At 15 local schools, mornings that start with mindfulness help kids ‘de-escalate and reflect’


TAMPA ó At the sound of a light rainfall, the boys and girls scamper from the checkered carpet and into their seats.

A familiar, soothing voice comes over the classroom speaker.

"Imagine, you are a boat on the water," the voice says. "Anchored in a peaceful and calm space."

Some know the drill: They close their eyes, straighten their spines and flare their nostrils with each breath, in and out. Others as young as 5 canít help the yawns, sniffles and wandering eyes.

"They make you feel calm and so peaceful," said 6-year-old Triniti Poole.

Nearly every morning, the students at Patricia J. Sullivan Partnership School in Tampa practice a few minutes of mindfulness to begin their day, part of a yearlong, privately funded experiment of sorts at more than a dozen public schools across the Tampa Bay area.

The staff at Sullivan know they could use it. The school is a public elementary with a transient population of about 100 children who have lived or currently live at the shelter at Metropolitan Ministries across the street.

No matter how they spend these few minutes, itís time just for them. To let go of what happened last night at home. To let go of anything that happened on the walk over from the shelter. To acknowledge those feelings, let go and live in the present.

"Our kids are agitated," said the schoolís guidance counselor, Gerry Nugent. "I firmly believe that starting our day this way has made the day more productive."

Two years ago, Nugent needed help. She was three years into her job at Sullivan and still wrestling with the difficulty her students had concentrating and clearing their minds. They were restless, preoccupied with whatever was going on in their home lives.

A colleague who practiced mindfulness connected Nugent to Inner Explorer, a nonprofit organization that provides daily audio-guided mindfulness activities to classrooms in kindergarten through 12th grade across the U.S.

On the other side of Tampa Bay, Rachael Baker, a wellness consultant and mindfulness advocate with Aetna health care, wanted to introduce mindfulness to her childrenís school, Shore Acres Elementary in St. Petersburg.

"My vision was to get this into my school," she said. If it could happen at Shore Acres, she thought, maybe other schools could jump on board.

Baker helped secure a grant from the Aetna Foundation for a free year of mindfulness activities for 15 elementary schools, including Sullivan, in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

"If we can better prepare youth to recognize emotions theyíre experiencing and how to respond appropriately," said Sharon Ions, director of corporate relations for the foundation, then a program like Inner Explorer could "put them on a path toward success as it relates to their health and wellbeing as well as their academic success."

More than 10,000 students at those local schools join a host of celebrities, athletes, Fortune 500 companies and U.S. military branches that incorporate mindfulness activities.

Itís a practice that dates back to the 1970s, using the term first coined by Jon Kabat-Zinn, who defined it as "paying attention on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment."

A 2014 study observing 409 children for five weeks in a Richmond, Calif., public school found that those who participated in mindfulness activities reported greater empathy, emotional control and optimism. They also showed greater decreases in self-reported symptoms of depression and aggression.

Melanie Every, a guidance counselor at Shore Acres, said teachers have included Inner Explorerís mindfulness activities in their newly established morning meetings. She said that extra time in the morning, coupled with mindfulness and new practices that repair broken relationships between students, have resulted in fewer discipline referrals.

"Thereís a calmer kind of atmosphere at school," Every said. "Itís just nice to see that kids are taking it seriously."

At the Sullivan Partnership School, principal Daphne Fourqurean is seeing the same results.

"They come with a lot of trauma and it helps them de-escalate and reflect," she said. "We have a lot of kids who need to take it down, and it works."

Contact Colleen Wright at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.