'Mindfulness' lessons benefit Barrington students

Curriculum empowers students to better understand what their brains do and why

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A neuroscientist is standing in front of a group of third-graders in Barrington, and he's doing his best to stump them with tough questions.

"What can your brain do? he asks.

Students' hands rocket toward the ceiling tiles, and 30 seconds later, the neuroscientist has a handful of correct answers.

"Does anyone know why we were born with a brain?" the neuroscientist asks.

Again, another explosion of hands waving desperately. Some students add "ooh, ooh" in an effort to be called upon. Two students offer possible explanations before the third nails the correct response. 

The impressive grasp of brain-related information is the result of an ambitious program that educates students about the brain, what it does and how it can affect how they feel and act. The program eliminates the mystery of why students might sweat or breathe more quickly when they are nervous, and also provides them with the tools they need to control their stress levels.

The program was initiated, in part, by Sowams School third grade teacher Susan Fagan, who said the idea can be traced back to a professional development day in late Aug. 2016. 

Ms. Fagan said a school psychologist was sharing information that involved the "Mind-Up" curriculum.

"I went out and bought it (the book) right away," said Ms. Fagan.

The curriculum believes in empowering students to better understand what their brains do and why. 

"A lot of the reactions we have are controllable," she said. 

Ms. Fagan said the third-graders have responded very well to the new initiative. She added that portions of the program are being shared with students in other grades and in other schools. 

As an example, she spoke about how students, now with a better understanding of stress inputs and how to combat anxiety, will take deep calming breaths. Sometimes they will shake their glitter bottles and focus on the floating glitter in an effort to relax. (The students made their glitter bottles and are selling them too.)

"Giving then children this knowledge is giving them power," she said. 

Stress management does not stop with third-graders at Sowams. The information is being shared with other students, teachers and administrators. 

Ms. Fagan said there are Fortune 500 companies that share similar programs with their employees. It is called mindfulness training.

Ms. Fagan said the approach has already yielded impressive results right in her classroom. She said students are able to settle themselves down quicker and they are generally more relaxed. 

"It's been a huge change," she said. 

In addition, school department personnel are sharing the message at other Barrington schools. 

Brown visit

Ms. Fagan took the mindfulness education one step recently, as she invited some neuroscientists from Brown University to Sowams School. The neuroscientists, led by Dr. John Stein, worked with groups of students, sharing different pieces of information.

Dr. Stein spent some time discussing the brain and sleep. He told the students it was important to get whole "blocks" of uninterrupted sleep and to avoid electronic devices, such as video games, before going to bed.

"The more 90 minute blocks you get in a row, the better," he said. 

A Brown University graduate student shared details about the different parts of the brain and the separate functions. He also asked the students why they were born with a brain.

The answer? "So you don't just lay there like a blob," said one of the students. 

"That's right," said the scientist, before offering a more detailed response. 

Sowams School Principal Jim Callahan said he has been very impressed with how well the students had responded to the program. He also said the information is helping teachers and administrators too. 

As part of the program, a yoga instructor will visit Sowams School on June 19 and lead the entire school through some yoga exercises. 

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