Every school has their morning routine; some broadcast comedic morning shows while others deliver an efficient reading of the day’s essential facts over the intercom. At Myrtle Place Elementary, the day begins with a moment of mindfulness and a call to be kinder, gentler individuals.

This is the second year Myrtle Place Elementary has incorporated schoolwide mindfulness practices into its daily approach. Principal Catherine Bricelj said the practice developed out of one-on-one work with frequently disciplined students and students who were struggling with their emotions.

The principal said she understands intimately; she was expelled from school three times as a child and struggled with a difficult upbringing. Instead of focusing on punitive measures, she wanted to equip the students with the tools to identify and self-regulate their emotions while challenging them to meet higher standards.

“I realized writing them up was not helping. It was the opposite. I had to find another way to tackle the behaviors by teaching them how to cope with emotions,” Bricelj said. 

During the 2018-19 school year, Myrtle Place received funding support from the Lafayette Education Foundation, the Acadiana Center for the Arts and the school’s parent-teacher organization to sponsor bimonthly mindfulness sessions with instructors from Basin Arts.

The instructors taught yoga, educated students and teachers about the importance and power of breathing, introduced students to the scanning system, where you focus on how each area of your body feels, and taught them different breathing methods for calmness and control. They also learned about identifying the physiological signs of anger or distress and how to cope, she said.

Since implementing the mindfulness practices, Bricelj said students went from flipping over tables and chairs during fits to taking a moment of pause to reassess their behavior and choose a more measured response, or to alerting their teacher or administrators to the need for a time out.

She said the school’s referrals have dropped from roughly 1,500 per school year to only a couple hundred. She credits the mindfulness activities, proactive work with students and an emphasis on kindness to the ongoing improvement.

“I think it helps them understand that it is OK to feel angry, it’s OK to feel sad, and there are ways to help you cope with those emotions,” Bricelj said.

The principal was unable to secure grant funding to support the outside professionals for a second year and instead worked the practice into the school’s routine in other ways. Students guide the school in a mindfulness activity at least two to three times per week during the morning announcements, and Bricelj has trained willing teachers on how to incorporate mindfulness into their classrooms. 

Fifth grader Kailey Kennedy, 11, is one of the morning announcement leaders. She was an early beneficiary of the mindfulness practices after she struggled with overwhelming emotions. In third grade, she was at odds with a bullying student and began speaking with Bricelj, she said.

Kailey is a fan of wrestler John Cena and his message of kindness and positivity outside of the ring. Bricelj proposed the idea that Kailey read a kindness quote each day during the morning announcements in addition to other mindfulness practices. It’s changed her demeanor, her friends said.

“When I get annoyed, I get irritated. When I remember the quote, it’s easier for me to calm down,” she said. “It’s a little thing but it makes a big difference because it doesn’t affect the learning environment.”

Kailey and her friends deliver the morning announcements and read the daily kindness quote on a rotating schedule to help students be “ready and steady.” They gather at a small table in the school’s front office and sit before a computer as their broadcast is projected into each classroom through a Google Hangout video stream.

They prompt their peers to take deep breaths, raise and lower their arms in time with their breathing and encourage them to contemplate something or someone they’re grateful for. Kailey said she’s seen more smiles on teachers and students’ faces and believes students have been kinder since the mindfulness practices began.

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The school recently implemented an end-of-day bell system to signify when no students have received disciplinary write ups. When the bell rings, you can hear the cheers from down the hall but when it’s silent, you can hear their moans, Kailey said.

Fifth grader Harper Anderson, 10, said the daily kindness quote helps students reflect on their previous behavior and reaffirms that every day is a new opportunity to do better and make yourself and your peers proud.

“Whenever some kids know they have a write up, they kind of feel like Atlas, having the world on their shoulders, having that pressure on them. Whenever they come back the next day, I think it’s important they hear the quote because they can learn it’s a new day,” Harper said.

Myrtle Place Elementary fifth graders Masyn Dupont, sitting left, and Kailey Kennedy, sifting right, read the morning announcements and lead the school-wide mindfulness practice on Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2019.

The mindfulness practice isn’t solely for the students; Bricelj encourages her teachers to step back as needed and utilize a mindfulness room in the school library if they’re emotionally overwhelmed or overtaxed. The room is bedecked with curtains that partition off floor pillows where educators can sit and take a moment to breathe.

The space, previously a storage closet, also includes a trickling water machine, meditation books and prompts, and smooth stones or other items to grasp or touch to help channel mindful reflection. The teachers can use the room for up to 20 minutes each day.

Bricelj said it’s important the teachers are emotionally supported, but also that their personal frustration does not seep into the children.

“They have the responsibility to teach and impact children all day long. If a child is not emotionally ready, the child cannot learn. If a teacher is not emotionally ready, the teacher cannot teach,” the principal said. “We are human.”

Second grade French immersion teacher Nadia Hdouch said the mindfulness approach has made her feel more confident when handling students’ emotional outbursts. Now, if a student appears angry or overly anxious, she requests they step into a corner of the room to breathe and stretch their bodies. Afterward, they’re frequently better able to communicate their emotions, she said.

“We need several tools to deal with the emotions of the students,” Hdouch said.

She also uses the practice to set the tone in her classroom. Hdouch begins her class time with several minutes of mindfulness exercises, having her children breathe deeply, stretch and move their bodies, and sing together in French. The teacher employs similar methods when the students have ample energy or, conversely, are lagging and unable to focus, she said.

Hdouch said the mindfulness methods allow the children to cleanse their minds and mentally and emotionally situate themselves at school. You don’t always know the struggles associated with students’ home lives and the exercises can help them feel more secure, she said.

Teaching students about emotional intelligence and self-regulation is just as important to developing the whole child as educating them about math or French, Hdouch said.

“At school, we’re not supposed to be in just one box. It’s not only math or reading. We have to open their mind,” she said.

Email Katie Gagliano at kgagliano@theadvocate.com