HAMMOND — The teacher told the fourth-graders to think about something that made them happy, then breathe that positivity in.
Then she instructed them to envision something that caused them to be upset and, when they exhaled, to let go of that negativity.
"Where are you breathing from?" asked the instructor, Robin Sizemore.
"Your stomach," a student replied.
"Your diaphragm," Sizemore confirmed. "Like you're filling a balloon."
"Imagine the oxygen coming straight in from the trees," she went on. "And every time you breathe out, you're giving carbon dioxide to the trees."
She instructed them to send love, first to someone they adored, then to someone who's made them angry, then to themselves.
These types of exercises are familiar to those of us who have tried meditation, but to the Hammond elementary school students it was an introduction to the ancient healing technique.
Schools across the country, particularly those in inner-city neighborhoods, have increasingly been introducing practices like meditation and yoga into the classroom, as a way to reduce kids' anxiety and hyperactivity without the use of medication.
Natural healing spreading in schools
Sizemore, a reading interventionist at Morton Elementary, recently learned how to teach meditation at a program in Baltimore that brings it into schools there. That organization, the Holistic Life Foundation, works in neighborhoods that deal with some of the same social issues, albeit on a larger scale, than Hammond: gangs, violence, poverty.
"We want to serve the underserved," Sizemore said. "I can pay $20 for a yoga class. A lot of our parents don't even have insurance."
Sizemore also started her own nonprofit, Superhero Training & Supply, that aims to help students with stress reduction, homework and creative writing, through the in-class mindfulness training and after-school tutoring. She also hopes to calm her fellow educators. Superhero Training is hosting its first Teacher Relaxation Night later this month at Highland's Lincoln Center; the event will feature yoga, breathing exercises and meditation.
Sizemore's compatriot from nearby Irving Elementary, instructional coach Barb Stegenga, is bringing meditation to her facility, while schools elsewhere in Hammond and Griffith also have showed interest.
"There's a lot of stress in education right now," Stegenga said. "We want to be able to serve not only the students but the teachers as well."
Sizemore hopes to eventually integrate yoga into the classrooms, and one day have a space where other local schools can come for meditation field trips. She has been applying for grants and started a GoFundMe page to expand the program. She later plans to do data analysis, to find out if behavioral incidents drop in the classes that do meditation.
Benefits of meditation proven
Research has found that meditation reduces stress, illness and depression and improves sleep and mental clarity. A recent Harvard study found that it takes eight weeks for meditation to produces changes in the brain. But just over a month in, teachers at Morton Elementary are already noticing the difference in their students.
"You can definitely feel the energy shift in the classroom afterward," said Shari Barton, who teaches fourth grade. "It's a nice way to calm the students down in an organized manner. It gets them on the same wavelength."
Sally Will's third-graders often are amped up after their afternoon lunch and recess, making it difficult to teach them math. "The meditation has really calmed them down," she said. "After a couple of minutes of it, they're calm and ready to do the lesson."
And once the kids learn meditation, they do it at home.
"It helps me relax," said fourth-grader Damiyah George, 9. "It's easy to make me angry. A lot of times when I get angry I meditate."
She said the other day her mom got upset, and Damiayah asked her if she wanted to meditate. "We meditated, and it calmed her down," Damiyah said.
"This actually happened last night," she added. "My brother scared me with a mask. Usually I would yell and hit him. Now if I stop and take the time to breath, it will help me stay calmer."
Analeeze Gillen, 9, said her sister gets on her nerves as well, but since she started meditation she's been less likely to lash out at her sibling. The fourth-grader said everyone in her home, including her parents, has been arguing less since she showed them the meditation exercises she learned at school.
"My brother makes me so angry," noted Vinny Monteleone, 10, a fourth-grader. "I used to push him around a lot. Now I walk away and do the breathing."
Then he demonstrated. He took a deep breath in through his nose, plugged his nostrils then exhaled through his mouth. "Ahh," he said, as he let it all out.