by NATHANIEL NELSON
On the second floor of Washington-Kosciusko (W-K) Elementary School, in third-grade teacher Amanda Schewe’s room, more than a dozen students sit with their legs crossed on the floor, fidgeting slightly every now and then.
“Alright, now go into mindful body and take a deep breath,” said Trish Johnson.
The children all put their hands on their stomachs, close their eyes, and breathe deeply to the sound of a single hit on a Tibetan singing bowl. A few students giggle, and Johnson looks over to them.
“There’s nothing wrong with giggling, but when we do this, we’re training our brains to remember how to focus and slow down, and be able to focus on something like our breath,” she told the class, and silence creeped back into the classroom.
This is a common scene at W-K over the last few weeks. Johnson, the founder of the Manitou Center in Winona, has been teaching an eight-week, 16-session mindfulness course to the school’s second- and third-grade classrooms.
Schewe explained that as part of the funds received from the annual Winona Area Public Schools’ Gala event, Johnson was brought in to lead the program for students at W-K. Most of the time, mindfulness practices are taught at older ages, including yoga classes for high schoolers and college students or meditation practices as part of a health class.
However, Johnson explained that through her own mindfulness practices, she began to notice that what adults use breathing and relaxation for aren’t necessarily that different from children.
“Basically, I started to realized that the things that I was facing –– feeling stressed, worried, or nervous –– that kids feel the same emotions and feelings, but don’t necessarily know how to approach them,” Johnson said. “I wanted to explore ways to encourage mindfulness and meditation earlier. Kids, at a young age, have a lot of things to worry about.”
A few years ago, Johnson began studying with a program out of Berkeley, Calif., called “Mindful Schools,” which taught her the ropes on how to incorporate mindfulness into the classroom. After completing more than 300 hours of training, she created a course at Manitou for parents of young children to come and practice yoga and mindfulness at a young age.
“It takes a while for kids to even realize that they may want to slow down,” Johnson said, “but it’s really important to take that pause periodically throughout the day to reset ourselves.”
Every week, Johnson meets with the second- and third-grade classrooms twice for half-hour sessions, going in detail into different aspects and practices of mindfulness. Schewe explained that the program began with teaching kids about the “mindful body pose,” where the children sit cross-legged with a hand on their chest and their eyes closed, and focus solely on themselves.
“The whole point of mindfulness is to be aware of yourself,” Schewe said.
The first time the students tried, it only lasted a few seconds at most –– now, only two weeks into the program, students are able to sit still for a full minute. Schewe explained that by the end of the program, the goal is for students to be able to practice mindfulness for a full five minutes.
Students are also encouraged to talk about where they’ve used mindfulness over the weekends, and how they’ve used it to help calm down in stressful situations. Some answers, of course, lean on the silly side, but Schewe explained that many of the students are showing real progress through the program.
“I’m really seeing quite a bit of a difference. Some kids aren’t used to such quiet or calmness, so the first couple sessions were a little tricky,” Schewe said. “Now, they’ve realized how this works and how they can use this for themselves.”
There are other aspects of the class, as well, including games and activities which help teach the methodology behind mindfulness. For example, in a game called “Stand Still,” students –– and teachers –– have to stand in silence for 30 seconds. If they move or their eyes wander, they have to sit down.
“I struggled with that one. I was used to watching the kids, so I looked around and I lost that game right away,” Schewe joked. “It helps you become more aware of how you can tune things in and tune them out.”
On top of the students, it’s common for other staff and even the principal to show up in a class from time to time. Johnson explained that the mindfulness course is being used to teach a new culture across the school of being aware of oneself and able to relax, particularly as children grow up and learn new things.
“It’s informal education. They’re really trying to have as many people, whether it’s teachers or students, to know mindfulness, and so they have the time and ability to pause and check in before moving forward,” Johnson said.
“It’s another tool in their toolkit, to help cope with things when they become hard,” Schewe said.