Mindfulness Instructors Bring Peaceful Practice to Denver Schools

The age-old practice of mindfulness is having profound effects on modern-day students in local schools by teaching them to focus on the present.
In April 2012, AnneMarie Rossi founded Be Mindful, a nonprofit network of qualified mindfulness instructors placed in schools, youth organizations, homeless shelters, corporations -- even police departments. Since inception, the grassroots Denver-based program has swelled to include 16 instructors teaching custom-crafted mindfulness classes in three states.

Locally, Be Mindful works with Holm Elementary School, Morey Middle School (both Denver Public Schools) and Lyons Middle/Senior High School, a St. Vrain Valley School. Instructors have also coached gifted and talented teachers in the Jefferson County district.

Mindfulness is a bit of a buzzword: "Basically, it's an exercise to train the brain to focus awareness on the present moment," Rossi explains. And that involves much more than deep breathing.

Be Mindful instructors work with children as young as four and adults well into their seventies. School-based classes are usually 45 minutes, and offered once a week, for seven to ten weeks. "Oftentimes," Rossi says, "classes are interwoven into science or social studies curriculum."

Lessons vary by school and modality, but all instructors follow three basic pillars. First and foremost, instructors explain the science of the practice, to help students understand why, exactly, it works.

"We teach respiratory, circulatory and reproductive systems in school, but we teach almost nothing about the brain -- especially how the stress response system works," Rossi says.

Next, instructors introduce a physical mindfulness practice, which includes breathing, of course, along with enhanced listening, conscious movement and eating -- even intentional smelling. "We want this to be an engaged practice students can do on a regular basis," Rossi says.

"I have failed if mindfulness begins and ends with you," she adds. During their final classes, Be Mindful instructors work on extension, and talk with students about optimism, gratitude and altruism. "This," Rossi says, "is the way we become the change we want to see in the world."

Stress reliefMindfulness trains the brain to focus awareness on the present moment

There are many reasons to bring mindfulness into schools; the most compelling, perhaps, is that a robust personal mindfulness practices gives students the tools they need to respond to stress. That's something that transformed Morey Middle School.

Last spring, Morey Principal Noah Tonk came to Rossi with a mindfulness emergency.

Earlier that school year, Rossi had told Tonk about her program. "It was my first year as principal in a new school, a new district and a new state," Tonk says. As such, he tabled the idea for several months.

"Years ago, we had over 750 kids [at Morey], and everything was going well," Tonk explains. Due to a number of factors occurring simultaneously, the school "took a deep dive," he continues, adding, "When I came aboard, I didn't realize just how deep the culture problem was."

Tonk's tactics weren't working, and the school population had plummeted to 471 students. That's when he called Rossi back, and asked her to teach an intervention class.

Rossi and one of her colleagues built a special class for 17 of Morey's most disruptive, highest-need adolescents. "We took the so-called worst kids in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades, the ones with multiple suspensions and run-ins with the juvenile justice system," explains Rossi. "That class was very challenging. It started with the kids literally spitting at us."

After nine weeks, 90 percent of participants had anonymously reported benefits, and all but one of the eighth graders volunteered to continue mindfulness training.

"Students showed improvement in grades, attendance and interpersonal relationships," Tonk says. "It wasn't a silver bullet that solved everything for all kids, but I do believe a larger percentage of students performed better throughout the year than they would have otherwise."

"The more I saw mindfulness in action," he continues, "the more I thought it should be used campus-wide."

AnneMarie Rossi spoke at TEDxMileHigh in 2015. The human experience

Rossi returned to Morey this year, and the fall series they recently wrapped up was "more inclusive," Rossi says.

"One problem with Morey," Rossi explains, "is division between students." The school is both a traditional neighborhood middle school and the magnet school for DPS's highly gifted and talented, those students whose test scores are in the top 3 percent.

The two groups of students didn't interact; in fact, Rossi noticed that they seemed to despise each other. "It was really disturbing," she says.  Be Mindful integrated its mindfulness classroom "so the student council president and the kid constantly being suspended were in the same room."

Over the course of nine weeks, these students took a dozen classes together, and learned much more than how to get along. "Mindfulness becomes this human experience," notes Rossi. "All of these factors that continue to divide us become irrelevant once you understand we are all human and this is the human experience."

Read more articles by Jamie Siebrase.

Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer who who writes about art, culture, and parenting for Westword and Colorado Parent.
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