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To help these school kids deal with trauma, mindfulness lessons over the loudspeaker

A student named Royce closes his eyes during a mindfulness session in class at Patricia J. Sullivan Partnership School in Tampa, Fla. Students say the daily lessons help them cope with their feelings.
Octavio Jones for NPR
A student named Royce closes his eyes during a mindfulness session in class at Patricia J. Sullivan Partnership School in Tampa, Fla. Students say the daily lessons help them cope with their feelings.

TAMPA, Fla. — At 8:30 a.m. on a sunny winter day, the cafeteria tables at the Patricia J. Sullivan Partnership Elementary School are packed. Dozens of students – from kindergarten through the fifth grade – are hanging out, catching up and eating today's breakfast of apple strudel, fruit juice, banana and milk.

School principal Dave McMeen is in constant motion. He's greeting students, picking wrappers and banana peels off the floor and lining up the kids to send them off to class.

The first lesson of the day, as they leave the cafeteria, is self control: "Show me that right now me by facing forward. Show me your toes, show me your hands, now show me your body," he says, to a row of kindergartners assembling in the hallway, "When your body is still, your mind is still and we can focus."

Sullivan Elementary School is the smallest public school in the Hillsborough County school district, with 76 students and one teacher per grade level. It operates in partnership Metropolitan Ministries, a local nonprofit that supports families at risk of homelessness in Tampa Bay.

Principal McMeen says many of the students come from the homeless shelter next door and are dealing with serious stressors outside of school.

"Students experience these traumas of which sometimes they don't have control over," he says, "So while we have them, what do we have control over? It's those few moments to say, Ok, take that hurt, take that pain, let's figure out how we can release it."

For the past few years, the school has been experimenting with a new tool to help kids deal with their stress: a daily mindfulness program called Inner Explorer. An app created for schools, it involves daily lessons in observing sensations and emotions. It's part of a new approach to delivering mindfulness, an increasingly popular, evidence-based mental health practice, in more accessible ways to vulnerable populations.

Neuroscience research shows that chronic stress can shrink the brain, especially the parts that play a role in learning and memory. And that mindfulness – taking a few minutes to breathe, relax and center oneself – helps reduce that stress.

Principal Dave McMeen monitors students during breakfast. McMeen says mindfulness has played a role in turning the school around academically.
/ Octavio Jones for NPR
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Octavio Jones for NPR
Principal Dave McMeen monitors students during breakfast. McMeen says mindfulness has played a role in turning the school around academically.

Research also suggests that it can be especially helpful for developing minds. Students who scored higher on a mindfulness survey may get better grades and test scores at school, and have fewer absences and suspensions, says John Gabrieli, a cognitive neuroscientist at MIT who has studied the trait in students.

"Mindfulness is one of the few tools we have to enhance mental well-being in students," Gabrieli says, "And in parallel, it also seems to support traditional things we want on behalf of students – showing up in school, not getting in trouble and learning."

8 minutes of stillness

At 8:50 a.m. – as it does each school day morning – a prerecorded mindfulness session plays over the school-wide loudspeaker: "Breathing in and out. Placing the hands on the heart," the narrator says. "Repeating to yourself, 'I have the power to make wise choices.'"

In Mandy Hambrick's second- and third-grade class, seventeen students repeat the phrase out loud. Then they sit silently, eyes closed, absorbing the day's lesson on forgiveness.

"It may seem strange to practice forgiveness," the narrator continues, "Like all skills, it's important to practice before you really need it. With forgiveness, the practice happens on the inside of you." For a full eight minutes, the students sit quietly. They're not even fidgeting, as they contemplate mean things people have said to them, and how to let that go.

After the exercise, a student named Grace shares her thoughts with the class on how mindfulness helps. "It can help you relieve the stress so you're not angry, and you don't take it out on somebody else," she says.

Each morning, the students at Sullivan Elementary School go through a remarkable transition after they get into the classroom – from hyper and socially active to quiet and settled in a matter of minutes. "It's what I experience each and every day," Principal McMeen says. "We begin with mindfulness – we take a moment, we center ourselves – and then we get engaged."

An 'A' grade for the school

Small, rigorous studies over the years have shown that "mindfulness interventions can broadly reduce suffering – reduce people's stress, their depressive symptoms, their anxiety," says David Creswell, a neuroscientist at Carnegie Mellon University.

