We all strive for balance throughout each stage of our life. Knowing how to relax the body and focus the mind could change one’s childhood, adolescence and adulthood for the better. These tools have the potential to aid in facing adversity, dealing with stress and change, studying, connecting with others, and treating ourselves and others with more kindness.  Midland Independent School District has recently employed a special program, Mindful Classrooms, to help students and teachers find balance throughout the school day.

The program was born out of a joint venture between Educate Midland, a community initiative with the mission to help students achieve their highest educational potential, MISD School Health Advisory Council and Midland YMCA, a local facility with programs that build a healthy spirit, mind, and body for all. And now, the Lifestyle Medicine Center at Midland Memorial Hospital is on board. These three organizations see how worthwhile learning to calm and concentrate on the task at hand can be for students and teachers. Together, they are bringing something innovative and effective to MISD.

Jennifer Whitehead, the Program Director for the Mindful Classrooms program and a Stress Management Specialist for the Lifestyle Medicine Center, has recently taken charge of the curriculum. Whitehead stepped in after Aimee St. Pierre, the former Health and Wellness Director at Midland YMCA, relocated earlier this year. St. Pierre completed the initial research in finding a mindfulness program to help reduce stress and anxiety in Midland ISD classrooms. She found Mindful Classrooms, a program developed by James Butler, a Pre-K teacher in Austin ISD.  This curriculum is formatted for teachers to facilitate in the classroom for 5 to 20 minutes per day to help students with behavioral, cognitive, and learning issues through mindful listening, seeing, eating, breathing, and stretching. With these practices, teachers and students alike can learn how to deal with daily stress, personal emotion, and social demands which, if left unchecked, can develop into chronic stress. Chronic stress can lead to conditions such as depression, anxiety, insomnia, overeating, acting out, and more. Mindfulness directly enhances self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. Other benefits include increased learning capacity, heightened compassion and empathy, better immune system, greater concentration, more engagement in the classroom, a rise in self-acceptance and self-esteem, and a decrease in anger and physical illness. “We want to show kids how to help themselves and to increase the connection of their body, environment, and emotions,” comments Whitehead.

Jennifer Whitehead comes to the program with an extensive body of education and experience in relaxation techniques and mindfulness. She is excited to share her knowledge and this special curriculum with the education system in order to inspire a healthier and more aware community. “My goal is to share the curriculum with all the schools in MISD – to create healthier classrooms where teachers are less stressed and students have the capability to focus and learn more productively. I hope we can build a more self-aware generation and a healthier community … a community of people with more compassion, love, and less stress.”  She has not only seen success using similar practices with her clientele, but she has seen results in her three children, as well as with her niece, by incorporating the tools at home.  “I have children of my own and I’ve seen how stressful school can be – for them as students and myself as a parent.  Mindful Classrooms is a wonderful gift I’m proud to give to MISD and the community. It is so powerful to help children, and in turn adults, heal in a healthy, holistic way,” says Whitehead.

Travis Elementary launched Mindful Classrooms on its campus at the beginning of this school year. “I was so excited for us to be the pilot school! While I was employed in El Paso, we implemented a similar program and I saw firsthand what a difference it can make,” comments Terri Matthews, Principal of Travis Elementary. Students are not required to participate, but as the program becomes common practice, more and more students are choosing to take part. Over the course of one semester, a change in the students is evident. Each day, the students begin by sitting comfortably, closing their eyes, breathing, and stretching during a fifteen minute mindfulness session. “It changes the tone of the classroom as students take deep breaths and stretch. It kicks off the day with a calm, focused start,” Matthews observes. Matthews hopes to integrate the program through the day to inspire self-awareness, self-control, and peace for the students. “I would love to use it after lunch, PE, or when they get a little rowdy, so they can take a second and center. I hope they can use these methods before tests or throughout their life as they get overwhelmed.”

After the success at Travis Elementary, Alamo Junior High decided to bring the curriculum to their campus. “Kids live at such a fast pace that they don’t have time to deal with stress. The mindfulness program allows them to take a minute for themselves, as it helps them focus and breathe. This is an opportunity for them to reconnect, away from devices,” said Leann Dumas, Principal at Alamo Junior High. By bringing mindfulness into the daily routine at her campus, Dumas has received great feedback from the students and from the teachers. “This is also a great tool for teachers. New teachers that are trying to master their classroom management plan now have these tools to help them. It is calming and very helpful.”

This is just the beginning of Mindful Classrooms within MISD. As the school year progresses, additional campuses will be integrating the mindfulness curriculum into their daily classroom routines. Also, trainings on how to facilitate specific practices from the curriculum will be offered for administrators and teachers. Mindful Classrooms is an opportunity to change students’ lives for the better and may be the key to enjoyed experiences at school, higher test scores, and heightened social and emotional awareness.

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