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Breathing in Chaos: Mindfulness as Behavior Modification

11/01/2014 by Sasha Aslanian

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  • A young boy is lying down on a yoga mat with a small stuffed kitten on his belly to help him pay attention to his breathing.
    Using a stuffed animal to assist with breathing techniques, fifth-grader Vermetrice relaxes during a yoga class at River Bend Education Center in Minneapolis, Minn. (Photo by Jeffrey Thompson / MPR)

Alternative practices bring peace to an alternative school

It’s probably the most challenged school in the Minneapolis Public School District. River Bend Education Center is a K-8, locked, special education school for kids who haven’t been able to succeed in at least three other schools. Students often come from chaotic backgrounds and have emotional and behavioral disorders.

Which makes it all the more surprising what’s taken root here: Yoga, and mindfulness.

It started with a school social worker who was tired of being a paper-pusher. Instead, she got down on the floor to teach students how to find the calm within themselves.

It’s ten past seven, and social worker Rebecca Stewart is one of the first people students see as they file through the doors.

“There’s many very sleepy children coming off the bus, many eating Pop Tarts or Cheetos for breakfast,” Stewart says with a laugh. “We really just try to greet every child by name, make them feel welcome and that we’re glad to see them in school.”

Staff open backpacks and children go through a metal detector or get wanded. Phones, money and toys are set aside to reclaim at the end of the school day. Stewart stashes all the distractions into envelopes labeled with children’s names on her rollaway cart.

There are just over 90 students right now, but as the school year goes along, more will be referred from other schools, and River Bend’s population may climb as high as 140. Three quarters of them are boys. The Minneapolis district is 68-percent kids of color. Here, that number jumps to 87-percent.

“This little guy Xzaybeon wrote me an apology letter yesterday for swearing in my classroom so I want to be sure to tell him ‘hi.’ Xzaybeon approaches, and Stewart bends down to help him change out of his hoodie. Hoodies, baseball hats –anything that might be gang-related is forbidden.

The North Minneapolis neighborhoods where most of the children come from are often convulsed by violent crime. In the week I visited in late September, a former student was shot in the head and survived. Current middle school students are closely related to those involved, and some younger ones witnessed it.

River Bend serves students from some of the city’s poorest families. 96 -percent are on free or reduced lunch. Ten percent of students are homeless or “highly mobile.”

Students come to River Bend because they struggle with their behavior–things like impulse control. It’s a given when you take a microphone into a school, kids will try to talk into it.

In the hallway, a girl shouts “Hi!!!!” into my microphone.

Stewart sees me wince in my headphones and gently steps in to guide the girl.

“Jakyra, let me introduce you,” she says. She suggests Jakyra ask me what I am doing there. “There’s a nicer way to do this,” Stewart tells her.

Jakyra’s curious about a visitor with a microphone, but she didn’t have the social skills to ask questions. She shredded my ear drums instead.

Stewart’s work at River Bend has become helping students bridge this gap.

“The children who come to us are not willfully defiant,” she tells me in an interview. “Many of them have suffered multiple traumas. We understand the brain science behind that now, and that kids need to learn how to regulate. They need to learn how to sit in a chair before they can read.”

A Rough Start

I’d talked with Stewart about her career as a social worker over years of conversations outside of work. I was intrigued by a locked school I never knew existed. She and the district were willing to share the story more widely.

Four years ago, when Stewart came to River Bend, she was frustrated. Not because of the kids. It was the paperwork. She worked on suspensions, discipline, mediation and special education plans.

“And in particular to our program, we have a lot of what are called “restrictive procedures” and that’s when staff need to restrain a child for that child or other people’s safety. And every time a child is restrained, a form needs to be filled out, it needs to be copied four times, distributed lots of places, sent home, faxed into the Department of Education and that takes a tremendous amount of time in front of the copy machine,” she said.

Stewart began to carve out an hour each week to teach the kids yoga. It was something for her own sanity, but it also something she thought kids would benefit from. Some of the kids had never heard of it.

“Why are you going to make us ‘do yogurt,’ Miss Rebecca?” they asked her.

One hour a week turned into two and she stayed late to finish her paperwork. Then last year, the school got funding to add another social worker to keep up with paperwork, and Stewart designed a mind/body class using resources and curricula developed by experts in child brain development.