In 2022, the Sullivan Elementary School received its first "A," a grade based on standardized test scores from the Florida Department of Education. It was – a huge shift from receiving an "F" grade five years before. Principal McMeen says mindfulness has played a role in turning the school around.

But there isn't yet a clear best practice for teaching mindfulness in school settings. Some schools around the country offer in-person mindfulness instruction for kids – a process that involves teacher trainings and consistent investment. Inner Explorer's model – pressing play on a prerecorded session – makes it easier for school administrators and teachers to incorporate the practice.

The Inner Explorer program is used in about 3,000 schools around the country. "We have a lot of schools that have been doing it for a couple of years now, and are seeing substantial improvements in student behavior and student performance," says Laura Bakosh, who co-founded the program with educator Janice Houlihan.

The curriculum draws on from mindfulness-based stress reduction, a well-tested set of techniques that traditionally taught with intensive lectures and retreats and long daily practices. Inner Explorer distills the teachings into ten-minute sessions that can be integrated into the school day.

Laura Bakosh, Ph.D. co-founder, of Inner Explorer. The app is used in about 3,000 schools around the country.
/ Octavio Jones for NPR
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Octavio Jones for NPR
Laura Bakosh, Ph.D. co-founder, of Inner Explorer. The app is used in about 3,000 schools around the country.

For instance, one lesson invites kids to tune into the sounds they're hearing around them.

"Instead of handling 'sense awareness' in a two-and-a-half hour lesson, we handle it over the course of many days and ten-minute segments," Bakosh says, And as they tune into their sense of sound, she says,"they are building an intentional skill, from a brain standpoint."

The same goes for recognizing how they're feeling, and practicing how to let things go.

Practicing mindfulness can help the kids realize "that they don't need to be dragged around by their thoughts and emotions. They have much more control," Bakosh says, "When children learn this, they feel very empowered."

"Mindfulness is really not about clearing your mind," Bakosh continues. "It's about inhabiting your moment-to-moment experiences with a sense of openness and curiosity."

Scaling up mindfulness

Digital, app-based mindfulness programs – such as Headspace and Calm – have become hugely popular over the past ten years, and have the potential to make mindfulness training more widely accessible as a public health intervention, Creswell says. They're more affordable and convenient, compared with intensive training programs that have been more rigorously studied.

These digital mindfulness interventions, he says, merit further research. There haven't yet been large-scale experiments that clearly establish whether these programs can help fix systemic, population-level problems such as loneliness and addiction. "There are some challenges [with retention], but I think there's some real promise in terms of scaling up to people who need these programs the most," says Creswell.

A student named RaMeir focuses during the morning mindfulness lesson. Teachers say the morning sessions help the kids practice mindfulness throughout the day.
/ Octavio Jones for NPR
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Octavio Jones for NPR
A student named RaMeir focuses during the morning mindfulness lesson. Teachers say the morning sessions help the kids practice mindfulness throughout the day.

Back at the Sullivan Elementary School, a fifth-grader named Avery says he's been practicing mindfulness at the school for years. "It's a strategy that you can use to cope, or you can journal and let out your feelings in a good way," he says.

One strategy he's learned from Inner Explorer is called "the shark fin," where you align your palm vertically, place your thumb on your forehead and drag it down to your heart as you focus on centering yourself. He used it recently when he was stressing out over a reading assignment.

When Inner Explorer comes on over the loudspeaker, "I do it some mornings, not every morning," Avery says, "The mornings I do it are so I can cope and have a good day."

Today, Avery's day is shaping up well. The classroom is filled with the smell of freshly cooked chocolate chip pancakes – the subject of today's science lesson on phase changes. "What makes the bubbles?" asks Patti Ferlita, the fifth-grade teacher, "Gas. It's being released – that's why we see the bubbles," she says.

Ferlita has been teaching at the school for 15 years, and she says mindfulness has made a big difference with the students. "A lot of them really started getting out of the 'me, me, me.' They pay more attention to each other and to each other's feelings," she says, citing the positive reinforcement the kids give each other – hugging, high-fiving and applauding when their classmates answer questions correctly.

And if a child is having a hard time, Ferlita says they get a chance to take a minute to breathe and get themselves together. These types of reinforcements in the classroom help the kids practice mindfulness throughout the day.

It might take until these kids are adults to prove – with scientific data – that their mindfulness practice today will have a lasting impact on their lives. But here at Sullivan Elementary School, the educators say they see mindfulness working now.

Editing and visual layout by Carmel Wroth. Visual producing by Katie Hayes Luke.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.