Unit 5 Joins Mindfulness Trend With Grade School Pilot | WGLT

Unit 5 Joins Mindfulness Trend With Grade School Pilot

Dec 27, 2018

Frannie Corrigan is a junior basketball player at Illinois State University. Before she goes to bed every night, before each game and any time she feels stressed, Corrigan goes through a meditation ritual.

First she sits or lies down.

Illinois State basketball player Frannie Corrigan demonstrates a mindfulness exercise before a recent practice at Redbird Arena.
Credit Eric Stock / WGLT

“It involves me first just calming myself down, preparing myself to do this for 10 minutes,” Corrigan demonstrated as she sits on the front row of seats inside Redbird Arena, her palms turned upward, eyes closed.

“You don’t want to be all tense while you are doing it.”

Corrigan then describes a mental body scan, senses each muscle, tightens and then relaxes them from toe to head. It takes 10 minutes. She focuses on breathing deeply and calming herself.

Corrigan said her teammates think it looks funny.

“Some of my teammates are like, ‘What are you doing,’ which is understandable, to see me sitting there closing my eyes and deep breathing, it kind of looks a little funky,” Corrigan joked.

Corrigan said she grew curious a couple years ago when the team brought in a sports psychologist to teach relaxation techniques. She did her own research too.

“I’ve seen the benefits of it,” Corrigan said. “I know Kobe Bryant is really into it, so just being able to see other people have success with it and knowing it’s up and coming now, it’s kind of beneficial.”

Corrigan is studying exercise science at ISU and wants to be an athletic trainer so she can mentor other student athletes. She said she wishes she could have learned mindfulness techniques before going to college.

As it turns out, some K-12 schools are putting mindfulness in the classroom.

Unit 5 pilot

Educators are becoming increasingly concerned about students bringing anxiety to school every day. Whether they worry about families, food or phones, kids are expected to set those things aside to learn.

SEL teacher Abby Lyons demonstrates a breathing technique to first grade students at Oakdale Elementary in Normal.
Credit Eric Stock / WGLT

Abby Lyons took her first teaching job at Sugar Creek Elementary in Normal last year. The certified yoga instructor took some class time to teach about the brain, how it regulates emotions and how kids can use that knowledge to empower themselves.

“Our breath changes the way or brain works,” Lyons told a group of second-graders during a recent session. “The time that we take to just sit and breathe can be so helpful in creating a lot of space for us.”

Lyons said she had a light bulb moment in seeing the reactions of students.

“It was fascinating watching them taking these strategies on,” she said.

Lyons shared her findings with Unit 5 administrators and convinced superintendent Mark Daniel to drop in on a class. Students demonstrated for him what's called roller coaster breathing, rolling your index finger up and down the other hand to simulate the timing of their breathing and how it calms them.

Students at Sugar Creek Elementary School in Normal demonstrate roller coaster breathing to Unit 5 Superintendent Mark Daniel.
Credit Abby Lyons

Daniel created a social and emotional learning pilot program at Sugar Creek and Oakdale grade schools.

He said it's time for a new way of thinking in schools.

“The days of just saying ‘Sit. Be quiet,’ although we’d love to have those days back, those days aren’t here,” Daniel said. “Now students question, they challenge and I think if we ask our young parents that question, they would have the same response.”

Lyons is in charge of the social emotional learning pilot. She visits 20 classrooms per week for a half hour each giving demonstrations to students and teachers.

“This is my dream job,” Lyons said. “I think about what I want to be doing with my life it’s this. It’s supporting teachers, it’s supporting students, it’s supporting families with tools that physiologically change their brains to support them to feel better, healthier, happier.”

Meditation time eats into regular classroom time. Lyons says she has had push back from some teachers about diverting precious classroom time away from the three R's: reading, writing and arithmetic.

But Lyons said many kids are showing up to school what she calls “dysregulated,” not ready to learn.

“There have been a lot of responses from our teachers in both (schools) that say, ‘If I wasn’t doing circles with my students, connecting with my students, I would not have known my students didn’t sleep last night and that’s why their behavior looked like this during the day and that’s why they weren’t focused on math during the day.’”

