Taking Time To Focus On Learning
For some students at Sheboygan Falls Elementary School, getting ready to learn means taking time to leave distractions behind and focus only on the present.
“I think it’s a very calming way to start the day,” says Sally Haines, a music teacher who is one of the staff members behind Take Time Thursdays, a new effort to teach students strategies for dealing with anxiety and stress and improving mental concentration.
For the past few months, Haines and other staff members have been meeting with the students before school on Thursdays. They use a variety of activities such as breathing, stretching and art and music to help students relax and get ready to focus on learning. The sessions are part of the school’s effort to introduce the concept of “mindfulness” to students and staff.
“When we talk about mindfulness, we’re talking about being in the moment, being present and really concentrating on what’s going on around us,” explains Nikki Humski, an elementary counselor who helped start the group.
The techniques help students get their minds and bodies ready for learning and listening, she added. The goal is for students to use the strategies on their own to self-regulate and control their emotions and behavior.
The idea for the group was prompted by concerns about the growing number of students who were coming to school with noticeable stress. Students participating in the group were invited to join based on recommendations from staff or parents. The group includes students in kindergarten through fourth grade.
In a recent survey of the students, 82% reported that being in the group had helped them learn to identify when they are stressed. They also said they were able to use some of the techniques they had learned to better handle stress.
“We see that as great progress,” Humski said.
In addition to physical movement and breathing exercises, the staff used “sensory tables” where students could physically manipulate clay or sand.
“The sense of touch has a very calming effect,” Humski said, noting that they saw the greatest reduction in stress when students used the tables.
Humski has also used some of the mindfulness strategies when she meets weekly with each class at the school.
During the Thursday sessions, Haines used techniques she learned at a music therapy conference last year. Students listened to music with a rhythm that matched the resting heart beat of 60 beats a minute and drums whose sounds mimicked the sound of ocean waves, a very calming sound.
Because teachers get stressed, too, there was also a Take Time Tuesday session just for staff.
Sheboygan Falls School Counselor Britne Stanke has attended workshops on mindfulness through the Wisconsin School Counselor Association. She also took an online course, and with the help of Physical Therapist Kelly Dirkse, modified some of the physical movement techniques learned into exercises they call Emotion Motion. Fourth grade teachers are using Emotion Motion in their classrooms at least three times a week.
Stanke also incorporates mindfulness into her weekly sessions with each class at the school, starting with five minutes of breathing and stretching.
She has had very positive feedback from parents, some of whom have asked for more information so they can use some of the mindfulness techniques with their children at home.
“There are just so many benefits to it,” she said, noting that many of these techniques are life skills that children can use as adults.
Amanda Pound, associate principal of Sheboygan Falls Elementary and Middle Schools, has been impressed with the way students have absorbed the lessons they are learning.
“I have noticed students using these techniques when I have been working with them,” Pound says. “Whatever they are doing in the classroom it’s sticking.”
And there’s more to come.
“We’re already looking toward next year,” said Humski. “We would love to expand it.”