She wanted to give the kids something they could carry within themselves, that didn’t depend on a parent filling a prescription or driving them to a therapy appointment.

“What can the kids learn at school that they can use anywhere even if they’re in a shelter?” she wondered. “And the things that really stuck out to me were breathing. You’re always breathing. How can you use your breathing to calm your nervous system? Even some poses, like rock pose or child’s pose is a way to feel safe and contained no matter where you are.”

Practicing Yoga

In a spacious classroom decorated with kids’ art and class photographs three boys, ages 8, 9 and ten, stretch out on yoga mats. One led his classmates in a breathing exercise, and they take turns offering their descriptions of mindfulness–being quiet, calm and staying in the present. Then they shift to the joy of striking animal poses: frog, giraffe, shark, gorilla.

Yoga also gives them an athletic challenge. Vermetrice is a wiry 10-year-old. He suggests a class goal of holding plank pose for 25 seconds. They get down on their palms and toes like they’re ready to do pushups, clenching all their muscles to hold still.

Vermitrice’s mother says she was surprised when she learned her son was doing yoga in school.

“I said what do you mean you’re doing yoga? You’re too young to do yoga!” said Eulondra Powell.

But she likes what she’s heard about his two-day a week Mind/Body class.

“He said, ‘No, Mom, it feels so good and it’s very relaxing and I can stretch all my bones.’ I said, ‘Oh, OK, nice.’”

Vermetrice’s mom says he started out in regular public elementary schools but had behavior problems and needed a smaller, more hands-on environment. At River Bend, he’s learned to redirect himself instead of losing his temper.

“The yoga class is for them to go deep within themselves. …and they can find out who they are, and they can find out how to express themselves without anger,” said Powell.

As the yoga class nears the end, the boys lie on their backs on their mats with their eyes closed and Stewart gives each one a cat stuffed animal to rest on their tummies. The cats rise and fall with their breathing. Then she leads them in a guided relaxation where they imagine being a cat sleeping in a sunny room.

“And all of this relaxing feeling that you’re having right now comes from inside of you,” she tells them. “And even sometimes, if you feel really mad or really frustrated, you can remind yourself what it feels like to be really relaxed and that might help your heart beat slow down, and your breathing slow down so you can make better decisions.”

Powell says 10-year-old Vermetrice now uses these techniques at his church, and at his after-school care.

“He does the breathing. He does the stretching and he also does the “walk around” is what he call it is when you count to 10 and you walk in a circle… He’d rather calm himself down and de-escalate the issue because it could get worse.”

Paws for Learning

Kindergarteners are thrilled to pass two black labs in the school hallway. Therapy dogs from a non-profit called Paws for Learning are frequent visitors to Stewart’s Mind-Body class.

“The thing that I notice building-wide is that when those therapy dogs come in the building, the entire building calms down…. adults and children,” says River Bend Administrator Chris Pagel.

Jennifer Troy, the director of Paws for Learning, co-teaches with Stewart, and introduces the children to today’s dogs, Annie and Raven.

“So you’re going to let her sniff the back of your hand,” Troy tells a student. Annie licks the girl’s hand, and makes the girl giggle.

Stewart asks the class about the best way to meet a dog.

“You got to sit there and be calm, otherwise the dog is going to jump up if you run around and bark at you,” says one little boy.
“And if you off-task, the dog going to be off task if you not doing what you supposed to be doing,” says another.

“It’s really a powerful lesson to give a child a leash and ask the child to make the dog sit and do a stay, walk away and give the treat. Because doing that, the child needs to exercise self-control too. Annie is a lab that comes and she has been you know, squirrelly and naughty at times. And it’s really interesting to have that parallel process and talk to the child about ‘What’s it like to try to teach this dog who’s not listening? What do you need to do? You need to get her to look in your eyes. You need to get her to have a still body.’ So they get the opportunity to teach the dog what I’m secretly trying to teach them,” said Stewart.

The dogs can also make kids feel safe talking about deeper worries.

Last year, one of the Paws for Learning dogs named “Girl” got old and sick and died. Today these second and third graders want to talk about her again.

How could Troy tell her dog was dead? How did the other dogs respond? What did she do with Girl’s body? Can the dog still feel pain?

