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Time Outs Swapped For 'Calm' Time With Nature, Meditation At City Schools

By Justin Breen | March 24, 2017 5:35am | Updated on March 26, 2017 10:07am
 The calm spots include two green beanbag chairs, green tablets that display two-minute videos of nature scenes — such as a waterfall, or a cow eating from a pasture — and green headphones.
The calm spots include two green beanbag chairs, green tablets that display two-minute videos of nature scenes — such as a waterfall, or a cow eating from a pasture — and green headphones.
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Erikson Institute

CHICAGO — Amanda Moreno hopes calming kids down has a profound effect on classrooms throughout Chicago.

Moreno, of the Erikson Institute, is heading a $3 million "mindfulness" project that's been introduced to 30 Chicago Public Schools primarily on the South and West sides.

The five-year program — most of the money came from a U.S. Education Department grant — kicked off in September 2015 and is geared toward about 2,000 Chicago students in kindergarten through second-grade.

It focuses on daily breathing techniques for students in class, weekly lessons between Erikson facilitators and teachers, and "calm spots" in each classroom. The calm spots include two green beanbag chairs, green tablets that display two-minute videos of nature scenes — such as a waterfall, or a cow eating from a pasture — and green headphones.

 Chicago children do  a classroom mindfulness exercise.
Chicago children do a classroom mindfulness exercise.
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Photo by Kathy Richland

Green was chosen to reflect nature and an "inviting" color, Moreno said.

Students can go to these calm spots anytime during the school day to relax or watch a video, or teachers can ask them to visit the calm spots if the students are being disruptive.

It's a deterrent to sending kids to the principal's office and an alternative to timeouts, Moreno said.

Mindfulness "provides a more visceral guttural pathway into the heart and soul of the child," said Moreno, an Uptown resident who has a fifth-grader and eighth-grader in Chicago Public Schools. "You’re not just telling them with words, you’re providing time, resources and tools for them to actually feel calm and a place where they can focus their attention."

Calm Classroom, a program designed by the Luster Learning Institute, has been implemented in more than 100 Chicago Public Schools since 2007. Moreno’s project is an enhancement of the program for the early grades and the first experimental test of it.

No statistical evidence exists yet, but anecdotally, Moreno said the project already is revealing positive results.

"Kids who were notorious for having multiple breakdowns a day are down to one or two or none," Moreno said. "Other schools said their standardized test scores have improved because a mindfulness technique was done right before a test. And teachers are using these tools, too, to help calm themselves down."

One first-grade teacher said the daily "calming" exercises are used when the students are "highly energetic or frustrated."

"I can see them transform by the time we are done," the teacher said. "It is almost like a reset button, allowing them to calm their mind, be still and focus inward.”

Schools in high-poverty areas like the South and West sides were selected because of the high-stress levels students there face due to factors like gun violence, Moreno said.

She said the goal of the program is for schools to become "places of belonging."

"We want to support schools into becoming compassionate places that provide a buffering place where kids can feel calm rather than the opposite — that the school environment exacerbates all the problems the child and family may be having," Moreno said.

"Mindfulness isn't going to be the magic bullet, but at the same time, mindfulness is a very powerful tool to create an environment that is more compassionate."