Throughout the fall, our Upper Elementary students participated in a series of lessons in mindfulness under the direction of Mindful Schools Certified Instructor Dawna Leger Phillips. As our Upper Elementary students concluded their final Mindful Schools lesson, we decided to take the opportunity to sit down with Dawna to learn more about mindfulness and how our students benefits from it.
 

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is simply paying attention to what is happening in the present moment without judgment. It is a technique to help the person notice and pay closer attention to her internal and external experiences. Have you ever briefly stopped outside on a sunny day, maybe closed your eyes, and felt and appreciated the warmth on your face? This is being mindful of that moment. Mindfulness tools provide a way for the person to learn about and be with her sensations, thoughts and emotions.
 

Why is it important?

Recently there has been a lot written in the scientific and popular literature about the value of mindfulness, although mindfulness has been used and studied in the medical community for over 30 years. There is a wealth of research based on brain science that is beginning to demonstrate the connection between mindfulness and greater attention, impulse control, emotional regulation and compassion. Even short, repeated moments of mindfulness throughout the day has the potential to change the brain for the better. The students love to hear how their brains are functioning, especially when experiencing difficult emotions, and how they can change the size and strength of their brains for the better (i.e., neuroplasticity)!
 

Why is it important in schools?

The Montessori classroom is a natural vessel for mindfulness to be cultivated. As Maria Montessori believed, “Education is a natural process carried out by the child and is not acquired by listening to words but by experiences in the environment.” With mindfulness, the child is encouraged to notice the experiences of his sensations, thoughts and emotions so that he may make a choice about how to respond instead of automatically react to them. When positive experiences are noticed, they can be nurtured and appreciated. When difficult experiences are noticed, they can be met with gentleness and curiosity.
 
Mindfulness is equally valuable for teachers and students, and it is important for them to learn and practice mindfulness together. For teachers, mindfulness can help alleviate some of the natural stress that arises during the teaching day that can lead to burnout. For students, mindfulness can be a way to nurture their curiosity, healthy risk-taking, and self-care and self-advocacy skills, resulting in healthier, and more successful, responsible and thoughtful students. Learning and practicing the mindfulness tools together gives the teachers and students a shared tool for approaching the demanding situations of the school day. The importance and usefulness of mindfulness is elevated when the teachers practice alongside the students. The goal is to improve self-awareness, concentration and empathy, while contributing to a climate of peacefulness in the classroom.
 

How is mindfulness taught at Riverbend?

Through a series of 16 simple lessons over the course of eight weeks, the students, along with me and the teachers, practice mindful activities such as listening to sound, focusing on the breath, expressing kindness and gratitude, and noticing emotion. We explore questions such as Who is in control of your thoughts and actions? What thoughts, sensations and emotions do you observe in yourself? What can you do with difficult emotions? Why is it important to look for the good? How can we be kind in difficult situations?
 
As a student and teacher of mindfulness, and as a mom, I find great value in nurturing a mindful approach on a daily basis. While the instructions are simple, it is not always easy! Like with any skill, it requires daily practice and nurturing to be most beneficial.
 
I often tell the students that the mindfulness tools I share can be used to develop their owner’s manual, much like a manual for a car or complex toy. The tools are a way to learn how their minds and bodies work, and this can only be helpful in becoming a healthier, safer, kinder and more peaceful person. This business of paying attention to how we are and how to be gentle with and advocate for ourselves is not always quick or easy work, but, I’d argue, is necessary. There are some moments when all I can do is to simply breathe and rely on the words of one of my teachers, Rick Hanson, “If all else fails and your mind is screaming in pain or blown open in chaos, there is still the breath. Sometimes all you can do is breathe and know that you are still breathing. One breath at a time. Just getting through this breath. And then the next one. And the next.”
 
Dawna Leger Phillips, a former Riverbend School parent, recently completed the 200+ hour Mindful Schools Year-Long Certification Program to become a Mindful Schools Certified Instructor. She has also completed the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center and has been engaged with her own mindfulness practice for the past eight years.

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