As a middle school teacher, Renee Metty often found herself torn between focusing on academics and helping her students with persistent difficulties in relating to one another, and to their teachers – the arena educators refer to as “socio-emotional” skills.
Her frustration grew so pervasive that Metty eventually left the school district, vowing never to return. She opened a private preschool in West Seattle and began to investigate a curriculum called Mindful Schools, which is geared toward helping young children learn to focus, manage their emotions and resolve conflict.
The program is no fluke. Since 2007, when it began in Oakland, mindfulness has been part of the curriculum in 53 schools. In 2012, California researchers studying its effect on 937 elementary school children reported statistically significant improvements in self-control. No surprise to Metty, who had witnessed similar changes in her preschool class.
Last year, at the request of a teacher-friend, she began to teach mindfulness to kindergarteners at Bailey Gatzert Elementary School in Seattle. A boy was leaping off his desk as she walked into the classroom. Other kids chattered in chaotic conversation. The noise level approached headache dimensions.
But after three 15-minute sessions, a change was palpable.
“Their response was overwhelming,” Metty said. “To watch a chaotic classroom go from 60 to zero in two minutes was inspiring. By my third visit, the other kindergarten teacher said ‘I want whatever you’re doing in that class.’ ”
Bailey Gatzert’s student population is 92 percent low-income, and many of kids there go home to families where English is not the first language. This was hardly the population Metty was accustomed to in West Seattle. But with both groups, learning how to focus on posture, breathing and surrounding sounds – all key to mindfulness – has had a noticeable effect on students’ concentration, impulse control and kindness toward others, she said.
Nationally, interest in these so-called “soft skills” is growing. On Aug. 11-12 a national network of educators will gather at Cleveland High School for a Compassionate Schools Conference. It is open to the public, admission ranges from $10 to $25, and Metty will be there.