“By finding time to really tune in and focus, and feel their breath and use their breath, schoolchildren can discover their innate ability to self-regulate—their ability to tune things out and to pay attention to what’s happening with themselves, and from there it just expands outwards.”
That’s what Marian Matthews says about her students at Baker Butler Elementary school in Albemarle, Virginia, where she teaches Mindfulness and Movement: a class in meditation, mindful yoga, and breathing practices initiated by the University of Virginia’s Contemplative Sciences Center.
Marian visits Baker Butler classes once a week for 30 minutes to teach students of different grades how to integrate mindfulness into their daily lives. As I watched, a fifth-grade class began with a deep breathing exercise designed to allow students to focus on their thoughts. Before too long Matthews took out the “mind jar” and showed it to the kids as a visual representation of what happens in their minds as the students relax.
“The mind jar is just a jar with water and glitter in it, but the idea is that we can shake it up and let it get really disturbed. So, first we notice that there are a lot of thoughts swirling around in our minds,” Matthews says. “Then we start taking deep breaths, and as we breathe we can feel our thoughts start to settle, just like the glitter in the jar starts to settle.”
When the breathing and resting phase is over, the class starts moving, and doing yoga poses, including the child’s pose and some sun salutations. While they’re moving and posing, though, the students also continue to notice what’s happening with their minds. “We talk about the breath as an anchor for their stillness and steadiness,” Matthews says. “When they’re in child’s pose, it’s a really nice place for them to listen to and feel their breath. It also gives me a chance to go around and touch their backs and make a kind of physical connection to them.”
Having relaxed and moved and relaxed some more, the children are ready to dive deeper, and Matthews leads them in a loving-kindness meditation. She instructs them to “send love and kindness to your feet and your ankles and then to your heart.”
She asks them to notice what they feel in their hearts and in their bodies and their minds when they think about being gentle and kind. “Let that feeling grow and send it out to everyone else,” she tells the kids.
“That’s where the natural progression of mindfulness takes you to. Once you’re in touch with your steadiness, your stillness, and knowing that others have their place of stillness,” Matthews says, compassion and kindness and connection naturally well up.
It’s the end of the school year, and Marian’s final class, so she brought a treat: strawberries. But there’s a purpose. They’ll be part of the final mindfulness exercise: eating. At Matthews’ urging, the students “look at the strawberry and think about what it’s taken to grow it and to experience it using all five senses.”
The mindful eating practice is a kind of transition to everyday life, according to Matthews “The students and I have had this formal practice time together, but what’s really important is informal practice, where mindfulness comes in the moment to moment throughout the day, when students can notice how their bodies are and what’s going on in their minds.”
Kathy Shupe, a fourth-grade teacher at Baker-Butler, said that Marian’s presence in the class creates a peaceful, calm environment that allows the students to reflect on themselves.
“I have four identified ADHD children who are on medication, and when we first started they would literally fall over on their mats,” Shupe says. “Now, they’re holding poses, they’re breathing with attention. I had a little boy who has big anxiety about quizzes… I looked up and he was on the rug doing yoga poses and breathing, and then he went back and applied it to his task. He did fabulous.”
Shupe says what Matthews is teaching is very practical. It helps students with the high anxiety tasks, like tests, and in helps in their interactions with each other during the school day.
“I think this is what our school systems are missing,” Shupe says. “If we don’t slow them down, slow their brain down, and get them to think about what they’re made of and who they are, we’re going to lose them. So I’m just so grateful that it’s been sponsored in Baker-Butler.”
A fourth-grader, Gwendolyn, talked about taking part in a year-end school performance the day before and using what Marian had taught her: “I had a speaking part in front of the whole school, and it really helped me calm down my body for that. I wouldn’t have been able to sleep Monday night if I didn’t use my breathing.”
Next year, Marian hopes the class will be taught to all students of the four Albemarle County elementary schools she currently visits, with maybe the addition of two more schools and another instructor. It would be great, she says, if they could “see all of the kids that are in the school at least once a week,” she said. “Once a week is perfect because then we have that formal time, but the kids quickly learn the strategies that they can use in the class and then the teacher has that to fall back on.”
One of the biggest benefits for schoolchildren, Matthews says, is that it brings both a sense of self-awareness and a feeling of empathy towards those around them. “Everyone comes from many different backgrounds,” she says, “and here you have the opportunity to level the playing field, and bring everyone to the same place before they go into whatever they have to deal with at home, whatever they’re dealing with emotionally and physically throughout their whole life. They all can come to the same place and be in touch with their steadiness, and from there they can approach learning in a more relaxed way.”