An Evolving Practice of Mindfulness In The Classroom

March 22 2018


  • Diann Kitamura, Superintendent, Santa Rosa City Schools
    Diann Kitamura
    Superintendent, Santa Rosa City Schools

As the school day starts at Lawrence Cook Middle School, one of our district’s 24 schools in Santa Rosa, everyone takes a deep breath. Literally.

For the past year and a half, the middle school has been piloting a mindfulness program. Twice a day, for 15 minutes, the campus is quiet. In each classroom, a teacher dims the lights, rings a chime, and guides the students into slow, regular breathing. The students sit in their chairs, arms relaxed, eyes closed or softly gazing. It’s a time of for peacefulness and calm.

Many of the students at Cook have experienced more trauma than calm in their lives. Large portions of the school population are dealing with several Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs. The entire campus experienced a devastating trauma in 2013, when a Cook student, 13-year old Andy Lopez, was shot and killed. The mindfulness program was an outgrowth of the counseling and support that the district and its community partners have brought into the school since the Lopez tragedy.

Mindfulness has a long history, going back thousands of years. The mindfulness practice that was implemented at Cook Middle was developed about 40 years ago by Jon Kabat-Zinn, and is  called the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program. It requires consistent practice, usually twice a day. After two months, that type of practice has been shown to change brain patterns and the way people react to situations.

Typically, a program like mindfulness would be implemented in phases at a school. At Cook, staff leaders decided to implement schoolwide. It did not happen overnight. Staff took turns going on two-day retreats, over a period of two years, to learn how to lead the practice in their classes. When the mindfulness program was implemented in August 2016, some students and teachers were skeptical. Dr. Maria Hess from Sonoma State University, who helped train the Cook staff to lead the sessions, maintained that consistent mindfulness practice would make a difference.

Halfway through the school year, in January 2017, Dr. Hess and Cook Principal Matt Pollack presented a report to the school board. After a few months of regular mindfulness practice, the number of suspensions had decreased by about 40 percent from the same time the year before. The number of students with grades of 3.0 or higher had increased by 10 percent. Students who seemed on the verge of a fight, were seen taking a few minutes to pause and breathe. Teachers reported more focus in the classroom. Was it mindfulness that caused the change? The staff had also been implementing positive behavior supports and other trauma-informed practices, so the impact of mindfulness alone was hard to measure.

Now, a year after that report, Principal Pollack says that the mindfulness program is still evolving. He has seen some teacher turnover, which means new teachers who need training on how to lead the practice. While the 8th graders have generally embraced mindfulness, this  year’s 7th grade class appears to have a tougher time pausing and reflecting. Meanwhile, the high school that serves most of the Cook students has begun a smaller, phased implementation of mindfulness practice, led by a few of its teachers. So the work will continue.

As superintendent, I have seen how trauma-informed practices have made a difference in our schools. Mindfulness is one of those practices. I would encourage school administrators to explore it, to find staff who would be willing to lead, to connect with schools that are doing it, and to remember that it will take time to really develop the program. Like mindfulness itself, it takes consistent effort.

Diann Kitamura is superintendent of Santa Rosa City Schools, a PreK-12 district of 16,000 students in Northern California. She has worked in public education for more than 30 years, including serving as a teacher, school counselor, vice principal and principal. Superintendent Kitamura has received the California School Boards Association Golden Bell Award, and was selected to their Superintendent’s Advisory Council.

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