Wednesday, March 7, 2012

For Blaine students, a journey into the mind

Kids practice Mindful Awareness to handle emotions, learn compassion

Express Staff Writer

Fifth-graders at Hailey Elementary School take part in Mindful Awareness skills training to learn how to control emotions and focus on compassion. Photo by Willy Cook

About 15 boisterous fifth-graders gathered on March 2 after lunch in Jenica Alexander's Hailey Elementary School classroom. They pushed their desks aside and sat in a circle on the floor, eager to engage in an ongoing "experiment" aimed at calming their minds and developing compassion.

Yoga teacher Ryan Redman and counselor Katie Corkery engage 65 fifth-graders each week at the school in teachings and practices drawn from contemplative spiritual traditions around the world.

In this session, a plastic ball filled with water and glitter was rolled around to symbolize the nature of an agitated mind. When the glitter settled, the kids appeared to settle down also.

"Let's be like scientists and see how this experiment works," Redman said to the children.

These free and non-compulsory 30-minute sessions, known as Mindful Awareness, are now available to 250 school children in the Wood River Valley, funded by the nonprofit Flourish Foundation.

Alexander said she has already seen the "experiment" produce positive results.

"I've noticed it has really helped to build a classroom community in which respect and synergy come first," Alexander said. "Mindful awareness has helped kids develop better listening skills."

"We, as educators and parents, spend quite a bit of time making sure our kids know how to read, write, do math, problem solve, think critically, work as a team, be artistic, play a musical instrument and be physically fit. But what we don't often teach is how to relax. This is essential to their mental and emotional health," Alexander said.

The Mindful Awareness session used imagination and guided imagery to create an atmosphere of generosity and compassion aimed at specific people. The kids usually chose a mom or dad to focus on, but some expressed compassion toward entire countries.

The session also included an experiment in expectations. Redman asked the kids to imagine that they were uncomfortably cold somewhere, and then passed around ice cubes in paper cups. After taking the ice in their hands they soon complained that it felt cold and uncomfortable.

Redman then asked them to imagine they were thirsty in a very hot and dry place, and they again took up the ice cubes. This time around they said they were pleased with the cold sensation in their hands.

"Our thoughts can help us interpret things in the world around us," Redman said to the class afterward. "Whether they are ice cubes, people or places."

The students then took turns eagerly sharing their own experiences from the exercise, which they have grown accustomed to doing since beginning Mindfulness Awareness practice in September.

"I thought it would be a place where we would come to let go of grudges," said Griffin Penn. "Now I look forward to it more each week."

Elliot Bornstein-Cook said he enjoyed the "concentration exercises" involved in Mindful Awareness. Elliot Sweek said he found the sessions "more fun than weird." Lily Brunelle said she has become more aware of how her body works, and how to relate to others.

There was also evidence that Mindful Awareness could improve academic performance. Elk Spencer said he knew he would be more calm while facing a vocabulary test, scheduled just after Mindfulness Awareness.

"I know it will make taking it easier," Elk said.

The Flourish Foundation was founded by Redman, Corkery and Eryn Michaud three years ago to promote contemplative-based practices "for the purpose of achieving mental balance and compassion," according to the mission statement on the Flourish Foundation website.

"The heart of our work focuses on the human potential to be morally and ethically responsible world citizens," the website states.

Redman is working toward a master's degree in contemplative education at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colo. To that end, he has undertaken a long-term study of high school students at the Sage School in Hailey to measure the benefits of Mindfulness Awareness training.

Redman said in an interview that he has been mentored in his work by Susan Kaiser Greenland, the author of the book "The Mindful Child."

"She is a pioneer in this movement of weaving together mindfulness practices with our modern educational system," he said. "Through the creation of the Flourish Foundation, we have expanded all of our existing programs and developed two new programs, including the Teachers Self Care Program, now in its second year. The Teachers Self Care Program is specifically designed to give teachers inner methods for handling and diminishing stress."

The first Mindfulness Awareness sessions in Blaine County were offered at Bellevue Elementary School three years ago. Bill Cantrell was one of the first teachers to welcome Redman and Corkery into his classes.

"We felt it was a great opportunity for our kids to add an important holistic aspect to their educational and social development," Cantrell said.

He said the program has been "well received" each year by the students, staff and even some parents who attend the weekly sessions.

"I would hope that my legacy as a teacher would be helping a child find confidence in themselves, assisting them in developing their moral compass to be solid, community leaders and develop their critical thinking," he said. "Mindful awareness is a step in the right direction, from my viewpoint."

For more information, see the Flourish Foundation website at

Tony Evans:

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