MADISON – Can a practice called “Mindfulness” help young people ease their anxieties and stress levels, and focus more readily on the task at hand, whether it’s classwork, sports, or the ups and downs of everyday life?
Many conclude it can — and among the most recent adherents are fifth graders at Madison’s Torey J. Sabatini School — and their teachers.
The elementary school’s entire fifth grade — which is divided into two different sections — recently participated in the eight-week “Beginning Mindfulness” course taught by Mindful Kids founder and educator Mary Lea Crawley.
Sponsored by the Torey J. Sabatini School’s Parent-Teacher Organization (PTO), the “Mindfulness” class met weekly last November and December in 30-minute sessions, and taught the students “how to manage big feelings,” lower their anxiety over tests and classroom performance, and strengthen their focus and concentration, Crawley said.
“On the most simplistic level,” she explained, “I’m teaching the children how to notice what’s happening inside their bodies — racing thoughts, rapid heartbeat, feelings of tension or worry — and make adjustments. By taking slow breaths, noticing their mental activity, and redirecting their attention, they can slow down the build-up of stress or anxiety — and use the smartest part of their brains.”
Crawley, who has brought “Mindfulness” to students, teachers and parents in each of the Madison public schools in a variety of programs over the past two years, emphasized the openness and receptivity of the Madison teachers.
“They are a truly special group of educators,” she said. “I have offered some Professional Development training for the teachers at the Junior School, for example, as well as through the Madison Teachers Academy, and they not only are enthusiastic, but they report using the skills immediately.”
Crawley said “Mindfulness” is on the rise in education “in a big way,” with thousands of schools in the U.S. and around the world implementing “Mindfulness” programs and practices into their classrooms. Crawley herself has taught “Mindfulness” in more than a dozen public and private schools in northern New Jersey.
“The benefits of ‘Mindfulness’ in education are being reported everywhere,” she noted. “The New York Times, The Atlantic, and Time Magazine frequently survey the latest research on ‘Mindfulness’ in schools.”
Crawley pointed out that Assistant Professor Randye Semple, an anxiety-disorder expert from the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine, reported in Time Magazine’s “The Mindful Classroom” published in its Sept. 22 issue, “Calm breathing triggers the parasympathetic nervous system — the opposite of the fight-or-flight response — which slows the heart rate and makes blood pressure go down.” Semple added that “Mindfulness” training teaches youngsters to increase attention. “We’re showing them that attention can be increased, that it can be ramped up, and it can be trained.”
Crawley said that at a time when diagnoses of ADHD and anxiety are rising exponentially — with more than 10 percent of children diagnosed with ADHD and up to 20 percent with anxiety — “Mindfulness” offers simple ways to strengthen focus and lower internal pressure. “Mindfulness” builds self-awareness and other “soft skills,” Crawley said, “like managing social challenges, feelings of frustration and the desire for constant stimulation, the side effect of screen time.”
“Mindfulness” is for the brain “what exercise is for the body,” Crawley advised. “Now, we know how to strengthen our Prefrontal Cortex, where we have our executive functions — like focus and concentration, emotional regulation, and decision-making skills — and weaken our reliance on the reptilian parts of our brain, which often hijacks our best thinking and make us reactive.”
She added, “Kids are hungry for these tools. They want to take care of their own moments of panic. They want to calm themselves down. It’s so empowering to be able to do that.”
Torey J. Sabatini School fifth grade teachers Marisa Caruso and Tina Smith participated in the “Mindfulness” program with their students, and found the tools helpful for themselves.
Caruso explained that “Mindfulness” helped her notice her own moments of negative thinking. A tenet of “Mindfulness” is that by recognizing thoughts which are not helpful, people can shift their focus to the things that are most important. “This was a real eye-opener for me,” remarked Caruso.
Like Caruso, Smith reported using “Mindfulness” in both the classroom, and personally. “I take a deep breath and pause before reacting to something. I also passed on these strategies to my daughter.”
“Every week, when I asked students how they were using their ‘Mindfulness,’ many of them reported using it in soccer, basketball, concerts and at home,” Crawley said. “They use it when they have big piles of homework, but also, when they are at the foul line or on the stage, about to audition for the school play.”
Crawley concluded that “Mindfulness” is a life skill “that children will continue to strengthen and use as they grow into adolescence and adulthood” — including, perhaps, in some of the most important moments of their lives.