Close your eyes

How Colorado schools are helping kids calm down — and learn — through mindfulness

First-graders at Denver's Munroe Elementary do a mindfulness exercise led by school psychologist Amy Schirm.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, school psychologist Amy Schirm stood before two-dozen fifth-graders in a classroom at Denver’s Munroe Elementary School. Piano music played softly in the background and a string of white holiday lights twinkled on the wall behind her.

“Close your eyes,” Schirm said. “I’m going to ring the bell three times. Just focus all your attention on the sound.” She struck a small metal bowl with a mallet.

“Let your body kind of feel heavy, like you’re sinking down into your chair,” she said. “Just take a minute to check in with yourself. How are you doing in this moment?”

The students were practicing mindfulness — concentrating on their present thoughts, emotions and environment. The concept is catching on in schools in Colorado and nationwide as a way to help students better focus their attention, process their emotions and develop compassion.

Advocates say mindfulness can be especially valuable in high-poverty schools such as Munroe, where many students face difficult home lives and need strong social and emotional skills.

Nearly all the students Schirm was addressing that afternoon followed her instructions intently, some with eyes serenely closed and others with hoods pulled low over their faces. `

“We’re constantly telling kids to pay attention, but we never teach them how, or what that means,”  said Schirm, who spearheaded the school’s foray into mindfulness last year.

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
A fifth-grader in Fallon Newman’s class practices mindfulness at Munroe Elementary School in Denver.

Mindfulness fills that gap, helping kids tune in to instruction and their own emotional lives.

At least 40 Denver schools are weaving mindfulness into the school day, district officials say. Last year, DPS began offering staff trainings on the topic and purchased two mindfulness curriculums: MindUP for elementary students and Learning to Breathe for secondary students.

“We’re definitely moving in a direction where we’re realizing and acknowledging that social emotional learning is essential to academic success,” said Meredith Furtney, supervisor of the district’s department of social work and psychological services.

Munroe teacher Fallon Newman said she’s seen a big difference in her students since introducing mindfulness, both through “mindful minutes” each morning and during Schirm’s Thursday afternoon visits.

They’re more articulate about how they’re feeling and better able to cope with stress. That means more time for learning instead of hours given over to pent-up emotion, Newman said.

She’s also noticed a greater sense of empathy among students. A glimpse of that came during Schirm’s recent lesson when she had students pair up and gaze intently at their partners.

There were giggles and some students said they felt silly, but there were also moments of connection.

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Two boys at Munroe Elementary in Denver practice “mindful seeing.”

“I felt like I know the things she knows,” said one girl, as the class debriefed.

Newman said some of her students have also become more attuned to her. She experienced it on a recent day when she temporarily took on seven fifth-graders from another class in addition to her own 26.

One of her students asked a surprising question: Was she feeling anxious about supervising the extra kids?

Newman admitted that she was a little apprehensive about the bigger group.

The boy responded, “OK, I’ll be on my best behavior.”

It was a heart-warming sign that mindfulness is paying off.

“It’s powerful stuff,” Newman said.

For some Munroe students, the practice instills a sense of calm that is often lacking in their lives. Take Chris, a fifth-grader with an impish smile who joined Schirm as she headed to a first-grade class to lead a brief mindfulness lesson last week.

For a long time, he’d been disruptive and noisy during such lessons in his own classroom. When Schirm finally asked why it was so hard for him, he told her he wasn’t used to the quiet.

Chris has an easier time of it now. In the first grade classroom, he stood tall in front of his smaller schoolmates, opening and closing a big expandable ball in time with their slow breaths.

At the 135-student charter school Carbondale Community School, the nudge toward mindfulness came last year from the school’s wellness committee. A teacher who was studying the practice as part of her graduate program led the charge.

Principal Tom Penzel said students and staff circle up in the commons area at the beginning of each week for a 15-minute “Mindful Monday” session. There’s a few minutes of guided meditation and then maybe a discussion about real-life scenarios where mindfulness could come in handy.

Examples include how to react when the least athletic kid wants to join the game or what to do when you feel a flash of anger toward a classmate. Penzel said it was students who asked that more time to be devoted to such scenarios.

“I’ve been amazed over time how much the kids are bought into it,” he said.

more sleeping time

Jeffco schools will study pushing back high school start times

Wheat Ridge High School teacher, Stephanie Rossi, left, teaching during her sophomore AP U.S. History class September 25, 2014. (Photo By Andy Cross / The Denver Post)

Jeffco Public Schools will convene a study group this spring to look at whether high school students should start school later in the mornings.

“People started raising it to me when I started doing the listening tour as something they were interested in,” said Jeffco Superintendent Jason Glass. “We’re going to study it.”

Glass said plans call for a task force to meet about eight times over more than a year to come up with recommendations on whether the district should change high school start times, and if so, if it should be district-wide or only in some schools.

