November 6, 2020
by: Janet Weyandt
After lunch at Étude Elementary School, the students come back into the building, pick their favorite spot to sit or lie down and then spend a few minutes breathing, thinking and paying attention to how they feel.
It’s a mindfulness practice that has evolved at Étude over the last several years with teacher Rachel Pekarek is leading the way.
Étude was introduced to mindfulness as a regular practice during a visit from Mental Health America in Sheboygan County years ago.
“After that, I took a summer class with MHA and we decided to incorporate it into the school day,” Pekarek said. “There is a lot of research showing the positive effects mindfulness can have on people, especially on children who are living in a world full of distractions.”
Étude’s mindfulness practice is based on a program in California called Mindful Schools, which seeks to “empower educators to spark change from the inside out by cultivating awareness, resilience, and compassionate action.”
Mindfulness is focused attention without judgment. It allows students to focus on the present moment and recognize and name how they are feeling, leading to self-awareness and calm. These are important coping strategies in dealing with negative influences such as trauma, anxiety and stress.
It’s especially important for students: According to Mindful Schools, almost half the children in the U.S. have experienced at least one serious childhood trauma and nearly a third of adolescents will meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder by age 18.
Teachers suffer from stress and burnout, too – possibly this year more than ever before – and need a strategy to deal with their own stressors and their students’ concerns.
At Étude, that strategy is mindfulness.
Here’s an example: Teachers noticed that when students came back into their classrooms after lunch, they had a hard time settling down for an afternoon of learning. They were still energized from physical play or, sometimes, dealing with some conflict that happened on the playground.
The result is calmer, more resilient kids who know how to take stock of their feelings and express them in a healthy way. Research shows that mindfulness cultivates skills to manage stress and to build attention, focus and resilience.
Mindfulness exercises at Étude happen at other times, too. For instance, at the beginning of the day each classroom has a “morning meeting” when students can say what’s on their minds. At the end of the day, students write down or say something they are grateful for.
“Gratitudes are also really important in mindfulness,” Pekarek said. “We need to focus on the positive things.”
Pekarek’s certification, which she expects to achieve next year, will enable her to teach the Mindful Schools curriculum in school or in the community. Her mindfulness education includes taking multiple classes (all done virtually now) and meet up with teachers from around the world with the same goals.
She is also required to have her own mindfulness practice, which incorporates meditation and other activities.
Pekarek said pursuing continued education in mindfulness is important because she wants to share what she knows.
“My three main goals of mindfulness are to help myself, my students and eventually my community,” she said. “It also gives me access to live seminars given by the teachers at Mindful Schools and it also gives me a community of teachers to go to when I have questions or ideas. I want to pass on the tools that I have learned to kids so they can use them in their own lives.”