Then they bring up the people in their lives who have died: uncles, cousins, older brothers. Stewart and Troy gently guide the discussion back to the class topic, but Stewart says the dog’s death last year offered a teachable moment on compassion, grief and loss.

“Miss Jennifer brought Girl in in a wagon when she was really sick and had lost a lot of hair, to come get the blanket. And the kids all made cards for Miss Jennifer. So it was really cathartic I think for kids who have a lot of violence in their lives, and then don’t have a lot of positive models about how to cope with that or talk about it.”

The Tools to Calm Down

Hallway transitions were generally quiet and orderly during my visits to River Bend. But I catch a glimpse of the volatility that can happen with students inside this building. A small boy is escorted by two staff, each holding an arm, as he yells, “Let me go!”

The boy is headed to an area of the school called the “practice” or “break-out” rooms.
The four doorless rooms are the size of generous walk-in closets. They’re painted soothing colors, and there’s no furniture or anything to throw. A staff person will sit in a chair in the doorway supervising the child until he or she is calm enough to head back to class.

Christopher Morgan is a special education assistant assigned to these rooms.

“It’s a very physical job,” said Morgain. “I’ve been, you know, bitten, kicked, spit on, punched, like on a daily basis.”

Morgan says he’s seeing the benefits of the Mind-Body class in this part of the school. Each practice room contains one word from Stewart’s class stenciled on the wall.

“The children would come in, on their rage, sometimes attacking me, sometimes just very violent, and I was able to use the words on the wall to give them a little, to empower them.” Morgan found the words sometimes made kids forget why were so angry.

“So a lot of them would even walk in without me saying it. “Mr. Morgan I want to go into the optimist room!” “Great! Go make that happen” he would tell them.

Stewart is pleased by the culture change.

“One of the problems that I noticed when I first got here and was being a building-wide social worker, is we would tell kids ‘calm down, you can’t go back to class until you calm down’ but we didn’t have any actual practice or language around how to do that and if kid knew how to calm down from being told to do so, they never would be in this school in the first place.” Stewart credits special education assistants like Morgan for helping spread the language and techniques throughout the school. The faster students can collect themselves, the faster they can return to class.

“I’ve noticed that the kids are more aware of each other,” said kindergarten and first grade teacher Meaghan Harvey, who’s begun using Mind/Body techniques in her classroom. Now if someone drops something, they don’t laugh, they rush over to help clean it up. “There’s just a different sense of community,” she said.

Meghan Becker, who teaches grades 3-5, said her Mind/Body training has influenced her teaching.

“So before, it was high stress, high anxiety, like high nervousness all the time…And I think the past two years, I’ve felt this…calm in the way I react, the way my students are reacting to negative interactions or adverse experiences at home, they’re better able to identify their feelings.”

The impact of River Bend’s Mind/Body program might best be measured by who’s not here. Pagel says last year, 20 students were able to return to less restrictive school settings.

“That’s really large because there are years where we have maybe five and so that’s a success,” though she notes some children will always need the support of a Level 4 education setting.

A Garden and a Farewell

On a Friday afternoon, Miss Harvey’s kindergarten class invites the whole school to their butterfly release party. They’ve hatched the Monarchs from eggs.

They release them in a garden students planted in front of the school as part of their Mind/Body program. The locked school, now has a garden right in front of the main office.

Stewart peers through the window and points out the copy machine where she once spent her days doing paperwork.

“Now I don’t spend nearly as much time out there, but sometimes I do catch a glimpse of the kids in the garden.”

As the school day comes to a close at River Bend, students recover the distracting possessions Stewart filed on her cart that morning.

“Don’t forget your dime, and your slinky,” she tells Ambrosia, a 5th grader, as she hands the girl her coin and toy.

Staff know some in the community call River Bend “the jail school” because the doors are locked. But parent Eulondra Powell disagrees.

“They have taught my son how to protect himself and protect others. And not only that, they showed him not to be scared and not to be bullied either. So, yes the doors are locked. Yes they do take their stuff. Yes, it is like a jail, but you have to look at the inner beauty of it and a lot of people don’t see that and I do because I go up there.”

Powell says her son has asked her to come up and do yoga with his class. She’s planning to.




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