At Greiffenstein/Wells Alternative School, the first lesson of the day has nothing to do with reading, writing, science or math.
But school leaders say Morning Mindfulness – a half-hour of play therapy, yoga, coloring, crafts and other activities designed to calm children and guide them gently into the school day – has helped kids concentrate, improved their behavior and changed the overall atmosphere at the school.
“It’s about, ‘Be here, now’ – the whole idea that children are in touch with themselves, in touch with their bodies,” said Stephanie Tilden Dorr, a clinical therapist at the school.
“They want to behave. They want to fit in. They want to belong,” she said. “With Morning Mindfulness, what they get is a chance to just be the kid. And then when the emotion comes along, there’s a way to process it.”
Greiffenstein/Wells, a combined elementary and middle school in south Wichita, serves children with emotional disturbances and those who have been suspended or expelled from other schools for behavioral issues.
Most of the children have experienced abuse, neglect or other childhood trauma; many are in foster care.
Morning Mindfulness sprang out of training that several school staff members received in the Neurosequential Model in Education, a program developed by the ChildTrauma Academy in Houston.
The program focuses on how trauma impacts children’s brain development, their academic performance and their behavior in the classroom.
Nancy Mueller, principal at Greiffenstein/Wells, says many of her students are in constant crisis at home. At school, they can explode in fits of rage, cower in corners or try to run away.
Transitions, such as the bus ride to school in the morning, are especially difficult.
Toward the end of last semester, just before winter break, student behavior was “a real struggle,” she said. Emergency safety interventions – cases when teachers or security personnel have to restrain or seclude students to keep them from hurting themselves or others – were on the rise.
“We wanted to try something different,” Mueller said.
When students returned from break, their schedule included 30 minutes of mindfulness activities first thing every morning.
Students can choose from among 10 supervised activities spread throughout the school, including yoga, board and card games, music, coloring and Legos. Afterward, they report to their assigned classrooms.
Since starting the practice, students’ “on-task” averages are up and emergency interventions are down, Mueller said. Teachers report fewer outbursts and other discipline problems in the morning and say students – especially the younger ones – seem more attentive and ready to focus on lessons.
“Now I’m hearing they’d like another one in the afternoon,” Mueller said. “I’d say it’s had an impact for sure.”
Dorr’s play therapy room is a popular choice during Morning Mindfulness. That’s where kids can snuggle or play fetch with the school’s therapy dog, a golden retriever named Renegade – Renny, for short.
One recent morning, a fourth-grade boy quietly entered the room, gave a short whistle and called Renny up onto the couch, where the boy hugged the dog and kissed the top of his head.
“I wish you could see all the joys, the successes, the tragedies averted – all the wonderful things that happen because of this school and the people here,” Dorr said.
“It’s not just Renny, it’s the fact that they want Renny,” she said. “It’s the fact that they’re not afraid to have kids play.”
The new focus on mindfulness reflects that approach, Dorr said. Many schools across the country have adopted mindfulness programs in recent years, sometimes as a strategy to relieve test anxiety or as an alternative to physical education, citing research that shows it helps children and adults better concentrate on academics.
Studies have shown that for some children, activities such as meditative breathing and yoga are more effective than medication in reducing behaviors associated with attention-deficit and hyperactivity disorders.
A middle-school girl sat in one corner of Dorr’s room recently, smiling as she played a tune on a small keyboard.
Dorr said the girl, abandoned by her mother at age 7, tried to run away from more than 50 foster care placements her first two years in the system.
After the girl met Renny at Greiffenstein, she often would race into Dorr’s room, red-faced and sobbing, and embrace the dog.
“She would rush up to Renny, throw her arms around him and just squish her fingers into his hair and hold on,” Dorr said. “And she’d say, ‘Mommy, Mommy,’ and he would just hold her.
“He would take that great big old paw and put it around her shoulders, and the two of them would just be like that for half an hour.”
Stillness and quiet
In a darkened conference room in another part of the school, Kate Brecheisen, a school social worker and yoga enthusiast, played calming music as she placed foam mats atop the carpet and greeted children as they arrived.
The kids – two girls and a boy – took their shoes off and laid on their backs on the mats.
“Remember to focus on your breathing,” Brecheisen told one girl, who shifted and fidgeted on her mat. “Try to be still.”
Stillness and quiet don’t come easy to children at Greiffenstein/Wells, many of whom suffer from mental illness, autism or severe emotional disorders. Dorr, the psychotherapist, said her students also have reduced capabilities for using language.
“So they have a whole lot of buzzing and booming emotions, and they don’t know what to do with them,” she said. “So what you end up with is a whole lot of behavior and not a lot of language, and adults often misinterpret.
“It’s like putting a Volkswagen engine in a Porsche,” she said. “You’ve got a sleek body, but you’re not going to go very far very fast.”
Calming activities such as yoga and coloring help children get in touch with their emotions, she said. Other children prefer group games in the gymnasium, where they can burn off emotional and physical energy.
“With Morning Mindfulness, we put all that together in a slow way that allows the processing that’s a naturally occurring device to a child, developmentally,” Dorr said. “And it’s in a space and an environment that nurtures that.”