Keep Calm and Study On In some Baltimore City Public schools, mindfulness replaces detention to positive effect.

MindfulSliderA young man sits outside of a classroom door in the main hallway of Patterson High School in Baltimore. He breathes calmly, meditating, as other students stream by him, unnoticing.

Seeing a student sitting outside a classroom at Patterson may be a slightly unusual sight, but what he is doing—mindful breathing techniques—is not. For the past few years, Patterson, a Hopkins-Bayview school of about 1,100 students, has been home to a “Mindful Moments” program, put in place and taught by the Baltimore-based nonprofit Holistic Life Foundation.

The program teaches students “mindfulness” through a series of breathing techniques and movement. Instead of detention, teachers can refer students to a Mindful Moment room, staffed by Holistic Life teachers, where students can calm down, do yoga or talk to one of the staff members about what is making them upset.

The demographics of those who most often practice mindfulness—whether through yoga or meditation or a related activity—give it the sheen of a rich, white buzzword, even as it’s been scientifically correlated to increased well-being. Patterson’s population, however, is almost entirely the opposite. It can be difficult to get students to buy in to the idea, admits Andres Gonzalez, co-founder and current director of marketing for Holistic Life, but he believes they’re helped by two things: The fact that the staff, all practitioners themselves, look like the students (the two other co-founders, brothers Ali and Atman Smith, are native Baltimoreans) and the way they present the ideas.

“I think the main thing is the way we frame it,” he says. “These are survival skills.”

You may have already heard of this program. It gained quite a bit of social media traction after a video about the program at Robert W. Coleman Elementary School, which enrolls around 350 students near Coppin State University, went viral and numerous outlets, both journalistic and education-based, started inquiring about it across the country, according to Gonzalez. The video’s staggering statistic? Since sending students to the Mindful Moment room instead of detention, Robert W. Coleman has had zero suspensions.

It’s an impressive statistic, to be sure, and Patterson has seen the benefits as well. But Patterson principal Vance Benton cautions against reducing the program to statistics. If you’re simply looking for the school improvements, you’re doing it for the wrong reason, he says emphatically. These students have never had the exposure to a healthy stress-relieving mechanism like this, and that’s the true benefit to the program, he adds.

“Can that be useful in terms of data? No, because I can’t know if this program saved [someone’s] life,” Benton says. “But what I do know is that student will be exposed to a lifelong technique for coping.”

Many of his students, he goes on to say, face a tough life. Almost all of them have experienced at least one death of someone close to them, whether family or friend, and they live in a cycle of poverty and violence, leading to excesses of anger and frustration. Sometimes, just giving them a moment to themselves to calm down makes all the difference.

“One of the reasons we really got this started is we wanted to give these students a way to regulate themselves in school and in life,” Gonzalez says.

Right now, Patterson has around 50 student ambassadors—those who are actively involved and lead other students in the practice. The Mindful Moment room is a fairly normal classroom on the first floor, but it has throw rugs, tapestries over the windows, a corner with cushions and, when I visited in mid-December, three students.

When Benton asked them what made them get involved with the program, their responses were varied, but boiled down to one fairly simple idea: It helped them.

“I didn’t think I would like it, but I did,” says the only female student of the three, who said she had been recommended to it by a teacher, and was now trying to get some of her friends involved.

As for that young man outside the door, Benton points to that anecdote as the lasting legacy of Mindful Moment. That student, he says, knew he needed that time and since the staff happened to be gone, he plopped down and did it himself and no one else batted an eye. It’s a part of daily life at Patterson now, he says. It’s habit.

“It’s kind of like the saying that goes, ‘When the student is ready, the teacher will appear,’” he goes on to say. “They were ready for something different. They didn’t know what it was but they were ready.” BC

 

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