Stoner Prairie Elementary School students are learning more than academics in the classroom this year.

Through yoga and mindfulness activities, they’re getting a better grasp on their emotions.

Prior to the start of the school year, Stoner Prairie staff created a mindfulness room to encourage physical and mental well-being for students and staff, and to provide an outlet for both groups to learn how to manage emotions and daily stressors.

The mindfulness room fits in with the district’s overall goal to promote student well-being, and is part of the implementation of social emotional learning programming added to elementary school curriculum starting this year. That added curriculum encourages teachers to be intentional about the way they’re integrating social emotional learning into lessons.

Having the social emotional learning curriculum take shape through the mindfulness room allows staff to address student mental health, and teach them from an early age about how not only can they recognize their emotions, but manage and work through them, Thompson-Kapp said.

“When we think about society in general, the amount of anxiety, depression – mental health is a big topic in our society,” she said. “Many, including myself at times, have a hard time coping with emotions and stress and all of the responsibilities that come my way.”

Breathe for Change, a teacher-led organization, trains educators on how to use yoga to encourage physical and emotional well-being to be better teachers by learning to prevent burnout and deal with the stresses of the job.

The program was founded by Dr. Ilana Nankin, a then-Ph.D candidate at University of Wisconsin-Madison who wrote her dissertation on teacher stress and burnout after studying eight first-year teachers’ experiences.

One of Thompson-Kapp’s recent teacher hires was involved with Nankin’s study and later went on to take the full 200-hour training. Lapham was one of the first schools to integrate the yoga mindfulness program into its professional development for educators.

Thompson-Kapp herself didn’t go through the training until she came to Stoner Prairie – she wasn’t in a place where she could access the program the way she wanted to prior to moving to VASD, she said.

Earlier this spring, seven Stoner Prairie staff members were certified through the training, with four more completing it by the start of the school year, with the intention to encourage mindfulness within Stoner Prairie staff.

“If my teachers are taking care of themselves, they’re better able to meet the demands of the day-to-day job,” she said.

It was after staff completed the mindfulness training that they started thinking about how it could be applied in the overall school setting, Thompson-Kapp said.

At least once a week, all students receive 30 minutes of instruction in the mindfulness room, often led by their main teacher, or another educator who has completed the training.

Stoner Prairie’s Parent Teacher Organization provided the school with a grant to put the room together, purchasing yoga mats, calming light fixtures and tools such as foam blocks to make completing yoga exercises easier for students.

It’s resulted in teaching students how to manage emotions and help regulate their learning, Thompson-Kapp said.

And it’s played a part in reducing office referrals and allowed students to stay in classrooms, rather than be removed as a method of dealing with stress, Thompson-Kapp added.

“It’s not my mission to have this just happen in this space,” she said. “We want it to transfer back into the classroom.”

Emotional learning

At the end of their 30-minute mindfulness session, students tell the instructor what “color” they’re feeling as a part of learning to recognize their emotions.

Students who say they are feeling “red” are trying to convey there’s something they feel is out of their control, whether it’s something that’s resulting in them feeling angry or mad. “Blue” represents feelings of sadness or tiredness, “yellow” conveys excitement and when students are in the “green” zone, that’s a sign they’re feeling calm or happy.

A kindergarten group told their teacher Jessica Reed a few weeks ago they all felt “green,” as they all sat in a big circle after leading a yoga routine and then holding the “dead bug” pose while being read a calming story.

They were told to identify their current feelings, with most telling Reed they felt calm or happy, which is what she likes to see.

“When we come back to the classroom after being in the mindfulness room I have noticed that my students are calmer, focused and regulated; which has made them much more available for learning,” she wrote in an email. “They are able to apply breathing techniques when they are dysregulated, they are able to identify and name their feelings and they’ve learned movements and poses that help them relax and calm down.”

Part of encouraging mindfulness, Thompson-Kapp said, is realizing what barriers some people may have when it comes to adopting the concepts. For some, it’s harder than others, and staff need to be cognizant of the needs of other peers and students who may not be comfortable with the activities.

“Mindfulness doesn’t come naturally to everyone, and to be really honest, it’s been harder for some of our kids than others when we think about how trauma impacts (them),” she said.

Spending time in the mindfulness room has changed how students interact with one another, too. Thompson-Kapp said staff have seen students begin to help one another when they’re struggling, and repeat positive affirmations to themselves to encourage their own problem solving.

Reed says having the mindfulness room programming integrated into the curriculum encourages student success. If they’re not in a good place emotionally, performing academically is more challenging.

“In a fast-paced world, it is important for students (and staff) to develop strategies to self-regulate and to be able to name feelings and have tools in their tool box to manage those feelings,” she wrote. “I think not only does a mindfulness room offer a space to learn about these tools; it also sends a message to our students, families and staff that social emotional learning is just as big of a priority as academics.”

Email reporter Kimberly Wethal at kimberly.wethal@wcinet.com and follow her on Twitter @kimberly_wethal.