Facts and Feelings

Students of Washington Elementary second grade teacher Dori Oldaker close their eyes and practice slow breathing during a program called “Inner Explorer” which teaches the students mindfulness.

At Mt. Lebanon High School, Superintendent Timothy Steinhauer invites the group of adults to close their eyes and smile. A little while later, Assistant Superintendent of Secondary Education Ron Davis strikes a bell, inviting them to listen closely, paying attention to when the sound ends. Special guest Rachel Shandor shares pieces of her “Change your Breath, Change your Life” TEDx talk: “Breath is the bridge between your body and your mind.” A music teacher talks about how a student found the tools to calm his mind and stop shouting in class.

Just another Tuesday, just another meeting of the Mt. Lebanon School District Social Emotional Learning (SEL) Leadership Team.

For Mt. Lebanon students, academic study involves both facts and feelings, for as researchers from the national Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (www.CASEL.org) have learned, the social and emotional aspects of life are inextricably linked to how learning happens. Positive emotion drives attention and learning; the sense of belonging and forming social relationships is important for effective education. So, whether it’s high school athletes taking a break to listen to soothing music or kindergarteners sharing morning circle time, it seems students of all ages can benefit from “mindfulness,” which in simple terms means slowing down, appreciating the moment and enjoying positive interactions with others.

Student Maya Williams (right) presents her final, elective project for teacher Tina Raspanti’s (left) Intro to Social Psychology class. The project, called “Soundtrack of Your Life,” required students to include four past and two future events that the students deemed milestones in their lives which was accompanied to songs they love.

Guided by the leadership team, many Mt. Lebanon teachers at every level have incorporated mindfulness techniques to support SEL. Introducing mindfulness, fittingly, has been an organic process supported by multiple leaders in multiple ways. Steinhauer brought Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan, founder of the organization Mindful Nation, to speak to the school district several years ago. Krishna Pendyala, co-founder with Ryan of the Mindful Nation Foundation and board member of Inner Explorer, lives in the Pittsburgh area and was excited to lend his expertise with a local school district. He is on the SEL team.

The team believes social and emotional learning initiatives will help kids throughout their lives. Steinhauer agrees, explaining that SEL nurtures an appreciation for diversity, a critical skill in a changing world. “Children who have more social and emotional and mindful skills are more empathetic to others, particularly those of other backgrounds,” he says.

High school social studies teacher Tina Raspanti, who serves on the team, was already teaching mindfulness as part of a unit in her AP psychology class when she found out about the Berkley, California-based Wisdom 2.0 conference that brings practitioners from across the country together. Pursuing opportunities there, she and Steinhauer learned they had a mutual interest in mindfulness. After Congressman Ryan spoke to the school district, Washington School second-grade teacher Kristin Malock says she realized, “I already do this…and there’s a name for it.”

Mindfulness looks different for children of different ages. For a second grader, it’s time spent with Inner Explorer, an audio relaxation experience that invites them to quiet their minds and allow other noise to recede. It takes only five minutes, but the impact lasts exponentially longer.

Krishna Pendyala, President of Mindful Nation Foundation, speaking with the SEL Leadership Team.

And taking this time out from the academic curriculum actually maximizes instruction time, Malock says: “If we can’t have them feel comfortable… they won’t be open to learning. You get the time back, as kids are able to concentrate better.”

Malock’s fellow second-grade teacher Dori Oldaker also coaches the winning Mt. Lebanon High girls’ basketball team. She uses mindfulness techniques with both age groups and reflects on the differences. “There is so much pressure on teenagers; they don’t have the avenue to slow down and relax and have positive thoughts … Our 8-year-olds hopefully aren’t feeling those pressures.” The techniques for engaging the students vary depending on their age, she says: “You have to get the teenagers to buy into it, but the 8-year-olds are all in.”   

Maloch and Anne-Marie Murtha, another second grade teacher at Washington, agree that mindfulness allows children to feel safe enough to take an educational risk and perhaps make a mistake. “We say our brain fires a synapse, and it makes it stronger. This is a safe environment for learning,” Murtha explains.

Team member Chrissa Sullivan, family consumer science teacher at Jefferson Middle School, has the perfect reason to encourage mindfulness in her classroom: fire and sharp knives in the kitchen. Sullivan was selected from teachers across the country (and was the only one from Pennsylvania) for an SEL innovation award to further her training. When Sullivan began including mindfulness practices in her classroom, “The miraculous thing was that students slowed down … they even started to notice the people they were working with,” she says. “This is the social part of SEL that is so critical in today’s digital age where face-to-face social interaction is lacking.”   

Sullivan introduces students to mindfulness with teacup meditation—and it’s more than a cup of tea. She prompts students to pay attention at every step: the sound of water being poured, the steam on the surface of the water, the heat of the cup against the skin. As they sip their tea, they’re encouraged to notice bitter flavors, sweet flavors. As they savor the moment, they’re invited to allow other thoughts to move past, releasing any desire to hurry. She offers a quote from the teacher Thich Nhat Hanh: “This cup of tea in my two hands, mindfulness is held perfectly. My mind and body dwell in the very here and now.”

Students of Washington Elementary second grade teacher Dori Oldaker lay on the floor during a focus and relaxation exercise called “Butterfly Body Scan.” The students are asked to remain still with their eyes closed and focus on relaxing while listening to verbal cues from Oldaker.

Ever-present technology is a key challenge in connecting to each other and to the present, Sullivan says, but technology also can be part of the solution. For a beginning student of mindfulness, there are apps that can help. Steinhauer suggests that anyone who wants to try mindfulness start with the Headspace app, which aims to reduce stress by creating the ideal conditions for a good night’s rest, bringing calm, wellness and balance to your life. Oldaker uses the Lucid app with her high school athletes. It uses audio messages and soothing music with titles like “Victory to the Vulnerable” and “Play Present,” to focus on how mind and body work together for peak performance. Thanks to Raspanti’s connection with the Wisdom 2.0 conference, some other high school sports teams now are piloting the app.

Superintendent Timothy Steinhauer (center) is a big proponent of mindfulness and participated in the program.

The unit on SEL and mindfulness that originally was part of a unit on positive psychology in Raspanti’s high school psychology class has evolved into a full-semester elective. Outside the classroom, Raspanti is part of the Penn State/Pitt-sponsored Courage of Care initiative, which uses cross-disciplinary techniques to look at how compassionate communities are created. The group is exploring answers to the question, “What if coming to school felt more like coming home—safety, security, warmth?”

District-wide, the SEL Leadership Team is working, well, mindfully, allowing the ideas and successes to speak for themselves. Of course some people are skeptical. “We’re good with that,” Steinhauer says, noting that the SEL initiatives are about building capacity and support for learning, not instituting a one-size-fits-all policy. “What works for you,” he says, “running, yoga, whatever, everyone needs [their own] toolset to deal with in their own life.”

Photography by John Schisler and George Mendel