Lisa Dussault. brings mindfulness techniques, such as mindful breathing and mindful listening, and yoga poses into all 1st grade classrooms, at the A.M. Chaffee Elementary School. How to be empathetic, grateful and kind toward others is part of her mindfulness teaching. Lisa uses unique items in her classroom: a tone bar, singing bowl, talking stick, hoberman sphere and mindfulness teddy bear – Meddy Teddy.”
Wait, did she say, "Meddy Teddy"?
OXFORD – Last summer, Lisa Dussault – who was then a part-time preschool teacher – approached the A.M. Chaffee Elementary School principal, Robert Pelczarski, about her hope to bring mindfulness techniques into her classroom. To her delight, Mr. Pelczarski not only embraced the idea, he immediately took it to the next level. He gave Ms. Dussault the responsibility of teaching mindfulness and social emotional learning to all of the school’s first-graders.
Launching the mindfulness class in 2016, the school became one of the many schools in the United States, Canada and the U.K. that have, in recent years, implemented mindfulness programs into their curriculums. “I was thrilled, this year, when my superintendent allowed me to introduce this program...” said Mr. Pelczarski. “I was very interested in this concept after working in Worcester and seeing so many kids riddled with anxiety and having very few skills to self-regulate. I was floored to find Lisa’s background matched so well with my feelings on the subject. We know that mindfulness helps students and teachers to improve their concentration. Lisa took it further and worked it into conflict resolution and empathy teaching as well.”
Defined by Merriam-Webster as “the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis,” mindfulness has been shown to help children reduce stress and anxiety, decrease aggressive behavior and improve concentration. However, since it’s relatively new to public school curriculums, the long-term effects of teaching it are not yet known.
But Mr. Pelczarski was so impressed by the success of the mindfulness program at Elm Park Community School in Worcester – when he worked there as assistant principal – he felt confident that mindfulness could help the students at Chaffee Elementary as well. “Elm Park had a huge mindfulness program, and I was able to observe it and be part of it...” recalled Mr. Pelczarski. “There are pieces of mindfulness popping up in schools all over the place simply because it works. Getting kids to think about their thinking and breathing and making better choices seems to be more successful than just telling them ‘do this’ or ‘try that.’”
For Ms. Dussault’s students, the 45-minute class consists of practicing mindfulness techniques, such as mindful breathing and mindful listening, as well as children-oriented yoga poses. Ms. Dussault also teaches the children social emotional skills, including how to be empathetic, grateful and kind towards others. Everything is taught in a unique setting. “My classroom usually has no lights on...no furniture – except small carpet seats – and very few items...” revealed Ms. Dussault. “The items I have are a little different, and most students have never been exposed to them, like a tone bar, singing bowl, talking stick, hoberman sphere and mindfulness teddy bear – Meddy Teddy.”
And although Ms. Dussault also admits that mindfulness is a difficult concept for first-graders to grasp, she has already seen the class have a positive effect on them. “I have seen the components of mindfulness positively impact the children’s lives when I hear students come up to me and tell me they took a few breaths before going on stage...and when they were frustrated in class and couldn’t do a math problem and stopped and calmed down by taking some breaths,” said Ms. Dussault. Additionally, she said she has “seen students doing acts of kindness...and the kindness being passed along to other students.”
Mr. Pelczarski is also happy with how successful the first year of the class has been. “As a first- year principal, I knew that I wanted my kids to begin working with self-regulation skills and learning ways to calm their bodies and just breathe,” he said. “Of course, we still have issues, but we truly believe this is making a major difference in our climate and culture here.”
Ms. Dussault clearly agrees and envisions an even brighter future. “I hope that by learning about mindfulness techniques and yoga, the students will be more aware of what is happening, understand what they are feeling in their bodies, learn to control their bodies, and stop before they react,” shared Ms. Dussault. “My hope is that mindfulness can help students make better decisions, when angry or upset, and lessen the reaction to hit, push, run or lose control. My hope is that mindfulness can also help students pay attention to many things and also be mindful of happy moments.”