The young students sit around the edges of the carpet, legs crossed, backs straight, eyes closed.

After instructing them to raise their hands when they hear complete silence, Stefanie Goldstein strikes a bowl with a small baton, yielding a piercing sound that echoes throughout the classroom. Ding! The note persists, lingering in the still air.

As the sound begins fading, one hand goes up. Then another. Then another. Eventually, all 19 children indicate the noise has ceased. Eyes open.

“I could hear the vibration,” one student says.

“Whoa,” says another. “I feel dizzy.”

The activity is part of an introductory lesson in mindfulness, a therapeutic technique that educators are implementing at Santa Monica Alternative School House to help students improve focus, reduce anxiety and learn how to regulate their emotions.

Goldstein, a licensed clinical psychologist who is spearheading the programming at the Santa Monica-Malibu district’s alternative school for K-8 children, describes mindfulness as “intentionally paying attention to your present experience without trying to judge it.”

“We’re often caught in our own thoughts, either thinking about the past and upset about what happened or worried about what might happen,” said Goldstein, who is also a SMASH parent. “That’s where a lot of our suffering comes from, a lot of our anxiety, a lot of our depression, a lot of our stress. When we connect to the moment, we’re usually OK. There might be a ton of things you need to do, but right now you’re OK. We don’t often connect and settle into that space.”

The incorporation of mindfulness into the curriculum at SMASH, which has about 235 students, exemplifies the district’s goal to balance academic learning with social and emotional development.

“Students today are dealing with life in a very different context than 10 or 20 years ago,” Superintendent Sandra Lyon said during an education forum Feb. 26 at Lincoln Middle School. “They need to learn how to work in a community and, emotionally, how to take care of themselves.

“Every child has unique learning needs. Even students who are not struggling … may have one approach that works for them. We have to think about how we give them experience in a variety of settings.”

On a recent morning, the setting in Graciela Barba-Castro’s class of K-2 students at SMASH involved unconventional and increasingly popular mindfulness strategies that Goldstein tweaks so they’re age-appropriate.

But the initiative didn’t begin with the children. It started with 12 weeks of training and practice among instructors, who had discussed with principal Jessica Rishe their interest in finding new ways to foster student growth.

“The staff were saying, ‘What’s the next step?'” Rishe said, referring to the social curriculum on campus. “We don’t have a ton of anger, but we do have a thread of kids with anxiety, nervousness and distractability. It was about, ‘What tools can we give our kids to work with?'”

Staffers have done breathing and meditation exercises individually and as a group. They have also read “The Way of Mindful Education,” a book by Daniel Rechtschaffen about wellbeing in schools.

A few weeks ago, they began introducing mindfulness practices to the student body. Goldstein leads half-hour sessions once a week, and SMASH teachers inject their usual morning sessions with techniques the children have learned: observing, listening, breathing, moving and more.

“To incite change, it needed to be on a structural level,” Goldstein said. “Just with the kids, it falls flat — there’s no follow-up. This way, it’s taking the whole community. It’s a shared language.”

Although SMASH does not have empirical data on the impact of mindfulness on students’ achievement and behavior, organizers highlighted the benefits with numerous anecdotes.

In one instance, Goldstein said, a kindergartner who was upset responded well when his teacher used her hand to symbolize different brain functions — a sign he had picked up in a mindfulness session. A few deep breaths later, the student was calm again.

“It was a way for him to self-regulate,” Goldstein said. “The fact that she could do that and he knew what to do, it’s huge.”

In another incident, Rishe said, seventh- and eighth-grade students were arguing about how to proceed on a group project. They agreed to turn around and take a few deep breaths before returning to the assignment.

Rishe also said two older students who initially scoffed at mindfulness reported putting the approach into practice when they felt themselves getting mad at a referee during an athletic competition.

The stories underscore Goldstein’s aim to offer the students a variety of regulatory techniques that they can use in and out of school.

“People say, ‘Why would I want to be with my experience if my experience is uncomfortable?'” said Goldstein, who runs the Center for Mindful Living on Wilshire Boulevard just east of Santa Monica. “But your experience is happening whether you like it or not. We suffer the most when we deny what we’re experiencing. Our emotional landscape is similar to the weather. It’s going to come and go.

“With mindfulness, we’re not trying to eradicate thoughts. You don’t have to sit with your hands in a perfect way. It’s just, ‘What’s happening for you?’ It’s giving permission for everyone to have their own experience.”

Contact Jeff Goodman at 310-573-8351, jeff@www.smdp.com or on Twitter.

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