Joel, a 12-year-old 5th grader, gave his first instruction:
“Breathe in…. 1, 2, 3, 4 Breathe out…. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.”
After the first exhale from the crowd, you could feel a shift in energy and focus among the silent students and parents, now all breathing and moving in unison.
As he stepped down from the stage, I asked Joel if he was nervous leading so many people in Dynamic Mindfulness. He reflected for a moment and admitted that he had been scared, then added with a smile, “But I just took some deep breaths and then I was okay.”
King Chavez Arts and Athletics Academy (KCAA) is a grade 3-5 charter school located in San Diego’s Barrio Logan neighborhood. For the last two years, KCAA has partnered with the Niroga Institute to bring an evidence-based trauma-informed stress-resilience practice called Dynamic Mindfulness to its teachers, students, and families. Shelly Baca, vice principal at KCAA, describes Barrio Logan as “a neighborhood with a lot of love, but there is also a lot of stress and trauma.” According to Baca, what KCAA has endeavored to do with Dynamic Mindfulness is to “merge the academic setting with the real world and make sure that our kids are not only academically ready to succeed but are mentally and physically ready to succeed in the world as well.”
Dynamic Mindfulness is a practice of mindful movement, breathing, and centering that can be done by anyone, anytime, anywhere. KCAA teachers weave Dynamic Mindfulness practices throughout their day, often inviting students to lead the five- to fifteen-minute sessions. Scott Worthing, Principal at KCAA, decided to bring Dynamic Mindfulness to his school after being led through a short ten-minute practice by Niroga’s Executive Director and founder, Bidyut Bose. Scott noticed his own stress levels dropped dramatically and reflected, “If it works for me in that short amount of time, it’s gotta be good for our kids, and it’s gotta be good for our teachers.”
Both teachers and students cite numerous benefits of the practice, including an increase in learning readiness, better stress resilience in testing situations, and a school-wide drop in the suspension rates to zero for the first time in the school’s history. Yet, what teachers and students repeatedly emphasize is a transformation within the students and culture of the school that are more difficult to articulate, or capture with a graph.
“Mindfulness is an easy reference when kids are dealing with issues in their lives,” explained Sam Hess, a 5th grade teacher at KCAA. “The strategies and tools are already built in for them to self-diagnose and intervene themselves and become the person that they want to be.”
Christina Garcia, a 3rd grader, reported that mindfulness has made her a better sister. “Mindfulness calms you down when you are mad at someone and you want to hit them. You can breathe and it calms you down, and you don’t hit them,” she explained, later adding that the “someone” she usually wanted to hit was her brother.
Joel Gatica, the 5th grader who led the Mindful Moment at Wellness night reflected that, “Mindfulness is more than just relaxing and breathing in, it’s about controlling yourself.” Joel was able to control his fear and become a leader to over 100 peers and parents with a few deep breaths.
A long-term goal of KCAA is to leverage the leadership potential within their young students to encourage the spread of these stress resilience and trauma healing practices into the Barrio Logan community. Vice Principal Shelly Baca posited, “Can our students bring those strategies to their little brothers and sisters who are experiencing the same trauma and stress? Can they teach mom, who is overworked and overstressed, to take a second to help herself so she can then take care of them? That is our hope, that by bringing Mindfulness to our 3rd through 5th graders it will slowly begin to spread down, and spread up, ultimately spreading through the entire neighborhood.”
It is evident that one of the greatest triumphs of KCAA’s Dynamic Mindfulness program has been to empower students with the life skills to be the change they wish to see in themselves, so that they can change the world around them one breath at a time.