Mindfulness practices buoy students in Sacramento’s Einstein Middle School

Eighth-grader Zach Chavez joins an exercise in mindfulness, a state of being focused in the present. The sessions are at Albert Einstein Middle School in Sacramento.
Eighth-grader Zach Chavez joins an exercise in mindfulness, a state of being focused in the present. The sessions are at Albert Einstein Middle School in Sacramento.

Minutes after the opening bell at Albert Einstein Middle School in Sacramento, a quiet calm swept across a classroom of eighth-grade students who listened, eyes closed, as U.S. history teacher Thomas McKenna guided them to a mindful state.

“An emotion comes in. You acknowledge it. And you move on,” McKenna intoned Wednesday before reading a poem, “Guest House” by Jalal al-Din Rumi. The poem urged students to meet dark thoughts, shame and malice “at the door laughing.”

If that doesn’t sound like a traditional start to a middle school day, there’s good reason. Many of today’s middle school students are light-years removed from their parents’ childhood experiences thanks to the Internet, after-school activities and social pressures.

Enter mindfulness, a state of being in the present. That means learning to acknowledge and then put aside anxiety from yesterday’s conflicts or tomorrow’s uncertainties. The strategy can help students reduce stress, prepare for a test, cultivate empathy. Students can count deep breaths as they focus on the present, on their physical being, on calming their minds as they learn to focus.

“The stressors that students have are the same stressors that our population has,” said Christine de Guzman, a parent of two elementary children in Sacramento hired to coach mindfulness at John Ehrhardt Elementary School in Elk Grove. “There’s lots more information students have to process. Lots more stimuli with video games and social media.”

Those factors, in turn, are “changing how we pay attention, how our brains work,” de Guzman said. “We’re used to things being very fast, we’re getting used to instant gratification.”

McKenna uses mindfulness to keep his students on track. He rings a Tibetan singing bowl to start the session. “Let your body be still and quiet and comfortable in your chair,” he told the class. “Bring your attention to the top of your head.” From there, he guides students to focus on their eyes, their shoulders, their fingers and so on.

They sit motionless, hands at rest, bodies easing into relaxation.

Mindfulness complements the Sacramento City Unified School District push to incorporate social and emotional learning, or SEL, in all schools by 2018. Elements of mindfulness are already used at Waldorf programs such as the Alice Birney Waldorf-Inspired K-8 School, said district spokesman Gabe Ross.

In addition to Einstein and Ehrhardt schools, Cottage Elementary in Arden Arcade uses a similar approach, one that uses quiet and self-reflection, said San Juan Unified School District spokeswoman Kim Minugh. The K-5 campus is developing a Montessori-style program, which emphasizes student-driven learning.

At Einstein, students say mindfulness exercises impart a sense of peace and connectedness to classmates.

Mindfulness “has become something I will remember,” said Christine Fulgentes, 13, who took a break on Wednesday from classmates studying lines from Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.”

“There’s nothing like this,” she said. “Everybody does it, and you can see it’s affected the whole school. I feel like eighth grade has become a little more meaningful. I feel like it brings us a bit closer together.”

Einstein’s mindfulness program began in September. Every Monday through Wednesday, seventh-grade English classes and eighth-grade history classes have included the exercise, with a goal of reaching all 720 students at the campus each week.

Fulgentes said students look forward to the sessions, which are typically led by Assistant Principal Michael Holt. If his other duties make him late, students take note.

“ ‘Just where is he?’ ” Fulgentes said classmates will ask. “If we hear someone walking outside, we always go look to see if it’s him.”

Holt, who spent six months in Nepal, is a champion of the Einstein program and took the lead in coordinating training for 23 members of the school’s faculty and staff. Four people, including Holt, have undergone curriculum training from Mindful Schools in Emeryville and lead classroom mindfulness sessions.

Holt credited the program, along with other elements of social and emotional learning, for helping reduce student disciplinary actions.

In the 2012-13 academic year, more than 13 percent of the student body was suspended at some point during the year. Social and emotional learning programs helped reduce that the next year to just 3.2 percent, well below the district average of 4.9 percent. This academic year, the first year of the mindfulness program, suspensions are on course for another sharp reduction.

Mindfulness coach de Guzman said she is halfway through an eight-week mindfulness course for students and their instructors at Ehrhardt. The first of the program involved about 120 students.

Students develop coping practices that help them “wherever they are, whenever they need it,” de Guzman said. “It helps them have some awareness of how they’re feeling and gives them a way to regulate their own response to things.”

William Aydlett, Ehrhardt principal, said about 20 teachers at the 1,000-student campus are in some stage of training to lead mindfulness sessions.

“The role of education is to provide academic improvement and instruction,” Aydlett said. “But if we take a more holistic approach, with social and emotional support, we not only improve ... the academic approaches, we increase the culture of positivity and learning, skills applicable not only in the classroom but in the real world.”

Call The Bee’s Loretta Kalb, (916) 321-1073. Follow her on Twitter @LorettaSacBee.