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Century students learn mindfulness

Swenson explains a mindfulness technique that uses the sense of smell before sending a scented candle around the second-grade circle.1 / 2
Casey Swenson, seated, leads Stephanie Mercil’s second-graders in a “progressive muscle” breathing exercise during their mindfulness session Tuesday. (Photos by Robin Fish / Enterprise)2 / 2

If you see kindergarten to fourth-grade students at Century School inhaling the steam of imaginary cups of cocoa, thank Goldie Hawn.

Starting last year, the school has been using a curriculum called MindUP. Published by the Hawn Foundation, the program is a brainchild of the film actress whose career ranges from 1969's "The Cactus Flower" to last year's comedy "Snatched."

Elementary interventionist Casey Swenson said she has been using MindUP to teach students mindfulness, which she defined as "a way to center your brain and keep your brain focused."

On the MindUP website, Hawn wrote that she started the program in 2003 "to remedy the stress and anxiety children were experiencing," and to give teachers and students "a break from the stresses of daily life, leaving more time for teaching and less time managing classroom behavior."

The site quotes Hawn saying, "I see children as bundles of pure potential and wanted to create a program that helped children to grow, learn and lead a very different kind of world."

Swenson said the mindfulness approach is supported by many studies and materials. "Mindfulness in adults," she said, "has been proven to address physical health problems. It reduces pain. It helps substance abuse issues, stress, anxiety and depression, improves sleep. It's basically the same thing with children, and that's why I like to teach them at this younger age."

Hawn's 15-lesson curriculum was developed by researchers, scientists and educators and has been used with more than 6 million children in 12 countries to teach social and emotional skills.

Using the curriculum, Swenson spends a half-hour each month visiting every classroom at Century Elementary, teaching students to regulate their own emotions.

"I've gone around and taught every kid about the different parts of the brain," she said, "and how sometimes when we're angry or upset, that's where our fight-or-flight response comes in."

Swenson said mindfulness practices, such as stopping, thinking and taking deep breaths when we're angry, can shift our brain activity from the amygdala area to the prefrontal cortex. As a result, "we're able to make better decisions."

She said this helps reduce behavior problems in the classroom and keeps children more focused on learning.

Though she cannot be sure how much of it is due to MindUP, Swenson said, "We have had better attendance numbers than we've had since I started here three years ago. Our office discipline numbers are down, and our special-ed referrals are down."

At the kindergarten level, Swenson focuses on giving children a basic vocabulary about their emotions.

Moving on to third and fourth grade, she said, "I've been doing a lot of conflict resolution and growth mindset," which she explained as training your brain for positive thinking, saying "I can" or "I will" instead of "I can't" or "I won't."

"You're in control," said Swenson.

During a visit to Stephanie Mercil's second-grade classroom, Swenson led the children in a variety of breathing exercises. For example, in "hot cocoa breathing" they pretended to blow on a cup of cocoa, then take a deep breath of steam.

In "progressive muscle breathing," the students lay on the floor, tightened all their muscles, held it for a few seconds, and let go.

"This is an activity you could do while sitting at your desk," Swenson suggested.

The students also reached out with their senses. First, they tried to be silent for a minute while listening to the sounds around them, including a few giggles, a floor dryer in the hallway and a tapping pencil.

"Mindfulness means that you're relaxing your brain," Swenson told the students. "It's being in the moment."

Later, they exercised their sense of smell, passing around a scented candle.

"I want you to to describe smell," Swenson told them. "When you get the candle, I want you to just close your eyes. Smell it. What do you think it smells like?"

Answers included vanilla cupcakes and ice cream.

"A lot of it is just keeping your brain focused and calm," Swenson said, "being in the moment, talking about your feelings in the moment, being aware of what's happening to your body when you're in the present moment."

Teachers have approached Swenson to say their students are learning conflict resolution skills.

"They're able to be more present in the moment and come up with their own problem-solving strategies," she said. "I notice from kids I work with on an individual or small-group basis that their behaviors do improve from practicing a lot of this mindfulness and relaxation."

Mercil commented, "A benefit I see from [Swenson's] mindfulness program is that school-wide we are able to use the same common language. When I notice a student struggling with either a behavior choice or just how to express themselves, I can use some of the language that she has taught to help them, whether that child is in my classroom or any student in the school that I may encounter."

For example, Mercil said, "I used some vocabulary from [Swenson's] lesson today as I had some students who needed to calm themselves down in order to learn. I asked them to use one of the breathing exercises she had taught yesterday, and to think about it they were in the 'green' learning zone as we were about to start our class."