Santa Rosa school embraces mindfulness to improve focus, boost grades

Lisa Moore rattled a rainstick before urging her Cook Middle School students to shut their eyes or look down.

“Let what’s stressing your mind go,” she said between deep breaths. “As you breathe out, let all that stuff go.”

Students exchanged glances. Some giggled, distracted by classroom visitors. Ultimately, the eighth-graders sank into their seats, closed their eyes or looked at their feet as their teacher’s soothing voice led them through their afternoon “mindfulness” session.

Twice a day, at the start of first and sixth period, teachers at this school on Santa Rosa’s southwestern outskirts dim the lights and encourage students to relax their bodies, take deep breaths and calm their minds.

For all the buzz over technocentric learning and endless hours devoted in classrooms to test preparation, this too, represents a growing trend in the education of our next generation.

Once on the cultural fringe, mindfulness - a form of meditation - is now promoted in the American mainstream, from the bastions of the corporate world to primary and secondary schools across the country.

Cook launched its mindfulness program at the beginning of this school year, seeking to reduce student stress and attain sharper focus in classrooms.

“At first I thought it was a little bit silly,” said Briana Gutierrez, a 14-year-old student in Moore’s class. “But I got used to it. It’s pretty relaxing.”

Gutierrez said she sees the benefits on her campus. Students aren’t as “wild,” she said.

Principal Matt Pollack said that despite the initial skepticism on campus, suspensions are down, and fewer kids are getting into trouble - improvements he credits partly to the sessions. Discipline referrals decreased by 35 percent, compared to this time last year, he said. Meanwhile, grades are up. Students who last year received Ds and Fs on their report cards now are getting As, Bs and Cs, Pollack said.

The mindfulness program was launched with the help of psychotherapist Maria Hess, who has worked for years with local schools to recognize and respond to the effects of trauma on students. Pollack said the program gives students a chance to reflect on their behavior and actions.

“It’s a number of kids, boys and girls alike, getting into less trouble,” Pollack said. “The whole idea of mindfulness is to stop and think.”

Practicing for just a few minutes a day can have positive effects, said Hess, who oversees Humanidad Therapy and Education Services, a Santa Rosa-based mental health agency, which also provides counseling for Cook students.

“If you do the same practice daily for eight to 10 weeks, it’ll change your brain pattern. That’s what creates the incredible data, like reduction in suspensions [and] expulsions,” Hess said.

More schools nationwide are introducing mindfulness in classrooms to promote self-care and focus.

They’re also combating over-stimulation and chronic stress, which students can experience after prolonged exposure to abuse - physical, sexual and emotional - and other hardships.

Oakland-based Seeds of Awareness has been providing mindfulness-based counseling at schools in Petaluma and Santa Rosa, including Pivot and Sunridge charter schools. It also plans to team up with the Sonoma County Office of Education to offer more services in the area, including teacher education and in-class mindfulness lessons, founder and executive director Doug Lerch said.

Last year, Sonoma Zen Center launched at Santa Rosa Charter School for the Arts a 10-week “mindful art” program, focused on reducing stress and promoting artistic creativity.

Sarah Wilmarth, a SCOE regional program assistant, also is teaching mindfulness to third-graders at the school. She leads groups for educators and adults, as well.

The practice can lead to greater attention, happiness, adaptability and compassion, Wilmarth said.

“Any educator would agree those are skills we would like to help students develop,” she added.

Pollack said his students face challenges at home. Many come from low-income households where parents must work multiple jobs. Some students have to care for younger siblings or work to help their parents. Others must confront physical abuse, neighborhood gang crime or fear undocumented relatives could be deported.

Hess said it’s a challenge for students to meditate.

The more trauma they’ve been exposed to, the harder it is to close their eyes and settle down. It forces them to confront their feelings, added Hess, who also trained 10 teachers at Elsie Allen High School.

She started working on the Cook campus in 2013, the same day 13-year-old Andy Lopez - who previously attended Cook - was fatally shot by a deputy. While students received a lot of support from the school and community, Hess said there wasn’t much for the teachers on campus. That has changed with the embrace of mindfulness campuswide.

“It helps empty your mind,” said Moore, who teaches math and the AVID program devoted to student development.

She hadn’t meditated before, but she said she quickly understood the benefits for students, now and in the future.

“They’ll have a coping mechanism when they’re older,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 707-521-5458 or On Twitter @eloisanews.

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