"This is tree hugger stuff."
That's what Jeff Taylor said when he was first approached about introducing "mindfulness" practices to West Milwaukee Intermediate School. Taylor has been principal of the school for six years — and he is not so into tree hugger stuff.
He's changed his mind. The school with about 450 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders at W. Greenfield Ave. and S. 51st St. is in its second year of developing "mindful" practices as a central part of aiming to improve the school climate and academic success.
The school has Mindful Mondays, which start with teacher Holly Skelton on the public address system, giving a message about staying calm and in emotional control. She does some breathing exercises and offers some positive thoughts.
Many staff and students wear mindfulness T-shirts, especially on Mondays. "Keep calm and breathe on," the blue T-shirts say.
A hall display offers thoughts and art from a seventh-grade language arts class on how mindfulness helps them.
Classes often begin with "a mindful minute." In the eighth-grade math class of teacher Mauria Turkowski, students demonstrate one of those minutes:
The students sit still with both feet on the floor and backs straight. A boy stands at the front of the class, tapping a bowl to produce a chiming sound. Another boy stands next to him, slowly compressing and expanding a ball made of plastic pieces. The 20 or so other students sit quietly, many with their eyes closed, breathing slowly along with the chime and the ins and outs of the ball.
What does this accomplish? Students offer answers: It helps us calm down. It helps deal with stress. It helps us focus on what to do. It helps us think before we do something bad. It makes school easier.
It also places the students and West Allis-West Milwaukee schools as a whole in a leading position in what appears to be a nationwide trend (or will it turn out to be a fad?) that aims to make schools safer and just overall better by reducing stresses and emotions that can fuel problems and interfere with academics.
I don't know of any source for specific numbers, but it is clear that an increasing number of schools in the Milwaukee area, both public and private and including some in the Milwaukee Public Schools system, are using "mindfulness." Many, including West Allis-West Milwaukee, have been working with a Milwaukee nonprofit called Growing Minds to implement this.
West Allis-West Milwaukee is in the second year of an effort to bring mindfulness practices to every school, training not only students and teachers but everyone in each building. The intermediate school is the first in the district to implement this schoolwide.
And the mindfulness program is part of a broader "student wellness" effort by the district that includes in-depth conferences with every student in fifth, eighth and ninth grades. Parents or key adults in students' lives take part in the session focused on what students see ahead for themselves and how to pursue their worthy goals.
There also are efforts focused on providing counseling to all students, promoting character, reducing bullying and encouraging "positive behavior." The district is in the second year of using a five-year, $3.2 million federal grant to fuel the efforts.
What's with all this soft stuff? Why not stick to teaching reading and math and all that?
Because there is increasing recognition that "social-emotional learning" counts. A lot of kids aren't getting it at home, and even ones who are can benefit.
In fact, the flow of developing these strengths sometimes goes from the school to the home, and not the other way around. Laura Sage, a school psychologist who is coordinator of the district's School Climate Transformation Project, says there is thought of offering training in "mindfulness" to parents. Many parents want "anything you've got" to help reduce anger and tension at home, she said. "They're starving for this."
When it comes to mindfulness, Sage said, "I'm the type that's a little skeptical of things."
But, she said, "I've definitely become a full believer in it," based on what has gone on in schools such as West Milwaukee Intermediate.
"It's actually quite amazing," she said. The school staff was initially divided roughly into thirds — those who liked the idea, those were skeptical but willing to try it, and those who thought it was, um, tree-hugger stuff. There has been an overall shift toward the positive, Sage said, "If they weren't seeing it working, they wouldn't be buying into it."
Recently, I heard Richard J. Davidson, a prominent expert on meditation and similar practices, talk to a small group, mostly of educators. Davidson, who founded the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, predicted that in a few years, doing mental fitness exercises will be as respected and widespread for both kids and adults as doing physical fitness exercises is now.
Taylor said behavior and culture problems were a big issue when he became principal of West Milwaukee Intermediate. The school is, as he puts it, "very urban," with a highly diverse student body. More than 80% of students are considered economically disadvantaged.
But the climate is much improved, he said, and he hopes academic improvement will follow.
The high-energy principal said that sometimes when he's getting revved up, students say to him, "Mr. Taylor, you're stressed, you need a mindful minute." And they're right, he said.
How important will all this seem in five years? A good question. But given what I've seen and heard in the last couple years, I'm less skeptical now than I first was.
So many teachers and schools struggle with the atmosphere and student attitudes in their buildings. A good piece of the answer may lie in a well-structured, well-implemented program to get everyone to calm down and take a few slow, deep breaths.
Alan J. Borsuk is senior fellow in law and public policy at Marquette University Law School. Reach him firstname.lastname@example.org.