At one school, students wrap their heads around the calming practice of mindfulness

By Jeanne Shook Photograph by This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
From the Holiday 2018 issue

mindfulness Pause and Effect - Delaware Beach LifeOnce a week, throughout the fall semester at The Jefferson School in Georgetown, there is a sense that Darth Vader is in the house. But those heavy, rhythmic exhales are not the sounds of evil domination. Quite the contrary. It’s the sound of students — from kindergarten through eighth grade — learning to focus on their breathing in order to combat the forces of stress, anxiety and conflict.

Back for its third consecutive year at the school, the Minds Over Matter Initiative is designed to help students achieve and maintain focus, inner calm, resilience and self-awareness. All of the school’s 100 students (except for those in prekindergarten) participate in the eight-week program, which runs from mid-September through early November.

By definition, mindfulness promotes concentration, focus and being grounded in the present moment in an accepting, non-judgmental manner. The goal of this educational tool is to decrease tension and stress, enhance conflict resolution skills, and help give kids a sense of empowerment.

Program instructor Hiba Stancofski teaches her class of seventh- and eighth-graders that “mindfulness directs our attention to something specific. … Learning how to sit still and focus is going to equip you with what you need to come here every day, feeling happy, grateful and focused.”

Eighth-grader Natalie Benz readily admits that she “really stresses out over tests. When I get really over-whelmed, I breathe and try to center myself. It calms me down.” Staying centered — that’s mindfulness in its most simplified form.

Stancofski employs a series of breathing and listening exercises designed to “strengthen our muscles of attention,” while teaching students the basic tenets of mindfulness: attention to the breath, the body, the five senses, thoughts, feelings and impulses. By becoming aware of the thoughts and feelings of those around them, mindfulness training helps students develop the ability to respond rather than react to situations in daily life — a skill that resonates with Constance Hendricks, the head of The Jefferson School since 2009.

With more than 30 years of experience working with children, Hendricks sees “a lot more anxiety than we used to. Kids don’t know how to stop — and breathe,” and even those who appear grounded “are too quick to jump to conclusions and go into panic mode.” That’s something seventh-grader Callie Juliano knows all too well. “I want to learn how to use it,” says Callie, who admits that taking deep breaths is her coping mechanism for handling stress.

Researchers, educators and psychologists all cite a variety of reasons for rising anxiety and stress levels in children — from being overscheduled (without taking time to hit the pause button) to peer pressure, test taking and conflicts with friends and siblings. But Hendricks points to one simple fact: “Kids don’t play anymore.” The mindfulness initiative appealed to Hendricks because she felt the program was a natural fit — literally — with the school’s nature-centered philosophy. Its 43-acre campus includes ponds, nature trails and fitness stations — open spaces that serve as an ideal environment for children to learn and play, simultaneously promoting a sense of well-being and greater self-awareness — in other words, mindfulness.

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