Throughout Hurt Park Elementary School, students and teachers closed their eyes and breathed deeply, listening for the chime.
“Feel the air come through your nose, filling your chest and belly,” said nurse educator Laurie Seidel, over the intercom. “Calmly, slowly, you can breathe out, relaxing your whole body.”
On the last Thursday of the school year at Hurt Park Elementary, the day began the same as it had for the past nine months. A team of students — the Hurt Park news crew — and Principal Regina Gregory read the morning announcements to the school from Gregory’s office.
Lunch entrees included turkey Cobb salad and chicken patty sandwiches, the group announced. A first-grader was honored with a rendition of “Happy Birthday.” Two students with perfect attendance won a raffle for a new bicycle, another won a Nintendo Switch. The news crew recited the school motto.
Then the time came to pause, listen and breathe.
Roanoke City Public Schools introduced a pilot program on mindfulness this school year at Hurt Park through a partnership with Carilion Clinic. Seidel, who works for Carilion, leads the initiative.
Mindfulness is designed to help people remain fully present and attentive in the moment, and to avoid overreacting. School systems across the country have adopted mindfulness in recent years. In Roanoke, the program is part of the school division’s efforts to become trauma-informed, or more aware of how adverse childhood experiences can influence behavior and learning.
Roanoke’s school year ends Tuesday. The city plans to expand mindfulness programs to other schools in the division in the 2019-20 school year, based on the success of the pilot at Hurt Park.
Seidel practices mindfulness at Hurt Park through the MindUP curriculum, developed by the Goldie Hawn Foundation. The organization was created “in response to the global epidemic of childhood aggression, anxiety, depression and suicide,” according to the foundation’s website.
Each morning this school year, Seidel has invited all students and teachers to practice mindfulness. Most teachers and students participated in the program, though they aren’t required, Gregory said.
The purpose of the morning practice on Thursday was to “set the tone for the day, so we can be thoughtful and kind,” Seidel said through the intercom. Participants were instructed to focus on their breathing and surroundings, with eyes shut. Seidel tapped a chime with a mallet and encouraged all to listen to the sound “as well as we can, for as long as it lasts.”
After another minute of deep breathing, Seidel struck the chime again. The student news crew wished all a happy Thursday before signing off and heading to their classrooms.
The day’s mindfulness sessions don’t end with morning announcements, or the final bell. Seidel has worked with faculty to practice mindfulness in classrooms. Each room has a chime, and scripts for teachers to use. The practice can be especially helpful during transition times between activities, Seidel said.
Gregory, who has served as principal at Hurt Park since 2017, said the program has had a positive impact on student behavior and the school as a whole. Students start the day on a positive note, and can use the practice at any point to calm themselves. Teachers sometimes opt for a mindfulness session rather than send a student to Gregory’s office, the principal said.
“The more they are out of the classroom, the more instruction they miss,” Gregory added.
Seidel has also taught lessons on mindfulness at parent-teacher conferences so families have the opportunity to practice at home. Gregory said she finds the process helpful, particularly during traffic jams or other times of stress.
Taisha Steele, Roanoke’s director of school counseling, said mindfulness supports the division’s goal of being trauma-informed. Based on feedback from administrators, counselors and other staff, Steele said the program is helping reduce behavioral incidents.
Steele said central office has not yet determined which schools will offer mindfulness in the next school year beyond Hurt Park. The addition of new counselors and more social workers within the school system will aid the division’s trauma-informed approach, Steele said.
Seidel, who has practiced mindfulness for nearly 20 years, will also have an expanded role with the school division.