Since 2008, the Mindfulness & Education Conference has brought together people working in schools to further their learning of mindfulness and Social and Emotional Learning practices. Research shows that these techniques help decrease stress and anxiety in children while helping them achieve greater health and more connected social relationships.
“The most profound thing I have seen in the last 10 years is how mindfulness has been brought into schools on a systemic level,” said Daniel Rechtschaffen, who organizes the annual conference and teacher training at Omega. “This work has evolved so that whole school districts are implementing practices for students and teachers to find greater well-being.”
Each year, Omega offers scholarships to the conference in an effort to create a broader holistic learning community. These stories from three scholarship recipients reflect how the conference helped deepen their knowledge of this work so they could bring it to children and schools.
Little Ones Taking Big Breaths
Teachers, administrators, and students feel a tremendous amount of pressure these days to follow the curriculum and perform well on state testing. Kimberly Collins, a kindergarten teacher in the Kingston City School District in New York, says she wishes more people knew that mindfulness practices can help everyone with that pressure, especially children.
For years she was interested in bringing mindfulness and breathing exercises into her classroom but wasn’t sure how others educators in her school or her students would receive it.
"Most of the teachers I know don’t have a minute to take a breath," she said.
Her district started offering in-service mindfulness trainings just before she attended the conference, so she was excited to continue learning at Omega along with two others from her school.
"Kindergarteners are so wiggly and young," she said. "But just the other day, we all practiced freezing without moving and made it for 3 minutes and 15 seconds."
Since attending the conference, Kimberly has started a daily mindfulness practice for 20 minutes each morning with her students. She teaches a mixed class, including children with ADHD, and she shared that her ADHD students are the best at bringing focus to the exercises.
She also utilizes an exercise called 5-finger breathing, where children breathe in and out while tracing around their fingers, along with many other exercises that resonate with her young students.
One of the best parts of the daily practice is that her students remind her if she gets caught up in her day-to-day activities.
"'We didn’t breathe!'" they will say. "Sometimes I forget, and they will remind me," she said.
Kimberly has multiple children in her classroom who don’t live with either one or both parents, including foster children, homeless children, and those who live in chaotic households.
"I have 5-year-olds who are learning how to translate what’s going on in their crazy world and what’s going on in their body," she said. "They can stop, take a breath, and get calm even with so much trauma in their lives. I have one child who cries every day. We just breathe together. She recently told me, 'I went home and I was crying and I breathed.' I love how these practices are giving kids tools that they can take out in the world with them.”
Updating the Toolbox
Joanna Curry-Sartori has worked for years as a school-based community therapist in both clinics and schools. She’s a licensed marriage and family therapist who has studied and taught yoga and mindfulness for more than 20 years.
She has taught and consulted widely with parents, educators, schools, and community organizations to integrate mindfulness and Social and Emotional Learning programs for children and has seen firsthand the anxiety present for so many teachers, principals, and students.
"Our regular toolbox is no longer working, so I’ve been asking the question, 'What can we do?'" she said.
She was eager to attend the Mindfulness & Education Conference to expand her knowledge and, fresh out of graduate school, she was grateful for a scholarship to assist her efforts.
At the conference, Joanna said she felt inspired by the presenters and appreciated the breadth of the work and the number of different approaches to teaching mindfulness. She said it affirmed the work she’s been doing and helped her feel more confident about the path she is on.
Since her time at Omega, she has launched her own private practice which has offered her more time to work with schools. Locally, she now leads and attends monthly mindfulness council meetings with Capitol Region Education Council (CREC) in Connecticut.
She says what keeps her motivated is remembering, "Healing is when we reconnect with our hearts and anchor back into love and connection inside us. Ultimately, the goal is connection. So much of what we see in the world is polarization and the symptoms of disconnection."
Her advice to others who want to get involved in this movement is to use their own life as the first step.
"The most powerful thing we can do is walk the talk. Don’t act calm, but be calm and others will catch it," she said. "Continue to find ways to pause throughout your day and explore ways to expand your own mindfulness practice."
For teachers she says to start bite-sized by simply taking three breaths in the morning or helping students name how they are feeling.
"Right before they come in from PE is great time to pause—or right before a test," she said.
Neuropsychologist Nino Margvelashvili, who is from the country of Georgia, works with children aged six to 13 who have special needs such as ADHD and dyslexia. She helps to diagnose their conditions and make recommendations to parents about how to build the children's cognitive skills.
She attended the conference to increase her own knowledge about how mindfulness can help the kids she works with.
"I feel responsible for children I am connected with," she said. "I want to act and use the time wisely."
In Georgia many of the children and adolescents don’t know how to treat themselves and restore, according to Nino. Many mindlessly play video games as a way to deal with stress in their life, and she says many parents say they don’t know how to communicate with their children.
She would like to teach kids how to use their energy and drive for good. She wants to help them relearn what calmness truly means.
Nino says her own listening skills have improved because of the exercises she practiced at the conference. She took those home with her, saying that she now has a better sense of how to tune into her body and take more time to pause.
When working with the kids, she helps them to reflect on their actions and to be more mindful about their choices.
Nino connected with Holistic Life Foundation during the conference and is planning to bring them to speak to a group of local schools. Her long-term vision is to train more teens in mindfulness and launch peer-to-peer trainings so that more kids in her community can utilize the benefits of a mindfulness practice.
© 2018 Omega Institute for Holistic Studies