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Belly breathing, a Star Pose and the Washing Machine. Yoga enthusiasts know these moves well and so, too, do the students in Kimberly Atkinson’s kindergarten class at Booth Hill School.
Last year, Atkinson, so moved by the seemingly endless string of school tragedies the last few years, trained herself in the art of Mindfulness Yoga 4 Classrooms, in the process of social-emotional learning techniques which she now uses with her students as well as in her own life.
“What I was seeing was an increased number of students entering kindergarten with emotional needs and mental health issues, such as anger managements issues and ADHD,” said Atkinson. “There are an increased number of students showing signs of anxiety at ages 4, 5, with headaches, stomach aches. No one taught them this, they came in with this.”
Atkinson said incoming students were also lacking the creativity, teamwork, problem-solving, coping and social skills necessary for effective learning and growth. In her mind, something needed to be done — and that action was supplementing the academic instruction with social-emotional learning.
“I have been in her classroom, I have seen what she does in action, and I believe in her work,” said Booth Hill Principal Dr. James Zavodjancik during last month’s Board of Education meeting, at which Atkinson was honored as Innovator of the Month.
“This is a great honor for you,” Zavodjancik said to Atkinson. “I see when kids come in as 4- and 5-year-olds, and what they have become at the end of the year. It’s amazing the growth I see. She cares so deeply for all them. We are proud of all she has done for them, our school and the district.”
Atkinson takes a different perspective in her educational process. What was once about only the academic rigor has turned more toward aiding the youngsters with their emotional, as well as intellectual, growth.
“I had enough of seeing all the tragedies,” said Atkinson. “Something really had to be done to address society’s mental health, to address this with people as young as possible for life long coping skills. What better age to start than kindergarten, so I trained myself. It has made an incredible difference for the students, and myself.”
Atkinson trained under the Mindfulness Yoga4Classrooms program, then researched and taught herself numerous social-emotional learning techniques and began implementing these concepts each day in her classroom.
“I thought, I can’t change society,” said Atkinson, “but I can give them the tools to survive and thrive. Our job is to get the children in a place where they can learn, using social-emotional learning techniques such as yoga, mindfulness and breathing will help reset their minds, so that they are ready to learn.”
Atkinson’s students begin the day entering the room to instrumental music, with nature sounds playing in the background and nature scenes appearing on the Promethean Board in front of them. On the students’ desks are intricate coloring mandalas that they work on for morning work.
“Their day starts in a gentle way, preparing them for the learning ahead,” said Atkinson.
At the morning meeting, students set their personal intentions and goals for the day. The students then share their ideas, after which the meeting is wrapped up with the youngsters reciting a growth mindset mantra.
Between each subject session, the students take social-emotional learning breaks, which can be anything from mindfulness yoga moves — such as the star or king dancer pose or belly breaths (three such breaths, according to Atkinson, re-oxygenate the body, helping reset the mind) — to focus techniques such as watching the glitter jar or tapping out affirmations.
At the end of the day, after also spending quality time on the basics of math, reading and writing, the students return to the personal intentions and goals from the morning meeting. Atkinson said the students reflect on them, focusing on what went well, what did not, and what can they change to make it a better day tomorrow.
“This is not a one time thing, it needs to be infused into the entire day and in our lives as teachers and people,” said Atkinson. “Two to five minutes within a learning block has the ability to enhance the remaining 40-plus minutes with more focused learning, rather then pushing the students along with no opportunity to ‘reset’ their minds and bodies.”
Atkinson tauts the benefits of this effort — with no cost and little extra time taken from academics.
“I used to do tons of academic work,” said Atkinson. “I feel that it sends the wrong message, like that is all that’s important. Now, the students come in and are ready to work. It’s not that they are silent, it’s not that they are perfect. It’s that they are calmer and take on the day a little better.
“Using postures, breathing, relaxation and meditation yoga increases mind-body awareness, concentration, resiliency and physical fitness,” added Atkinson. “You put that together, and you’ve increased your positive behaviors, mental state, health and performance. I think if we can do this for kids, what better adults they are going to be.”