New Initiative Teaches Mindfulness Skills to Students
Students at Smallwood Drive Elementary School are thrilled by the lessons they learn through a puppet named Rory the Tiger.
Rory is the face of the newly-implemented Mindfulness Initiative at Smallwood that is part of the building’s Strategic Plan. The initiative focuses on teaching students about social, emotional and mental health awareness, as well as skills involving emotional self-regulation.
“The social and mental well-being of students has been a very high priority at Smallwood for a very long time,” says Rich Crozier, assistant principal at Smallwood Drive. “We’re always looking for tools for faculty and staff to help all students at our school.”
While at a professional development conference that Crozier, along with school social worker Jennifer Noe, attended a year ago, some of those tools stood apart from the others; So much that the duo thought they were important enough to be a part of a Smallwood student’s everyday life.
"At our July Strategic Planning Retreat, the concept of introducing Mindfulness as a natural progression to our highly successful PAWS initiative was fully embraced by our team,” said Daniel Lewis, principal. “We then incorporated Mindfulness into our Strategic Plan under the priority of Student Life. This initiative helps our entire school to support the social and emotional growth of all of our students."
After much planning throughout the spring and the summer, the Mindfulness Initiative was born.
“Mindfulness plays an important role in school to allow children to be aware of their surroundings, how they’re personally feeling and how others around them are feeling,” says Noe. “I think it really helps alleviate a lot of behavior problems and stress,” she adds. “I also think that if kids are taught this at a young age, there’s more of a buy-in. It becomes a go-to skill rather than later in life where you’re trying to undo undesirable social habits.”
Along with it came a series of 10 videos that feature Rory the Tiger. In each video, Rory experiences different emotions and Noe guides him with different mindfulness techniques he can use to stay calm and support his mental health well-being.
“The teachers love the videos because you can play them at any time of the day and they’ve been a big hit,” says Crozier. “The students often stop me or Mrs. Noe and ask when they’re going to have the next Rory video.”
In addition to the videos, students have other tools and skills they’ve learned for their utilization. One of these tools is the “Pause Box,” which is filled with short activities for students to perform when they’re having a challenging time and need a few minutes to redirect their thoughts and self-regulate their emotions. The “Tiger Breath” – a deep breathing technique – is a skill that students are being taught to use to handle tougher situations such as right before a test.
“The students are really excited about it,” says Noe. “I normally see kids one-to-one for individual counseling and I see them using these skills before I’m telling them to. I’m noticing that they’re naturally taking a tiger breath or that they’re noticing how they’re feeling. The fact that they’re recognizing that on their own has been pretty amazing. It also helps that kids learn from each other; so, when they see other kids using these skills, there’s more buy-in [to the philosophy].
“The biggest takeaway for me is that this is helping kids realize at a young age that we all have strong feelings from time to time. Through mindfulness, students are gaining an understanding that feelings come and feelings go. I think that if kids learn these important positive coping skills at such an early age, any potential thoughts of hopelessness or stress will diminish quickly and allow them to be successful socially and emotionally.”
Students aren’t the only ones learning new skills through this initiative, however. Smallwood faculty and staff are also supported through the Mindfulness Initiative.
Teachers and staff have been given a reflection journal to work on during Mindfulness Mondays, where Noe will send a prompt via email to write about. Some prompts ask staff members to reflect on their past week and others have them create goals for the month or school year. There’s also a “Rock Star of the Month” award, which is given to faculty or staff that have contributed to Smallwood’s foundation, as well as supported the social, emotional and mental well-being of the school community.
Crozier says that the timing of this initiative was perfect, especially because of how prevalent mental health has been in the national conversation. He also says he’s happy with the already-great results it’s providing.
“The timing for this was great. The conference we went to was in January of last year and the New York State Mental Health Mandate came in July. We were going forward with this no matter what.
“One thing we really like about the Mindfulness Initiative is that it’s proactive. We’re not waiting for someone to be struggling. It’s providing all students with coping and self-regulating skills. We have teachers that take tiger breaths as models for their students and students that declare, ‘I need to take a tiger breath.’ That’s exactly what we were looking for with this initiative. At the end of the day, we’re an elementary school and one of our main responsibilities is to teach students skills that will support them in life and I think this initiative has accomplished that.”