centers of our brain.” Flynn recommends beginning a mindfulness practice with your kids as early as possible. “That can be as simple as encouraging their young natural

curiosity, such as using the senses to provide a one-pointed focus. To help your child mindfully eat a piece a food, encourage her to notice every aspect of it from what it looks like to the texture in [her] fingers. Then close her eyes to smell the food, and slowly eat it, noticing the flavors and textures in the mouth and how it feels as it’s swallowed down into the belly.”

“Many families have a ritual of pausing before eating to show gratitude for all that went into creating and bringing the food to the table,” says Flynn.

“The practice of pausing to be grateful is not only an example of taking a mindful moment but also inspires compassion, optimism and connectedness, important to overall well-being. When these mindful pauses are encouraged throughout the day, taking them becomes a habit.”

Lisa L. Colangelo is a New York City-based writer and reporter. She lives in Queens with her husband and 9-year-old daughter.

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