Daniel considers time for social emotional learning time well spent.

“We could teach 24/7, 365 days a year, but if a student isn’t ready to learn they aren’t going to learn,” Daniel said. “Therefore, that’s wasted time, so we are moving the students to where they can truly be susceptible and ready to learn.”

Some classroom teachers do see a difference. Lisa Hazewinkel is in her 15th year of first grade at Oakdale Elementary.

“If they are feeling upset or angry about something they’ll ask to use the calming corner,  or they’ll go lie down or sit down and take a break from everything for a few minutes, using their words, expressing to their friends, (saying) ‘I don’t like it when you do that, please stop.’” Hazewinkel said. “I’m noticing more of that.”

Social emotional fitness

Lyons isn't the only educator who is taking the mind-over-matter approach to social and emotional well-being in Unit 5.

Phys ed teacher Patrick Pommier speaks to students at Grove Elementary School during a recent weekend play day.
Credit Eric Stock / WGLT

Patrick Pommier teaches physical education at Grove Elementary in Normal. At a recent weekend play day at the school, Pommier gave his students an elementary lesson in meditation.

Pommier is a fitness guru who said he just started meditation about a year ago and now he's made it a daily ritual that he shares with his students when time allows.

“It’s a simple question of do you want to be happy or not?” Pommier asked. “To me, taking five, 10 minutes a day to make your whole day better, it’s worth it.

“If I could meditate versus working out and I’m a huge advocate of physical activity, I’d probably meditate because I know my entire day is going to be better,” Pommier said.

Two of Pommier's fourth-grade students, Rowdy Dumonceux and Campbell Damery, said they feel better prepared for the day when they take time to stop and take an emotional inventory.

“It really helps self-control,” Dumonceaux said.

“It calms me down so I’m not too hyper and it makes me fell not as nervous,” Damery said.

Pommier said it helps to have an attitude of gratitude and that can be self-fulfilling.

“Somedays we feel healthier than other days, so just being aware of that and understanding what can I be grateful for this day that can help me have a better day overall,” Pommier said.

Where’s the data?

Schools typically need hard data to expand or justify programs. So far that's limited.

Lyons said schools participating in the pilot have seen a drop in students being called to the office. The schools surveyed teachers before the school year and will be surveying them at the end of the year to measure progress.

Lyons said her evidence of mindfulness impact is measured so far in anecdotes, such as this one when a first grader asked to address the class.

“She said ‘Raise your hand if you have ever seen your parents fight before.’ All the kids raise their hands and she said ‘When your parents fight you can take a deep breath to calm down, you can tell your parents to take a deep breath and then they’ll stop fighting.’”

SEL instructor Abby Lyons leads a stretching exercise for fifth grade students at Oakdale Elementary School in Normal.
Credit Eric Stock / WGLT

Lyons said teachers are expected to mold young people while only being in their lives 10 percent of the time. She said this is how to affect the other 90 percent.

“In that moment, I realized this has the power to actually stop trauma in its tracks if we can empower our kids to take it home,” Lyons said.

Daniel said Lyons could help change how teachers assess students' social and emotional needs, but schools aren't prepared to overhaul the system until it can prepare more teachers to implement the social-emotional model.  

“It will be a piece of our solution, it will not be in totality the solution,” Daniel said.

“I think we are growing our own (teachers) in that area, but taking what she’s bringing to this and then how do we resource that, that will be a challenge.

“Not all teachers can do this," he declared.

Lyons hopes to see more schools embrace the concept.

“We have kids and adults showing up saying ‘I came here angry and I know that when I take a deep breath, I can show up and create space for myself to respond in a health way,’ that can change our entire school system, the entire way we operate.

“When six year olds are able to speak that and recognize that, that’s humongous.”

Bloomington High School has taken into own path to better connect with students' social and emotional needs by starting a 23-minute advisory period twice a week where students can meet with teachers and other advisors.

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