By Susan Cunningham
Steamboat Springs, CO - It’s 1 p.m. on a Friday afternoon in early April. Steamboat’s spring break is still weeks away. The time feels ripe for students to be bored or unruly.
But in Soda Creek Elementary, a class of fourth-graders sits with focused energy. No one fidgets or giggles. The only sound is the hum of the heater.
The students, led by teacher Kyle Paolantonio, breathe in and out five times. They open and close their hands to mimic the movement of their lungs. Though it may be hard to see, they are working hard, exercising one of the most important parts of their bodies: their brains.
Paolantonio is one of 24 Steamboat Springs School District teachers and professionals who have been trained in Mindful Life Schools, a science-based program in which students learn how to pay attention to the present without judgment. At least 24 more teachers are training this summer.
Mindfulness may sound abstract, but it has tangible benefits, says Steamboat resident Kristen Race, Ph.D., the creator of the program and founder of the Mindful Life organization. “In the same way we use exercise to strengthen muscles, we use mindfulness to strengthen structures in the brains,” she says.
The practice of mindfulness is thousands of years old, but modern science is only now quantifying its benefits, including how it can physically rewire the brain. Work happening in Steamboat may add to this body of scientific literature: Race and another scientist are partners in a Harvard Medical School study on how mindfulness impacts academic achievement.
Findings won’t be available for at least a year. But in the meantime, teachers and students say benefits are clear.
Like the fourth-graders in Paolantonio’s class: Elizabeth Gilbert uses mindful breathing to calm down when her brother won’t give her a turn on the computer; Zion Idzahl uses it when he gets stressed out before a test; and Emily Varela uses it when she’s overwhelmed by her homework. “When I’m very frustrated, I take five or ten deep breaths, and it helps me calm down,” Varela says.
Teachers agree. Paolantonio says the time she spends on mindfulness in the classroom pays dividends. “The kids are more attentive, (I) am less anxious, and everything runs smoother,” she says.
Aurora King, a fifth-grade teacher at Soda Creek Elementary, remembers one day of standardized testing when she skipped the morning’s mindfulness exercise. Students were anxious.
“I could tell instantly,” King says. “We had to take five minutes and push the test back and just do a relaxation activity.”
The Mindful Life Schools program includes mindful breathing, listening and movement activities. Activities start at one minute, three times a day, then lengthen to five to ten minutes. Every exercise is not only fun, but based in brain science.
For instance, when a student listens to a tone bar, she is strengthening her brain’s Reticular Activating System. The RAS helps filter through various stimuli to focus on what’s most important. At school, that can mean learning multiplication instead of listening to commotion in the hall.
Another example is mindful breathing, which strengthens neural pathways in the prefrontal cortex, or what Race calls the “Smart Part” of the brain. This is the home to higher-level thought like learning and also where positive emotions are processed.
If a test or a fight with a friend triggers the amygdala, or the “Alarm Part” of the brain, the thought is not forwarded to the prefrontal cortex and the body enters fight or flight mode. The heart beats fast, breathing is quick and shallow, and muscles tighten – all of which can help to survive a bear attack, but not to answer a tricky question in class.
Deep breathing helps a student calm down and access the “Smart Part” of his brain again. His brain goes back into balance, and answering that tricky question is suddenly easier.
Mindfulness is especially important today, as children’s brains are increasingly stressed. Children have less free time, more screen time, and get less sleep. “All of these things combined create a lot of stress for kids,” Race says. She acknowledges that while we can’t remove stress or change technology, we can make the brain more resilient through mindfulness.
Fourth-grader Toby Morse has seen just how powerful mindfulness can be.
He was playing ping-pong with his mom and they made 25 hits in a row. His mom challenged him to hit 25 again. That’s when the pressure set in.
They hit 20, then only 15.
“I was like, ‘Ugh, I’m never going to make this again,’” Morse says. “And I said, ‘Okay, I should do mindful breathing.’”
He took five to ten deep breaths, and told himself he could do it.
“Then we hit it 66 times,” he says. “And then I had to go to bed.”
Susan Cunningham has taken a submarine to the bottom of the ocean as a researcher, written for a small-town newspaper as a reporter, and helped manufacture cozy wool socks as a sourcing manager. She enjoys the outdoors and hanging with her two small children, a role in which she finds mindfulness especially helpful.
Mindful advice for building your “smart’ brain
Improve productivity and decrease stress. Mindful Life creator Kristen Race recommends these short, frequent practices to access your prefrontal cortex, or the “Smart Part” of your brain.
Breathe. Bring awareness to your breath for a few minutes every day. Take a deep breath at a traffic light or before answering your phone. When you become stressed or upset, you’ll be better able to calm your stress response and access your “smart” brain.
Listen. Sit comfortably, close your eyes, and listen to the farthest sound you hear for one minute. Increase your active listening to five minutes or more. You’re strengthening your brain’s Reticular Activating System, which helps you focus on what’s most important.
Practice Gratitude. Regularly write down things you are thankful for. Each time you bring awareness to positive things in your life, you strengthen neural connections in the part of your brain that registers positive emotions. Research shows that this practice leads to more happiness, kindness, enthusiasm, interest and even better health.
Mindfulness for Happy Families
Mindfulness is especially important today, as children’s brains are increasingly stressed, says Mindful Life founder Kristen Race. Children today have 50 percent less free time, which is critical to brain development, compared to a generation ago. They also have lots of screen time, more than seven hours on average daily according to one study, which stimulates stress responses. Children get less sleep, have higher pressure to perform, face more bad news like natural disasters and wars, and navigate through overscheduled days.
Mindful Life creator Kristen Race offers advice for families to better navigate modern life:
- Mindfulness can be practiced anytime, anywhere.
- Short, frequent practices can have a big impact.
- Take time each day to bring your awareness to your breathing.
- Go for a walk with your children and spend one minute listening, then talk about what you heard.
- On the way to school, encourage your children to look out the car window and observe something new.
- The next time your kids are upset, offer them a three-breath hug: embrace and take three deep breaths together. It feels as good for you as it does for them.