Local elementary schoolers may soon be more emotionally intelligent than many adults.
All elementary schools in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) will be practicing mindfulness in the classroom next school year. Mindfulness, which has gained popularity in schools and elsewhere in recent years, is a psychological practice to regulate emotions, reduce anxiety and improve focus. When a mindfulness practitioner feels stressed, sad or angry, they pause to reflect on how they feel and why they feel that way.
Educators will teach students mindfulness techniques, such as the S.T.O.P. method, that they can use in their daily lives. The method entails stopping what one is doing, taking a few deep breaths, observing one’s thoughts and feelings and proceeding from a place of awareness.
SMMUSD will be enlisting The Center for Mindful Living (CML), which has taught children and teachers at Santa Monica Alternative School House (SMASH) since 2015, and Mindful Schools, which provided online instruction at Lincoln Middle School, to instruct 114 teachers in the fundamentals of mindfulness and how to impart it to children. The in-person and online training will cost about $49,000 and will be funded by the Local Control Accountability Plan.
Before CML began training SMASH staff and students in mindfulness about four years ago, many students reported feeling teased and excluded while playing and staff noticed that the children often struggled to regulate their emotions, said SMASH principal Jessica Rishe.
As staff and students incorporated mindfulness into their lives, fewer children were sent to the principal’s office and annual surveys showed students felt more emotionally and physically safe and connected to their teachers, Rishe said.
The impact of mindfulness training at SMASH is borne out by the scientific research on mindfulness, said Megan Sweet, the director of training at Mindful Schools, which will provide 12 weeks of online courses for SMMUSD employees. Studies have shown that people with a regular mindfulness practice are more aware of and can better regulate their emotions.
“If you know why you’re feeling bad, you can have some control over the feeling you have and the response you exhibit,” Sweet said. “There’s a space that gets created between the stimulus and your response, and that’s really helpful for kids.”
Children who are trained in basic mindfulness techniques often use them at school or at home without being prompted, Sweet said. She recently visited a school where a child was crying because he had lost a loved one and his classmates decided to breathe in and out with him to calm him down. After, the teacher asked the students to talk about their feelings toward their classmate.
“Mindfulness gives us that chance to check in with our emotions instead of pushing them down,” Sweet said. “That five minutes allowed them to get back on track and keep learning. Often, that kind of pain gets ignored in the classroom because teachers don’t have the tools to address it.”
Shuli Lotan, who coordinates mental health counseling for SMMUSD, said she wants to replicate the results at SMASH throughout the district because she has seen significantly more students with anxiety in the past decade and feels that counseling is not enough to address the root of the problem. She said the district is launching the program in elementary schools so students understand mindfulness as early in life as possible and can use it as they move through the school system.
Stefanie Goldstein, a licensed clinical psychologist and the co-founder of the West Los Angeles-based Center for Mindful Living, will be training teachers at each elementary school for the rest of this school year and following up with them as they implement the training next school year. They will learn about what mindfulness is and the neuroscience behind it before Goldstein starts teaching them techniques, she said.
“It’s important to have a foundation and clarity on what mindfulness is and isn’t, because mindfulness is everywhere right now, and that’s amazing, but we also have to be grounded and science and not treat it as a cure-all or panacea,” she said.
Goldstein said she wants to make sure that parents feel connected to the practice as well so everyone involved in each school can share a language around mindfulness, such as the S.T.O.P. method or the idea of “flipping your lid,” or losing one’s temper. Schools might host parent education nights, send letters home with mindfulness lessons or create instructional videos, she said.
“That’s how you create a cultural shift,” Goldstein said.