Teaching mindfulness through breathing, discussion, and various yoga techniques offers several benefits for school-aged children.
It was an interesting proposition. If students were taught mindfulness techniques, would they use them to improve their emotional and physical well-being?
In this case, the answer turned out to be a resounding YES.
Central Bucks School District students who completed Ashley Heidler's mindfulness program are employing the techniques she's taught them to be more present, aware of their emotions, and calm down when needed.
"My goal for this initiative was to have these students really learn ways they can help themselves by putting these techniques to use, while promoting physical, emotional, and social wellness," said Ashley, Doylestown Health's Pediatric Outreach manager.
What is mindfulness?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines mindfulness as "The quality or state of being conscious or aware of something" and "A mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique."
It's no surprise that today's modern, complex world has given way to new difficulties for children. Stress can sometimes seem overwhelming. There's bullying, and social media adds to the chaos. Through her interactions with the Central Bucks School District, Ashley learned that among the top concerns with local school-aged children are anxiety – which can start at very young ages, depression and mental wellness/mindfulness.
Integrating physical, social and emotional wellness is a theme many schools are embracing. Ashley, a pediatric registered nurse, wanted to address this community need in a practical way. She decided to pursue children's yoga as a means to teach mindfulness and body awareness. She became certified as a children's yoga instructor and, in collaboration with teaching staff at Bridge Valley Elementary, launched a six-week pilot program to teach mindfulness using breathing and yoga techniques, blended with her own mix of discussion and engaging activities specifically developed to meet the needs of the classroom she was working with.
Children's yoga is not the same as adult yoga practice, and it's not a religion or set of prescribed beliefs. Ashley set about using youth-appropriate yoga components of postures, breathing, relaxation and meditation with three classes of third-grade students to realize several benefits. Among them are mind-body awareness, self-regulation of emotions, physical fitness and social and emotional wellness.
A 2015 National Institutes of Health report found that teaching children mindful activities like yoga and meditation can improve their cognitive, social and emotional skills as well as their academic performance.
Ashley and the teachers surveyed the students and their parents before and after the pilot program. At the end of the six weeks, the results were overwhelmingly positive.
The program, according to the students, helped them "Calm down when I'm stressed or worried"; "Feel better about myself"; "Concentrate in school and work through my worries," and "Be more present and to focus."
Teacher and parent responses to the program were equally as positive. One teacher wrote about her students, "I have seen significant growth in their ability to calm themselves down in a number of situations. I have first hand seen them using your techniques and strategies. This is amazing."
Bridge Valley students recently showed their appreciation by bestowing Ashley with an Honorary Trailblazer Award. Each month, the students nominate a member of the community that has demonstrated one or more character traits: respect, responsibility, collaboration, and/or citizenship. Ashley gratefully accepted the award at an assembly at the school in late March.
Mindfulness for more students
In February, Ashley started a second session, this time in 16 classrooms in four Central Bucks elementary schools (Bridge Valley, Gayman, Barclay and Groveland) for students in kindergarten through sixth grade.
"They've really embraced it," said Ashley. "The students love it. The teachers love it, and are using these techniques in their classrooms and sharing them with parents."
Ashley isn't sure what the next steps for the program might be, but she is certain of one thing: she hopes the students will continue to use what they've learned.
"Our objective was to offer more than a quick fix," she said. "It's not to make the students feel better for the short term, but to better equip them for their life inside, and outside, the classroom as they grow up in this increasingly complex world."
About Doylestown Health
Doylestown Health is a comprehensive healthcare system of inpatient, outpatient and wellness education services connected to meet the health needs of all members of the local and regional community. Doylestown Hospital, the flagship to Doylestown Health has 232 beds and a Medical Staff of more than 435 physicians in over 50 specialties. An independent nonprofit health system, Doylestown Health is dedicated to providing innovative, patient-centered care for all ages.