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Life with Gracie: Mindfulness: Learning to live in moment at school, at home

Lula Nicholson is 4, very charismatic with high energy and big emotion to match. She’s either happy or really not. And either way, it shows.

That changed recently when the Roswell pre-kindergartner was introduced to mindfulness. In no time, her mom, Laura Nicholson, said, Lula could identify her emotion and use the technique to bring herself back to a peaceful place.

“When I was in school, teachers would say ‘pay attention,’ ” Nicholson said. “Instead of just an arbitrary command like ‘pay attention,’ mindfulness gives kids a tool to use to connect to what’s happening in the classroom.”

With the new school year now in full swing, being present takes on a whole new meaning. Teachers and administrators at Roswell’s High Meadows School, where the stress-reducing techniques are wedged between reading, writing and arithmetic, swear by the technique.

They say mindfulness makes the hustle and bustle of the school day easier, keeping students, and teachers for that matter, centered, calm and focused.

Sue Amacker, a guidance counselor and director of support services at High Meadows, was inspired to introduce the practice after years of hearing about the benefits of meditation and then taking an online course called “Mindful Schools.”

“We know that a lot of children, about 20 percent nationally, have some anxiety,” Amacker said. “Research has shown mindfulness really helps with emotional regulation, focus and decreasing anxiety.”

And so she and the private school’s director of education advancement, Kate McElvaney, agreed High Meadows’ 380 students could benefit from the technique.

“It fit so well with who we are as a school and our mission, which is to empower students with tools for successful learning and living,” McElvaney said.

After earning her certification in 2014 to teach mindfulness, Amacker last year began visiting classrooms once a month, leading 15-minute sessions on how breathing and concentrating on a single object can help students focus.

Mindfulness as defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn is essentially paying attention to something in a particular way in the present moment on purpose and nonjudgmentally, Amacker said. Kabat-Zinn is the molecular biologist who pioneered the secular use of mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts in 1979 to help medical patients cope with chronic pain, anxiety and depression.

“When I visited the classroom to introduce the practice to the students, they were curious,” Amacker said. “They were surprised they could have some control over their thoughts and actually calm themselves down.”

Amacker invites calmness to classrooms by simply sounding a little bell.

“Students know it’s time to close their eyes and put their attention on their breathing,” she said.

Nicholson saw the change in 4-year-old Lula and her brother Parker almost immediately.

When the pre-kindergartner feels frustrated or sad or angry, Lula takes a minute, fills her belly with air and slowly lets it out.

“It really helps her regulate her own level of emotion and work through big feelings,” Nicholson said. “It’s amazing to watch my 4-year-old identify her frustration or anger and immediately take steps to address it on her own.”

Although 8-year-old Parker is the exact opposite of his sister Lula — his challenge isn’t regulating his emotions but plugging into the present — mindfulness is working for him, too.

“There’s not a lot of things in our lives today that encourage people to really be present and pay attention to the moment we’re in,” Nicholson said. “Even for kids, there is a lot of pressure to focus on outcomes, and to be in a school that emphasizes not only academics, but also experience and living life in the moment is big to me. I think everyone should do more of this — parents, too.”

If Amacker and McElvaney have a say, there’s little doubt the shift will become a way of life at High Meadows. They intend to step up their efforts this year with some teachers practicing every day in their classroom.

So what does practicing mindfulness actually look like at High Meadows?

I got a glimpse of that recently in teachers Jami Smith’s and Annie Swanlaw’s classroom, where a group of second- and third-graders had just finished their morning class meeting.

Swanlaw “invited the bell” by sounding a chime, and the class quieted down.

The last time they practiced mindfulness, Swanlaw reminded them in a hushed tone, the focus was on a word they wished the day would be like, that they’d practiced saying the word over and over to create the day they wanted.

“Today we’re going to do a little bit of a different mindfulness,” she said. “We’re going to do a practice that helps with focus, using our senses. When I say ‘go,’ try to focus on one of your senses — seeing, hearing, touching.”

Eyes closed, they focus. Five, 10, 15 seconds and thus, their day began.

Amacker says students who practice mindfulness techniques can expect to reap these benefits: improved memory, emotional regulation, increased focus and enhanced social skills.

Although mindful education may seem like a Mike Luckovich caricature of Southern life, if it can help children slow down and think, to find the answers within themselves, it gets my vote.

Heck, when Amacker sounded the bell, it occurred to me I might benefit from a little mindfulness in my own life.

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