Jane Preksta, 5, leaned against her classmate and began to breathe slowly.
Back to back, Jane and A’Miracle Owens-Bennett, also, 5, giggled as they started to breathe in unison.
“Try to sit very still,” McClellan Elementary kindergarten teacher Melissa Wahl said softly across the dimly lit classroom, where students quietly followed her instructions. “Give me a thumbs-up if you feel your breathing is the same as your partner’s.”
Inside kindergarten classrooms across the West Jefferson Hills School District, students are learning ways to stay calm and focused, as the district introduced mindfulness as part of its full-day kindergarten program, which started this school year.
They practice only a few minutes each day, but teachers already say they’re seeing a difference.
“It’s a tool I never really had before,” Wahl said. “We have a targeted way to solve problems.”
Mindfulness is the art of being in the present moment.
“It’s as simple as teaching kids to pay attention, to focus and to relax,” Superintendent Michael Ghilani said.
After reading studies about the “alarming rate of mental illness in adolescents and children across the United States” and reading how mindfulness is helping to lower anxiety, depression and emotional outbursts, Ghilani said he wanted to introduce it to the district.
“We were all taught, ‘Count to 10 backwards.’ Mindfulness kind of takes that to a whole new level,” Ghilani said. “Life is hard. Life as a teen, life as an adolescent is hard. So if we can give them any skills to cope and get by, I think we’re doing them a service and we’re helping our kids.”
This summer, the district brought in a representative from the Himalayan Institute for a half-day to teach all of the kindergarten teachers about mindfulness.
Teachers learned what happens to the body when it’s stressed and about breathing techniques and exercises to do with students to help them stay or get calm, Wahl said.
“It’s been a game-changer for me with this full-day program,” said Wahl, who has taught kindergarten or first grade for 17 years.
Each teacher is using it how they see fit for their classroom, Ghilani said.
Wahl uses mindfulness after her students come inside from running around on the playground for recess.
Some days, she’ll read them a story first and have them visualize they’re part of it.
Wahl then then leads them through yoga sequences.
During a recent class, everyone in the room listened and quietly got into the “warrior pose,” with their front knee bent and arms in the air. Wahl reminded them to let go of anything that happened on the playground, like if someone took their swing.
“It’s relaxing,” said Lily Taylor, 5. “I really like all of it. It’s really fun. It’s kind of like making yourself feel calm so you can let out all of your sillies after recess.”
Wahl will even have the students get out one of their “stuffies” and lay on their backs and breathe slowly while putting their plush animals to sleep.
“It feels like I want to take a nap,” Jane said with a smile.
To end each session, Wahl has the students face each other. Rather than the traditional “namaste,” she asks them to say to one another: “I like you. You are my friend. Have a nice day.”
Wahl also will use mindfulness when her students seem disengaged to get them back on course.
Gill Hall Elementary teacher Lynn McCullough, who has been going to Yoga Innovations in Bethel Park for more than a year, used her knowledge of poses and the training teachers received to introduce moves to the classroom.
“They need to know how to calm themselves,” she said. “They don’t have their grown-ups, they don’t have their blankie or their teddy bear.”
With the switch to full-day kindergarten, McCullough said, it made sense to give students a time to get a release and get their energy out.
“I feel like it’s a major component of our day,” she said.
She started by showing the students one or two moves a day and reading them books about yoga.
“They need to get out of the seat. They need to have the movement, and I think it helps them refocus back to what they need to do,” she said. “I think it’s very beneficial.”
Devyn O’Dea, 5, enjoys yoga so much, she went home and showed her mom how to do the moves. She even created her own move she calls “the banana,” where she bends her arms forward in the shape of the yellow fruit.
“I like it. It feels good. It’s relaxing,” she said.
Stephanie Hacke is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.