PLAIN TWP.:Most schools start the day with the ringing of a bell, but, normally, it isn’t a Tibetan bell.
And it isn’t being used to signal a short, contemplative period before the bustle of the day.
That’s how Warstler Elementary School in Plain Township began a recent school day.
Taylor Swhihart, a fourth-grader, hit the bell and a hushed silence fell over the 330 students and teachers in the gymnasium where minutes before they had been dancing together to a Wii game projected onto a large screen.
Taylor hit the bell a second time. And a third. The students and teachers stood silent and still — doing nothing but breathing in and out.
“That’s enough,” Taylor told Principal Jody Ditcher, who held a microphone up to the bell.
“You guys feel better?” Ditcher whispered.
The students then filed out of the gymnasium, walking quietly through the hallways — a school rule — to their classrooms and getting on with the business of learning.
This is the morning routine at Warstler where the school practices mindfulness, a form of meditation that involves using techniques like “belly breaths” and “mindful movements” to improve students’ focus and help them better cope with their emotions. The Stark County school district piloted mindfulness in Warstler last year and was so pleased with the results that it started the practice in all of its elementaries this year. The district hopes to expand the method to every school by next year.
Plain is thought to be the only district or one of the few in the Akron-Canton area using mindfulness, though U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Niles, who recently wrote a book about the practice, has helped get it started in several schools in the Youngstown area. Other area districts are considering adopting the method, with the Canton City school district recently calling Joel McNenny, the counselor at Warstler, to ask about the practice.
McNenny, a counselor for 19 years, with nine of them at Warstler, calls mindfulness “transformative” and “revolutionary” and insists it can be a cure for what ails schools of all sizes — improving test scores, decreasing behavior problems and lessening problems like bullying. He says the practice is steeped in science — not religion — and provides students with a skill that will last a lifetime.
“I’d like to spread the word,” said McNenny, who was inspired by Ryan’s book and other research he came across about the practice while working on his counseling doctorate. “It’s a simple program that can be taught and has very powerful affects.”
McNenny first saw mindfulness in action through the First Tee program, which teaches youths the game of golf.
McNenny, who is working on his clinical counseling degree and interned with a mindfulness therapist, said youths in the program were given a 10-minute lesson, which was then reinforced by instructors on the course. He was surprised by the results.
“The kids just took to it,” he said.
This got McNenny thinking about the possibility of teaching mindfulness at Warstler and other schools in the Plain district. What kind of results could this net, he wondered. He did some research to find out more about mindfulness.
Mindfulness is “a particular way of paying attention. It is the mental faculty of purposefully bringing awareness to one’s experience. Mindfulness can be applied to sensory experience, thoughts, and emotions by using sustained attention and noticing our experience without reacting,” according to the website for Mindful Schools, a nonprofit organization based in Oakland, Calif., that teaches the technique.
Mindful Schools partnered with the University of California, Davis in the 2011-12 school year and found statistically significant improvements in behavior in students who had received four hours of mindfulness instruction versus students who had not, according to the Mindful Schools website.
The practice has gained champions over the years, most notably actress Goldie Hawn. Others include NBA coach Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and the U.S. Marine Corps.
McNenny came across Ryan’s book A Mindful Nation published in March, in the course of his research and was very excited to see a prominent Ohio politician writing about a process he was helping implement in his district.
“It helped me make it so it could be done,” he said. “It showed that it can be done in schools with a nonfaith-based method. I was encouraged by that.”
McNenny went to a campaign event Ryan had before the November election and thanked him for his book. He’s invited Ryan to visit Warstler, a visit Ryan’s staff is hoping he can make early in the new year.
“We’d love to have him,” McNenny said. “We are not in his district but he is close by.”
Warstler has a mindfulness room where McNenny meets with the students on a rotating basis.
The room has a lava lamp, blankets draped over the bulletin boards, a rug for the students to sit on, scrolls featuring quotes from the Dalai Lama and hand painted inspirational messages like, “Simply become who you are.”
McNenny started a recent session by having the students sit cross legged on the rug, with the blinds closed, the lights dimmed and soothing, instrumental music playing. He told them to sit up with their hands on their knees or their bellies and said they could close their eyes or look at the floor.
Jikaiya Holston, 7, one of the students, rang a bell slowly three times. The students sat quietly with downcast or closed eyes for three minutes. Some made circles with one hand on the other hand.
“OK, you OK?” McNenny asked the students.
He asked the students to explain mindfulness to the visiting journalists.
“If you get angry, you take a belly breath and calm down,” one boy said.
“When you take a test,” another student chimed in.
“Any time you’re stressed,” a third said.
“Memories don’t mess up your brain,” a fourth student explained.
McNenny said a belly breath involves putting a hand on your belly and taking a deep breath and feeling yourself inhale and exhale.
McNenny asked the students to stand for “mindful movements,” a series of exercises paired with breathing in and out. They raised and lowered their arms, rolled their hands to the sides of their heads and back out, put their hands on their waists and made circles with the upper parts of their bodies, crouched like frogs, and lifted one leg off the ground.
“Remember: mind on your movements,” McNenny instructed. “If your mind is on your movements, you should be able to balance.”
McNenny ended the 35-minute session by having the students lay on their backs with their hands on their bellies and close their eyes, concentrating on breathing. He turned the light off in the room and closed the door. Most of the students laid still, though a few squirmed or whispered to the student next to them.
“Mindfully stand up,” McNenny said. “If your friend is asleep next to you, wake him or her up.”
Besides the morning routine and McNenny’s sessions, teachers reinforce mindfulness in the classroom, using a chime when they think students need to pause and take a breath. They often use this tactic to help students focus before taking a test.
McNenny sometimes meets with students one-on-one or in small groups when they are having problems, like test anxiety or behavior issues.
Not all of his mindful experiments are successful right away. He recalled taking students outside one day to have them practice “mindful walking.” Half the students made a beeline for the playground. He then changed his approach, giving the students books to balance on their heads — an old trick for improving posture that helped get across the idea of focusing on walking.
McNenny and Ditcher think mindfulness has helped at Warstler and point to both quantitative and anecdotal evidence.
Ditcher, who has been Warstler’s principal for four years, credits mindfulness for helping to boost the school’s performance index on the state report cards, a measure that had been stagnant for several years in the 90s and jumped to 105.9.
“I believe it’s a conduit for our practices,” she said. “I can’t imagine running a school without it.”
Ditcher pointed as an example to a girl she knew was quite bright, but who didn’t do well on tests. She said the student would practically hyperventilate before taking a simple spelling test. After learning mindfulness, she said, the girl tested at the highest level possible.
“She was blocked by her own anxieties,” she said.
McNenny said it’s hard to demonstrate progress from mindfulness because other factors could be causing improvements, such as classroom instruction. But, despite this, he thinks it has been beneficial for the students and staff at Warstler. He said students once last year asked their teacher to take a minute to breathe before taking a test.
Some Warstler parents initially had questions about mindfulness, with a few concerned that it was meshing religion and education. Ditcher said she explained that meditation is a component in many faiths, but that they aren’t teaching mindfulness in “any religious way.” She said a student recently told her that some youths at his church were anxious before a performance and he told them, “Here’s what we do in my school,” and showed them how to belly breathe.
He said the exercise helped calm their nerves before taking the stage.