Kids are heading back to school this month and they’re likely full of first-day jitters, even some anxiety over new teachers and homework. Some schools in Flagstaff are trying to reduce stress in the classroom by giving lessons in mindfulness. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny reports from a classroom at Flagstaff Junior Academy, where a group of first and second graders are giving it a try.
Twenty kids pour into a classroom after recess bursting with energy. But when mental health therapist Emmanuelle Giumelli rings a bell, they settle into a circle on the floor.
She tells the class, “Let’s bring awareness—which means our minds and our thinking—inside our bodies.” The room grows so quiet you can hear the clock tick. “The bell is always a reminder for our minds to come back here, cause our minds is just a wanderer, a traveler, a puppy.”
Today’s lesson is about paying attention to thoughts. Giumelli holds up a series of pictures and asks the kids to write or draw the first thing that comes to mind. Unlike most school assignments, there aren’t any right or wrong answers. One student responds, “The first one reminded me of my mom, and I felt happy.” Another speaks up: “My first thought was about my caterpillar that I caught at the Grand Canyon.”
Giumelli introduced mindfulness to Flagstaff Junior Academy seven years ago. She says there’s a misconception that it’s about being calm and peaceful. “I think you can be very angry, and to be mindful about that. It’s just bringing an awareness to your experience.”
Giumelli says that awareness has power. It lets kids make choices about what thoughts and feelings they want to hang onto, and what they want to let go. “It shifts things in such beautiful ways emotionally for kids. They start feeling more in control, more loved, they start loving themselves in different ways.”
The National Institute of Mental Health reports fifty percent of U.S. adolescents ages thirteen to eighteen have some kind of mental disorder, everything from anxiety and substance use to more severe conditions. Some studies show secular mindfulness programs can help with anxiety, depression, and stress—though more research is needed especially focused on kids.
School administrator Gina Lanzetta says she’s noticed the benefits of the mindfulness program. “It’s also changed language when I talk to a student, which is great,” she says. “Instead of it possibly being in a punitive way, we really reflect on what’s going on with their day and what we can do to reset and turn it around.”
A recent review study found mindfulness programs work best when teachers are trained to continue the practice all year. Parents get involved, too. Scott Cundy is excited about the program. “I’d never heard of anybody teaching mindfulness in school,” he says.
His daughter Seddona is a fourth grader at Flagstaff Junior Academy. She says she loves the lessons. “Just that you don’t have to worry about anything, or think about homework or school activities, it’s a time to focus in on you.”
She demonstrates a technique she learned in class: “I’m holding a jar that’s filled with water, a little bit of glue, and some glitter. And when you shake it all the glitter gets shook up, which is representing your brain—it’s all kind of crazy.” She takes a moment to watch the glitter settle to the bottom of the jar. And just like that, her thoughts settle too.