Mindfulness: Quieting Minds, Hearts, and Bodies of Elementary Students (and My Own!)

After a short pause in updates in the CoOp Corner for Winter Break and a return to something like normal schedule, we return to the thoughts and experiences of participating Cooperative teachers with an update from Jennifer Ferguson, an Exceptional Education teacher at Hermitage Elementary School. She shares about her experience bringing Mindfulness into her classroom and beyond. Have you tried mindfulness in your classroom or for yourself? How does your experience compare? Leave a comment below and share with your colleagues to see what they think.

By Jennifer Ferguson

This year marks my 20th year in education. Throughout that time, I’ve worn many hats in the education world – from public Exceptional Education teacher, to teaching at an all-boys’ charter school, to directing a private tutoring company. Despite the differences between these roles, a common passion runs through them all: my love for educating others.

Even after 20 years, I am constantly learning and improving my craft to best support not only my students, but also my own children, and myself. One of the exciting parts of teaching is adapting to new research and incorporating cutting-edge ideas into the classroom. However, this year has been different. Instead of a new curriculum or teaching technique, I needed something all-encompassing that would help my exceptional education students, my son with special needs, and my own sanity and well-being through.

The answer came to me last summer during my time spend at the Educators’ Cooperative Summer workshop. Part of our fourth day was spent listening to a Mindfulness Panel, made up of local leaders and experienced practitioners of mindfulness in education. Listening to the panel and other teachers at the workshop talk about the successes they’ve had using mindfulness in the classroom was just what I needed. It motivated me, it challenged me, and it encouraged me to add something new and different into my classroom for the coming year.

This initial panel sparked my excitement to find out as much as I could about mindfulness. I read books, went to additional Professional Development sessions through my district, and downloaded the Calm app. Perhaps most importantly, I practiced breathing and meditation on my own just as everyone had recommended to me. I knew I needed to experience it for myself before I could successfully incorporate into my classroom. Once I had a grasp on it myself, I had a challenge in front of me: how can I make this mindfulness thing fit into my students’ daily lives?

I work with students in grades K-2 with varying disabilities, ranging from specific learning disabilities to significant functional delays. Almost all of my students are also diagnosed with ADHD. I knew I had to teach them in a way that would be simple to understand, practice, and implement on their own. I also knew that, if successful, I could provide them with a lifelong tool to calm themselves.

I felt like a first year teacher again with numerous questions rolling through my mind: What do I do? How does this work? What will it look like as part of our daily schedule?

To quiet my uncertainty, I did what I do best – just jumped in and made it happen. I started by changing my classroom environment. The focus is a large, round, yellow rug that reminds me of a giant sun. This is our community gathering space, filled with comfortable pillows, a beanbag and my rocking chair. This is where it will happens.

The first day was simple – close your eyes and imagine you’re walking through a big, beautiful garden. What color is the most beautiful flower? Bend down, pick it up, and breathe in nice and slow. Then slowly breathe out from your mouth and help the rest of the garden grow. Now do it a few more times. Follow my breath.

After that first practice, we discussed how it felt to slow down. Talking about feelings can be tricky with five, six, and seven year olds, but I knew it would be valuable and pushed through. This “flower breathing” became our very first breathing practice of the week. From then on, I introduced a different breathing practice each week. Once we got through learning them all, the children were able to choose the practice that most resonates with them. We now have a class mantra for mindfulness – Quiet your mind, quiet your heart, and quiet your body. For my students, the use of “quiet” instead of “calm” has helped them find their center and has given them a more concrete goal with which to gauge their calmness.

We spent several weeks learning, implementing, and practicing different breathing techniques. However, more questions were creeping back into my mind – how do I know this is really working? Are they using these strategies outside my classroom? Like many teachers, I needed validation that what I had spent so much time on was actually useful and valuable.

I talked to my students’ parents, other teachers, and the paraprofessionals who work with my students. Their responses were amazing! I had parents asking to explain the “elephant breathing” their students were doing at home. I had other teachers tell me that these students would implement these strategies independently during class. I was told during a parent-teacher conference that one of my students always uses “balloon breathing” when he gets frustrated with his sister.

The happiness I could see on her face made it all worth it. I was so excited to hear this that I teared up with joy. That was all the validation I needed. The data is real! It’s working! At home, in the general education classroom, and on our sun rug. My students are better able to identify their emotional state and choose a breathing practice that they like. They can use it with independence or with minimal prompting to quiet their mind, heart and body. It has helped my son and me find our own breathing techniques. What more could I ask for?

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