Breathing could be the key to unlocking better performances for kids in school. It's part of mindfulness- a practice Milwaukee Public Schools and many others have started using. The students TODAY'S TMJ4 spoke with almost all used the word "calm" to describe how mindfulness makes them feel. Studies show it could make a difference for every student, especially those who have the most trouble in school.
"What are some noises I hear, how do I feel?" asked a teacher leading students in mindfulness. Mindfulness is paying attention to what's going on in your mind and body in the present moment without judgment. That's typically accomplished through breathing, movement and meditation.
"It helps me calm down if I'm stressed," explained Sehla Whaleysmith, a fifth grader at MacDowell Montessori School. MacDowell starting using mindfulness in classrooms three years ago. They spend $5,000 each year training teachers how to use the techniques. The students feel it changes how they're learning.
"When I was a little kid I used to get stressed a lot, and I didn't know how to calm myself down," said sixth grader Terry Strong.
First through third grade teacher Maggie Moss said she's seen changes in her students who get angry or frustrated easily.
"Your mind has to be calm if you're going to be listening and taking in information," she said. The principal tells TODAY'S TMJ4 over the three years, behavioral referrals to her office have gone down by 75 percent."There's things that I can do or that I can lead them in that will help them calm down and get to a point where they can listen to what I'm saying," Moss explained.
At the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Matt Hirshberg studies mindfulness. He tells us it's a newer field of study, but already their research has found mindfulness can help students as young as preschool age.
"They showed improved self regulation, better sharing behaviors," he said. "And some improvements on some parts of their school report card."
Another study from the center found students don't even need to be trained- just training students in mindfulness can impact a classroom.
"My sense of it is that if you have really sane really functional teachers then you are likely to have pretty sane pretty functional students," explained Hirshberg.
Moss feels that, too.
"It helps me take that break so that I can respond to them in a respectful and calm way," she said.
Staff at more than 20 Milwaukee schools have training in mindfulness. A spokesperson for the district writes in an email the district "looks forward to expanding on this project in the 2017-2018 school year to further support the district's strategic vision of educating the whole child."
At Milwaukee French Immersion School, they use a website called Class Dojo to send the mindfulness home with students.
"Kids learn much of what they learn by observing their environment and in particular the way the adults in their environment interact with one another and with them," Hirshberg said.
He said mindful adults help promote mindful children. In the case of sixth grader Terry Strong, he tells us his mindfulness helps make his parents more mindful.
"Your parents are the ones teaching you something, but you're finally teaching them something," he said.
Other districts we know of using mindfulness include Wauwatosa, Elkhorn, Grafton, Kohler and West Allis-West Milwaukee. A small study published in a journal called Education found some evidence forms of mindfulness can boost graduation rates. If that holds true, it could give MPS' four-year, 58 percent graduation rate a boost. But, Hirshberg reminds us this new field of study will require more time to fully understand the impact.
If you're interested in learning more about mindfulness, here are some resources you can use: