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Mindfulness Transforms Culture At High-Needs Elementary School

NOEL KING, HOST:

One in 5 school children struggles with anxiety, and almost half of them experience at least one serious stressor at home - something like divorce or poverty or a parent's addiction. To help students cope, a growing number of schools are trying something new - mindfulness in the classroom. Its boosters say there are all kinds of benefits. But is the hype getting ahead of the evidence?

Anya Kamenetz, one of our NPR education reporters, has been following the topic of mindfulness for a while. She's with us now. Hi, Anya.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Hi, Noel.

KING: So explain mindfulness. What is it?

KAMENETZ: So that's a term used for kind of a secularized version of different practices that come from Buddhism, from Hinduism - things like deep breathing, focusing on the senses or mental exercises that are designed to promote just awareness, being in the moment and sometimes kindness.

KING: How does that work with children in schools?

KAMENETZ: So one of our member station reporters, Meribah Knight at WPLN, she visited a high-needs school in Nashville, Tenn., an elementary school where mindfulness has really transformed the culture. And here's some of her reporting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MERIBAH KNIGHT: Warner Elementary's mindfulness room is awash in sunlight and brimming with plants. Soothing music drifts out of a desk speaker.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KNIGHT: On a recent morning, a bespectacled fourth-grader named Gabriel walks in after a tiff in art class. The school's mindfulness teacher, Riki Rattner, greets him.

RIKI RATTNER: Cool. Let's go...

GABRIEL: OK.

RATTNER: ...Let's get you checked in and calmed down, taking care of you.

GABRIEL: All right (ph).

KNIGHT: A few minutes later, after he settles into a cozy corner filled with pillows and stuffed animals, Rattner approaches him.

RATTNER: You want to talk to me about what happened?

GABRIEL: He said, give me my pencil. But he already had a pencil. I tried to walk away, but he followed me and tried to punch me and kick me.

RATTNER: You didn't retaliate in any way, and I'm really proud of you for that - for staying calm.

KNIGHT: Then, Rattner retrieves a colorful, expanding ball from the shelf.

RATTNER: So while we breathe, Gabriel, we want to breathe into our bellies. It fills up like a balloon. (Inhaling).

KNIGHT: She expands the ball as they breathe in.

RATTNER: And then we exhale. Pull your belly button in. (Exhaling).

KNIGHT: This exercise is part of a program called BeWell in School. Founded by Rattner, a yoga instructor and former teacher, it aims to curb behavior issues and reduce stress by teaching children to tap into their breath.

Warner is BeWell's pilot school. When Rattner arrived, it was on the heels of a difficult year. Warner had landed on the state's list of lowest performing schools and had racked up hundreds of behavior write-ups. Ricki Gibbs, Warner's fourth principal in six years, was eager for new ideas.

RICKI GIBBS: Most of the time when children act up, they're trying to process something.

KNIGHT: So he offered Rattner a classroom and the freedom to try something new - schoolwide breathing exercises, classroom support and one-on-one sessions with students, all in the effort to help kids see how anger feels in their bodies. Almost 90% of Warner's kids live in poverty. Many come to school carrying trauma and troubles, Gibbs says, and behavior issues inevitably follow.

GIBBS: But now that we've given them avenues to work on mindfulness, to work on just calming themselves, getting to their center place where they can just be children, it's decreased significantly.

KNIGHT: The program is new, and it's unclear what the long-term impact will be. But the numbers already show improvement. Behavior referrals have gone down about 80% compared to this time last year. Gibbs credits much of the change to Rattner's work.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KNIGHT: After their breathing exercises, Rattner brings Gabriel a liquid timer filled with colorful, oily bubbles. She shakes it up and places it before him. This is how we feel when we get upset, she says.

RATTNER: Then we breathe. And things start to calm and they start to settle. And we realize that we're OK and we're safe.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KNIGHT: The bubbles begin to fall to the bottom of the timer. When she checks back with Gabriel, she asks how his body feels. Beautiful, he says.

RATTNER: Beautiful? I love that.

KNIGHT: Thirteen minutes have passed. Gabriel says he's calm now and he's ready to go back to class.

For NPR News, I'm Meribah Knight in Nashville.

KING: OK. So there we have an example of this working for an individual student and, it sounds like - based on the numbers - working for that school as a whole. I know you've been looking, Anya, at schools across the country. Does this fall in line with what you're seeing?

KAMENETZ: You know, it does. And I would characterize the evidence as kind of emerging. So there are studies that suggest a lot of different benefits from mindfulness in schools. When you look at the evidence base for adults, mindfulness is actually similarly effective to antidepressants for anxiety, for depression. And for students specifically, mindfulness has been shown to improve cognitive performance, so students can focus and concentrate better. But there's a couple of caveats.

KING: What are the caveats?

KAMENETZ: Well, one is time. So the mindfulness programs that are actually backed by scientific evidence, they tend to be pretty intensive. We're talking about an hour of instruction per week for eight to 12 weeks.

KING: Are people concerned about mindfulness programs taking away from other stuff that the kids are supposed to be studying?

KAMENETZ: Yeah. I mean, that's a complex issue. So in schools like Warner, lots of students might be struggling with reading and math - you know, basic skills. The argument, of course, would be, if you invest in helping students manage their emotions, you'll get classroom time back because the students are staying in class, they're not being disruptive.

But an important related issue that was brought up by some of the experts I talked to is equity. Statistics show in schools across the country that black and Hispanic students are disciplined more often and more harshly. And it could be, you know, that a student's feeling angry or disruptive because the teachers are showing implicit bias. And mindfulness is not going to fix that problem. It's going to be maybe more of a Band-Aid.

So I talked to Tiara Cash about this. She's with the Center for Mindfulness, Compassion and Resilience at Arizona State University.

TIARA CASH: Mindfulness really isn't spiritual bypassing. So we're not trying to bypass the fact that there are social injustices and systematic issues that show up in these different communities and in these different spaces.

KAMENETZ: And so she and other experts I spoke to made the point that it's hard to do mindfulness effectively unless teachers actually have their own personal mindfulness practices so they can kind of walk the talk.

KING: Anya Kamenetz with our education team. Thank you so much for this really interesting reporting.

KAMENETZ: Thanks, Noel.

(SOUNDBITE OF INCUBUS' "AQUEOUS TRANSMISSION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.