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

Experts say even pre-K 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 aren’t learning-ready brains.”

MINDFUL MEDITATION

Second-grade teacher Lisa Sargenti starts each school day with a three-minute class meditation. The kids find their places on the carpet, sit crosslegged, 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.”

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.”

THE BENEFITS OF BRAIN BREAKS

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

“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, breathing exercises, community building games and more.

“[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 32,000 students from pre-K through 12th grade and trained about 5,000 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 reactions that bring us to a point of stress, that’s something they’ll 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 sessions 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. Now they’re calmer, happier and ready to learn.’”

ENCOURAGING 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 bodies a difference between being tight and really letting go.”

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

—Lisa L. Colangelo is a writer and reporter in New York City. She lives in New York with her husband and 11-year-old daughter.