By Teresa Messmore, Director of Marketing and Communications
It’s 8:10 a.m., and a small group of third-graders have gathered in the Lower School’s Math Lab with learning specialist Samantha Spruance. Geometry projects and place value posters hang on the walls around them, but the students are not delving into mathematics—yet. They are taking a minute for mindfulness.
One at a time, the children share what they need to prepare their minds for learning. “Patience,” says one. They all stretch their arms out over their heads and take a deep breath.
Spruance starts each lesson guiding the students to breathe in and out through their noses to activate the parasympathetic nervous system for relaxation, encouraging them to open their hearts to love and accept themselves and those around them. From this place of calm, she explains, their brains are open to learn new information.
The brief exercise and others like it have been shown to improve student learning and performance in the classroom. Heart rates lower, attention increases and confidence builds. According to Mindful Schools, an organization that helps educators implement mindfulness into the school day, the parts of the brain associated with learning, memory and behavior regulation become more active after mindfulness training.
“Mindfulness is learning to pay attention to what is happening within you without being reactive or judgmental,” Spruance said. “Mindfulness techniques support student self-awareness, self-regulation, social and emotional learning, and resilience while cultivating a positive and productive classroom climate.”
The Math Lab is a place where students need to be bringing their academic A game. There they are challenged with difficult group work or multi-step problems with more than one solution—or to conquer skills that might have tripped them up in homeroom. With expectations high throughout Tower Hill, mindfulness approaches are trickling into other areas of school.
Tower Hill history teacher Andrea Sarko, who is certified by Mindful Schools and a yoga instructor, led a 16-week program for the 2nd Grade—an age where squiggles and giggles can distract from learning. Two minutes of mindfulness practice, she said, can save 15 minutes of poor behavior or inattention later on. Sarko also opens her Middle School classes with a breathing or meditation exercise and provides some “breathing room” in the corner for a student to take a moment to mentally regroup if needed. They’ve come to expect it as part of the routine.
“They ask me, ‘Mrs. Sarko, can we do an extra minute of mindfulness?’” she said.
Sarko, Spruance and school psychologist Amy Cuddy taught a Delaware Association of Independent Schools (DAIS) workshop at Tower Hill last fall for area teachers, and they have spearheaded teacher participation in an online training through Mindful Schools. Yoga, which incorporates many elements of mindfulness, is offered after school for preschool, Lower School and Upper School students.
“Tower Hill functions at a rapid pace,” Cuddy said. “Sometimes we don’t recognize that until we stop to be present in the moment.”
The mindfulness initiative is one facet of Tower Hill’s schoolwide Wellness Program, led by Cuddy and encompassing students’ mental, emotional and physical health. School counselors get involved with one-on-one cases if a student faces a particular challenge, but the Wellness Program provides a broader framework for supporting students’ wellbeing. The school’s Wellness Committee includes counselors, the nurse, athletic trainers, physical education teachers and health faculty members coordinating various efforts from fitness walks to parent workshops.
Schools tend to focus on intellectual development, but emotional and social intelligence can be a stronger predictor of success in life than academics alone, Cuddy said. In an increasingly global world, engaging with others becomes more and more important.
“The goal of wellness is balance,” Cuddy said. “We are looking to arm our students with a full complement of tools and skills that will allow them to find joy in all that they do, regardless of the context or content.”