By Michelle Wagner | Outer Banks Voice on December 8, 2019
It’s a typical day in early December as Leela Harpur begins her class at Manteo Middle School with the chime of a bell. Students pause to listen as the sound slowly fades — some choosing to close their eyes, others letting their gaze rest on the floor. Next, they begin to recite the verses from one of their teacher’s published poems.
“May kindness be your instinct…May goodness be a yearning of your heart.”
Harpur invites students to find their mindful posture and anchor breath, guiding them as they count each inhale and exhale, a practice that as one student explains, “helps us stay calm when we are mad or stressed, by focusing our attention.”
It’s a welcome break from the rigors of the school day — a 30-minute respite from the increasing academic and social pressures that today’s students face. Instead of the continuing challenges of assignments, assessments and tests, the brief time they have in Harpur’s class is literally a chance for students to breathe.
These Manteo Middle School sixth graders meet each day with Harpur for the nine-week marking period as part of the Healthy Living well-being program, which includes a curriculum of mindfulness skills such as noticing thoughts and emotions, heartfulness and the counting breath – tools that have been widely proven to reduce stress and anxiety, boost working memory and focus, increase emotional self-regulation and cognitive flexibility as well as enrich relationships.
At its core, a mindfulness curriculum is designed to equip students with skills and practices that help them with everything from relaxing during stressful situations and regulating difficult emotions to building healthy relationships and concentrating better on tasks and challenges.
An ever-growing practice in the United States, mindfulness is defined by the non-profit organization mindfulschools.org as “maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment with openness and curiosity.”
Since 2007, the organization has trained more than 50,000 teachers and professionals in the practice at a time when mental health concerns and school violence are deepening and disturbing problems.
The school’s English as a Second Language teacher, Harpur has been practicing mindfulness since she was a young child, having been introduced to in by her parents. After researching its impact on students’ well-being, she floated the idea of a well-being program to Dare County school administrators. The idea was embraced, so she and school psychologist Sheena Fuller were trained and certified to teach students through mindfulschools.org.
From there, and with funding from Children and Youth Partnership’s Be Resilient OBX, more than 60 Dare Schools staff members have been trained in mindfulness fundamentals and 16 in mindful educator essentials since the summer of 2018. Harpur also gave an “Introduction to Mindfulness” class for Dare County Schools principals this past August and more than 70 district teachers and staff attended a similar session this fall at a districtwide in-service.
Funding for the initiative has continued through a recent Vidant Community Health Benefits Grant.
Manteo Middle School’s pilot program in mindfulness began last year, where each of the school’s 455 students was instructed in the resiliency skills twice a week during their health and physical education classes. Now, the program has begun to gain momentum at two other schools in the district — First Flight Middle School and Manteo Elementary School — where staff are becoming trained and have just begun to introduce mindfulness skills to students.
The timing of Harpur’s vision also fell in line with the NC Schools Mental Health Initiative recommendations that were rolled out in 2016, as well as Dare County Schools 2023 long range plan that was recently unveiled, according to the district’s communications specialist, Keith Parker.
As to its impact in the classroom, Harpur and Fuller said they’ve overheard students saying the well-being class is their favorite time of the day and that they feel so relaxed afterward. They’ve heard anecdotes of students using the tools to deal with everything from high stakes tests to potential eating disorders and sibling squabbles.
Fuller noted that guidance counselors utilize the strategies to help students who visit their office due to behavior problems or other issues to return to a resilient zone so that they can return to class. Students, she added, are also beginning to demonstrate more insightfulness as far as noticing their own emotions and thoughts.
One student, Harpur said, shared the story with her about how their parents were fighting in the car and the child “used the anchor breath to help them get through it.”
She stressed that instruction in mindfulness can only come from committed instructors who have not only learned the strategies, but also practice them. As to the students’ academic success, Harpur acknowledged, “We are asking a lot of students when they walk in the classroom. If they aren’t present and aware of thoughts and feelings, they can’t remember [material] – if they aren’t in the resilient zone.”
As for this particular group of students meeting with Harpur in early December, they ended class very much the same way they started – on a positive note and ready to face the rest of the day with an affirming message they recite together:
“I am strong. I am brave. I am loved.”