Keeping young kids focused in school can be tough. That’s why the Dallas Independent School District and Dallas Yoga Center are working together to create a mindfulness meditation program for students and teachers.
'Calm your mind'
One recent morning, just before 9 a.m., dozens of elementary kids were sitting on the gym floor, their legs crossed and eyes focused on Daniel Sunshine.
“Why is it important when you’re taking a test?” he asks the students.
“Because you calm your mind,” one boy says.
“Because you calm your mind,” Sunshine responds. “And how does that help you?”
“Because you can, like, focus and pass your test,” the kid says.
Sunshine is a mindfulness instructor at the Dallas Yoga Center. He’s showing students at Joseph J. Rhoads Learning Center how to meditate. He’s at the school with his brother, David, who founded the yoga center.
This is the pair’s third visit to the school – one of four Dallas elementary schools implementing this technique.
After getting the kids to think about why they should calm their mind, Daniel Sunshine tells them to sit up straight and close their eyes.
Then, his brother, David, teaches the students how to breathe.
“Lets take a moment to relax, close our eyes and just notice your breathing,” he says. “Is your breathing shallow? Is your breathing deep?”
The room is silent. Most of the kids have their eyes closed, their chests moving up and down as they breathe in and breathe out.
David tells them to hold their breaths longer. He counts outloud: “One, two, three…”
He asks them to notice how they feel afterward. The kids are calm.
Mindfulness as a tool
These are tools students can use anytime – before or during a test or whenever they’re nervous or stressed, he tells them.
Daniel Sunshine says a lot of research has been done on the effects of these techniques on adults. It’s known as mindfulness meditation. Recently there’s been new research on the impact on kids.
“From a general perspective, mindfulness has really been shown to increase emotional well-being, decreasing stress levels, increasing one’s abilities to work with challenging, emotional situations,” Sunshine says.
It’s also been shown to help people focus and stay focused on one topic, despite distractions.
Daniel Sunshine, a former KERA employee, says the research has also found these tools can increase the likelihood to help others or have more compassion.
“In some studies, it’ll show a significant increase, let’s say, in somebody who’s in a room where there aren’t any more chairs available,” Sunshine says. “Someone comes in the room that has a need for that chair, they might have a disability, and their likelihood to offer a chair to somebody in need increases after going through mindfulness training.”
The partnership with the Dallas Yoga Center began with one school in October. The district plans on tracking student performance and Thomas said it could expand the program if the data shows students grades and behavior are improving.
For now, though, there’s anecdotal evidence, she says.
“There was one second-grade teacher who was taking their children to the bathroom,” Thomas says. “They were in line and the children were sitting outside waiting to go and they were in their mindfulness pose.”
Teachers are learning, too
Thomas says there are students struggling with issues at home. Teachers can’t really change a student’s circumstance, but they can help students learn how to deal with those problems so they aren’t distracted in class.
Kids aren’t the only ones learning. During the meditation sessions at school, teachers have been learning to use Timbetan singing bowls.
Teachers are encouraged to strike these bowls in class in the morning, after lunch or recess and at the end of the day.
“What we found is that as teachers do that, three times a day, the students are really in tune to what the teacher is saying,” she says.
Back in the gym, a group of fifth graders has wrapped up another mindfulness session. The kids say they find them helpful.
“I’ve been learning how to stay focused and calm and take deep breaths when I’m mad,” Selena Ocon says.
“It makes me feel relaxed when I’m about to do a test,” Oscar Garcia says.
“It keeps me calm when I’m in line and people mess with me,” David Untae Brown says. “I just move to the end and take a good deep breath.”
For these 10-year-olds, mindfulness meditation seems to be paying off.