It's impossible to overestimate the therapeutic value of a deep breath.
Chris Hardy, the principal of Sunrise Elementary, has seen the value of conscious and mindful breathing firsthand, as have the school's students, staff and teachers. Last year, the Sunrise community took part in a schoolwide training initiative focused on mindfulness – or being aware and focused in the present moment.
Representatives from the Cherry Creek School District's Wellness Office led on-campus seminars designed increase social-emotional skills and resilience to stress for both students and staff. Participants learned simple but valuable skills, methods of finding one's center in the midst of everyday stress and anxiety. Deep breathing was a part of the approach, as were basic lessons about thoughtfulness, compassion and awareness.
Teachers incorporated these approaches into their daily classroom schedules and, according to Hardy, the impact was widespread and long-lasting.
"I would say that the stress level was way lower at the start this school year for teachers and for kids alike. Going through the training really helped foster a sense of belonging," Hardy said, adding that the kickoff of the 2016-17 school year was more focused than ever before. "It's given people permission to slow down and take care of affective things … This is one of the best things that we've ever done."
Sunrise isn't the only school in the district to have reaped the benefits of the district's formal Mindfulness Initiative. Since the training kicked off in 2014, similar work has taken place at 12 schools. Approximately 1,000 CCSD staff members have received firsthand guidance from Wellness Office representatives. Eighty-eight percent of CCSD staff who participated in surveys following the training indicated that the strategies were beneficial for students; 72 percent believed it would have lasting improvements; and 68 percent reported that it had improved classroom behavior.
According to Janise McNally, Wellness Coordinator for the district, Cherry Creek's Mindfulness Initiative started with a presentation from Cherry Creek High School alum and Mindful Life movement founder Dr. Kristen Race. In 2012, Race spoke to the Parent Information Network about useful and simple strategies to tackle the stress of modern life. The presentation was so well received, Dr. Race returned the following year to reiterate the information and offer further guidance. From there, CCSD Wellness Office representatives decided to take her words to heart through measurable and meaningful work.
"The 'why' is really around the neurology of how stress is processed in the brain," said McNally, who's led mindfulness trainings at schools across the district. "The brain is neuroplastic; we've learned that it continues to change and evolve throughout our lifespans. Through simple changes in cognition and emotions, we can actually rewire the brain to be more attentive, focused and centered on positive emotions."
Focusing on the ability of students, teachers and staff to focus isn't an extracurricular activity, McNally said. Studies show that mindfulness work can have immediate and measurable benefits in the classroom for everyone involved.
"We call it 'Ready to Teach, Ready to Learn,' because it gets both the adults and the kids ready to do their jobs for the day … Attention can be taught, and it can be learned," McNally said. "It helps in terms of focus and concentration, as well as things like minimizing anxiety and depression."
What's more, research shows that a focused approach to mindful thought and action can significantly reduce implicit racial bias. With the right approach and the right focus, we can re-examine long-held stereotypes or misconceptions.
"It supports learning and academics, as well as our equity work," McNally said. "It's important for courageous conversations. We need to attentive and present in dialogue about equity and race. There are a lot of connections to our broader goals in the district."
Indeed, the work aligns with the larger mission of the Wellness Office, which is dedicated to the physical, psychological and environmental well-being of our students, staff, families and community. In addition to organizing larger, district-wide events like the annual Cherry Creek School District Fitness Festival, the office works to integrate a comprehensive approach to mental and physical well-being in every district classroom.
Through simple approaches like breathing, attentive listening and a focus on compassion, that kind of comprehensive wellness is much more attainable. Tuning out the noise and being invested in the present moment can have a profound impact, as Chris Hardy and the entire Sunrise staff discovered.
"For me, making it OK for myself to take a step back, to stop to breathe and to not always be going 100 miles an hour – it really helps," Hardy said.