The group would need to consider the potential ripple effects of later high school start times, including needing to change transportation, possible costs to the district and the impact it could have on students’ opportunities for work, sports or other after-school activities.

The Cherry Creek and Greeley-Evans school districts moved their high school start times later in the morning this fall. Research has shown that teenagers need more sleep. It’s that research that Glass said many people cited in telling him that high school classes shouldn’t start so early.

District officials are tentatively scheduling a public meeting on February 12 to start the process. The task force would likely be created after that meeting based on people who show interest.

Glass said that if the group suggests the district push back start times, he would expect a decision before the start of the 2019-2020 school year.

Prevention push

After another Colorado child commits suicide, the search for solutions intensifies at schools and the statehouse

PHOTO: Denver Post file

As the tragic circumstances of a Colorado fifth-grader’s suicide draws widespread attention, two state lawmakers said Friday they plan to introduce legislation next year aimed at helping schools try to prevent such cases.

“I want to have a conversation that 10-year-olds die by suicide,” state Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet told Chalkbeat. “And we need to be doing more to help them.”

The Commerce City Democrat’s comments follow the death of 10-year-old Ashawnty Davis, who hung herself in her closet, according to multiple reports. Ashawnty’s parents say she was “devastated” after a video of her confronting a bully after school was posted to a social media app, Musical.ly.

Anthony Davis and Latoshia Harris, Ashawnty’s mother and father, are raising questions about whether Sunrise Elementary in Aurora, part of the Cherry Creek School District, did enough to prevent the incidents before their daughter’s death.

Officials from the Cherry Creek School District say they took the appropriate steps. And suicide experts caution about attributing a suicide to a single event. Usually there are multiple factors, and clear answers are often elusive.

Still, Ashawnty’s death, along with a growing rate of suicides among Coloradans between the ages of 10 and 17, have parents, educators, activists and lawmakers wrestling with complex questions about bullying and suicide prevention in a digital age.

Suicide prevention resources

  • Colorado Crisis Services, 1-844-493-8255 or text “TALK” to 38255
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255
  • Risk factors and warning signs from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

“We’re in a situation where students can no longer escape the bullying that happens at school, because of technology,” said Daniel Ramos, the executive director of One Colorado, which as the state’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy organization has taken a strong stance against bullying. “That’s something we need to better understand.”

It’s unclear how widespread bullying is in Colorado schools. Under Colorado law, schools aren’t required to exclusively report instances of bullying. They are, however, required to report events “detrimental to the welfare or safety of other students or of school personnel.” But that includes a wide range of issues, state officials said.

The Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, a biennial questionnaire that a sample of Colorado students fill out on a volunteer basis, found in 2016 that by the eighth grade, half of all students reported being victims of bullying. And about 20 percent of high school students reported being a victim of bullying within the previous year.

Some Colorado schools — including some in the Cherry Creek School District — are attempting to make their schools safer places. More than 70 school are participating in a three-year, $2 million grant program to curb bullying.

“There’s no magic solution to reduce bullying,” said Adam Collins, the state Department of Education’s bullying prevention and education grant coordinator. However, the program is attempting to build teams of teachers, parents and students at participating schools to change the conversation around bullying.

“A lot of times, people feel like they want to help but they don’t know what to say or do,” Collins said, adding that some schools in the program are helping teachers come up with one or two different sentences they can use to defuse situations around bullying.

While some lawmakers are considering additional steps to prevent bullying at school, Michaelson Jenet and state Sen. Nancy Todd, an Aurora Democrat, want to equip educators and mental health providers with more tools to curb the state’s high child suicide rate.

Since the beginning of the year, there have been reported cases of children committing suicide in Colorado Springs, Littleton, Thornton and Grand Junction. The deaths have cut across racial and socioeconomic lines.

The rate of Colorado children taking their own lives has more than doubled in the last decade, data show. In 2016, nearly 10 out of every 100,000 Colorado kids took their own lives — 57 in total. Colorado’s suicide rate among children is one of the nation’s highest.

Todd’s bill would provide grants to schools for training teachers and staff in teaching life skills and preventing suicide.

“Our students need to be surrounded by highly qualified teachers, staff, and peers that have a greater level of focus on positive life skills and know when to seek higher levels of intervention to assist students indicating a need for help,” Todd said in a statement.

Michaelson Jenet’s bill would allow kids as young as 12 to meet with a licensed therapist to talk about their feelings without parental consent. Under current law, parents must be notified if a child under 15 seeks help.

The Commerce City lawmaker’s bill also would create a campaign to advertise the state’s suicide prevention text hotline and create a program to train adults in “mental health first aid.”

Michaelson Jenet, whose own son attempted suicide when he was 9, ran a similar bill seeking to lower the age of consent this year. It died in the Republican-controlled state Senate.

“This is the No. 1 question for our society in Colorado,” she said. “We have to answer the question —- How do we stop our kids from dying?”