Typically, the five members of the Ashland School Board and superintendent Kelly Raymond spend most of their once-a-month board meetings discussing the minutia of various policies and programs, budgets, staff changes, and so on.
But had somebody wandered into the council chambers a few minutes late for the board’s most recent meeting Nov. 13, they would have been confronted with an unusual sight: the board, Raymond and five others seated at the horseshoe conference table which faces the audience, all with their eyes closed, backs straight and hands folded in front of them. They were participating in an exercise, obeying a set of instructions called out alternately by three Bellview Elementary fourth graders — Malia Golden, Pierce Brown and Leo Garcia.
“As you take a deep breath in through your nose, fill your lungs with air,” one of the students instructed. Then another continued: “As you inhale through your nose, feel your stomach rise.” And another: “Now slowly exhale through your mouth, letting out all the air in your lungs.” And so on: “Feel your stomach fall against you as you breathe out. If your mind wanders that’s OK, just focus your attention on your breath. When we ring the chime again keep breathing calmly. When you can’t hear the chime anymore, slowly open your eyes.”
No, the students weren’t there to help the board decompress from its Briscoe Elementary conundrum or the upcoming bond push. Instead, Golden, Brown and Garcia were demonstrating a new program recently adopted at Bellview called "MindUp," which aspires, through breathing techniques and anatomy lessons, to teach students about the makeup of the human brain and how to “achieve and maintain focused attention.”
The program, a product of The Hawn Foundation (its founder is actor/author Goldie Hawn), was piloted in the third-grade classrooms at Bellview last school year, and the test run went so well Principal Christine McCollom decided to implement it in every classroom, kindergarten through fifth grade, this school year. It’s also being taught at Walker Elementary, she said.
“We’ve been working on developing our social-emotional curriculum for the last two years and we historically have taught the Second Step curriculum, which is a social-emotional learning program,” McCollom said. “We still use parts of (Second Step) — they have a particularly good problem solving method for kids to use. We just noticed over time that the kids didn’t have all the precursor skills to do all that and that program wasn’t necessarily designed to provide that. So MindUp really is about self-regulation and it’s about calming your body, and it’s brain-based learning.”
At the board meeting lesson, before asking the audience to close their eyes, the Bellview students gave a short lesson on the parts of the brain and what they do, and even delved a little bit into why it matters.
Playing the part of the amygdala, Golden explained in a first-person narrative how it’s the part of the brain located behind the ears that — using an orchestra as a metaphor for the brain — plays the role of the musicians, expressing the feelings in response to the music. In other words, she explained, the amygdala controls your reaction to stress and danger.
“I keep you safe,” Golden said. “I am responsible for the fight, flight or freeze response that all humans experience at one point or another, but sometimes I signal danger even when there isn’t any. When this happens, you lose your ability to think clearly and information that should be going to the PFC gets blocked.”
Brown and Garcia then chimed in with their explanations of the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus.
MindUp’s website touts results that any district administrator would salivate over — “90 percent of children improved their social behavior,” “75 percent improved planning and organizational skills” — but McCollom said Bellview used its own methodology to determine whether or not the program was worth implementing school-wide.
“We used a strengths and difficulties survey for students that kind of rates their social skills and some different learning skills that they’ll need and we kind of watched for their growth,” she said. “We used that tool to measure whether or not their social skills grew over the course of the year, and they did.”
The training came to Bellview, as all the teachers were trained on Oct. 13. The trainer will return March 12. A parent night will be held the same night to inform parents how it works so they can implement some of the techniques at home if they so choose.
The breathing, McCollom said, helps the students understand what’s going on inside throughout the day, which in turn helps them cope. Teachers can implement it as they see fit. Some start the day with a breathing exercise while others use it during transitions as well.
Third-grader Sekiya Henvy raved about it during a break in class last week.
“Well, it kind of feels like you’re in your own peace zone,” she said. “You can’t feel anything or see anything, but you can sort of feel a feeling. It helps you concentrate on what you’re doing. It’s kind of fun.”
Students are instructed to try to clear their mind, which is Henvy’s favorite part.
“You think about your family or where you want to be in life, stuff like that,” she said. “I just think of being in a patch of roses and flowers.”
—Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Zavala99.