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Teaching kids to ‘pay attention all the time, on purpose’

By RACHAEL NARSH

Mindfulness is such a buzz word right now.

Everyone is talking about the importance of being mindful. And while some may think it sounds like a very touchy-feely, transcendental state, according to certified life coach Julie Symanek, it simply means paying attention to what is happening right now.

Sounds simple, but with the influx of data from the internet, smartphones and our busy lifestyles, many of us have forgotten how to be in the moment, and it’s wreaking havoc on our health and the health of our kids.

Symanek is the creator of Mindfuel, a program tailored for school-age children that teaches mindfulness concepts and everyday applications.

While traditional education shapes children’s intellectual minds, Mindfuel complements the school day with an exploration and understanding of emotion, feelings and concepts of emotional intelligence.

Julie Symanek practices mindful breathing with Ellisville Elementary students.
[Rockwood School District screenshot]

About two years ago, Symanek began discussing the introduction of her program to local schools with Terry Harris, executive director of student services for the Rockwood School District. They launched a pilot program in October at Ellisville Elementary that focuses on third-grade students. According to Harris, third grade is a very big transitional year for kids.

“K-2 is primary school, and 3-6 is elementary,” Harris explained. “There is a big break at third grade – less play, more testing, more homework.”

The program meets for 30 minutes before school on Thursday mornings. All third-grade students were invited to participate.

“On the first day, we had about 30 kids,” said Harris. “We expected maybe five.”

Ellisville Elementary students practice mindfulness. [Rockwood School District screenshot]

During a recent session, the students practiced mindful breathing. They also gave examples of times they practiced mindful breathing, like when trying to fall asleep, playing baseball, making a chess move, or during a disagreement with a sibling.

The next step that Symanek discussed that morning was heartfulness, or sending kind thoughts to someone. When we send positive thoughts to another person, we make ourselves feel better as well, she explained.

“We also need to send loving thoughts to ourselves, as many of us fill our heads with lots of negative self-talk,” Symanek said.

Symanek teaches the power of positive affirmation and mantras. During this particular session the mantra was “May you be healthy, may you be happy and may you be peaceful.” The kids all repeated these words with her.

The discussion then shifted to how students can decide to start their day in a positive way.

“Don’t wait for good things to happen to you to determine if you are going to have a good day. Don’t wait for someone to say something nice to have a good day,” Symanek said.

She talked about how to visualize your “happy place” when you find yourself upset or stressed.

Harris said he is very excited about the program and always looking for non-traditional ways to help Rockwood students.

“I’m involved in everything. I see the gamut,” Harris said. “I see when kids are hurting because the parents are getting a divorce. I see when kids get suspended for drugs. I see when kids get in trouble for some kind of threat to the safety of the school.

“We are losing too many kids. We need to give kids more tools to put in their toolbox.”

Harris hopes that by working with kids early they can learn to mindfully identify and self-regulate their actions. Starting with third through fifth grade, the goal is to eventually open mindfulness training to students in kindergarten through grade 12 and to possibly offer an adult course.

“Seventh grade is also a big year because of cognitive development,” Harris said. “Kids are aware of their feelings. If we can help them by working on their mindfulness, meditation, being present … Not just anger, teach them to mindfully understand what is going on around them. Pay attention all the time, on purpose.”

“We all need to take a step back and listen to kids,” he said.

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