The Mindfulness Initiative

School News
October 3, 2017

There are few instruments as powerful or as beautiful as the human mind and spirit. And with the right kind of training, the right direction, and the right “tools,” there is no limit or boundary to what one can accomplish with them. But molding a mind, like building a body or sharpening a skillset, can be an arduous journey—things like social stress, academic anxiety, and parental pressure can present challenges, and even roadblocks in the odyssey of education.

These stresses are bedrock trials for every student. We all experienced them in school, and today’s students are dealing with them just as future generations will. The problem is that these stresses hinder how kids interact with their education and can limit a student’s potential. They are bad for learning, to put it simply. And since these pressures aren’t likely to change any time soon, it follows that the education system needs to find new ways of addressing them…

Vail Mountain School’s new Mindfulness Initiative aims to do exactly that. It is an approach to teaching students how to quiet their minds, ground themselves in the present, reset and re-engage with the world to deal with challenges in a calm and collected manner; a mindset for managing both personal and academic stress.  

Dr. Kate Drescher, VMS staff psychologist, described it this way:

“We want to teach kids academics, but also to navigate the world in a way that makes them feel happier, and more grounded. We are weaving mindfulness through the entire k-12 curriculum because we feel it is so important. This is an essential part of preparation for college and life, the same as the academic work we do.”

But how does one teach a mindset?

To accomplish this, VMS partnered with mindfulness practitioners, UB.U (like “you be you”). This local non-profit based in Eagle also believes emotional wellness is imperative to academic success. Through mindfulness, movement and relaxation, UB.U teaches kids how to stay present during challenging situations, strengthening their emotional resilience and fortifying self-confidence. Their curriculum offers methods for managing emotions, regulating behavior, increasing focus and achieving both personal and academic success.

“Essentially, mindfulness practice helps train the brain.” Explained Anne-Marie Desmond, a representative of UB.U who is co-teaching the VMS mindfulness elective with Kate Blakslee.  “We’re tapping into the brain’s neuroplasticity; its ability to change and create new pathways for responding to challenges. Imagine skiing into a field of deep snow. Those first tracks are a little unstable and you created the path. If you ski back over those same tracks several times, they become entrenched and it’s difficult to ski out of the tracks. The brain works in the same way...It learns the pattern and can repeat it without much effort. This can work to our benefit (good habits) and our detriment (challenging habits). To create new habits we must practice. To change challenging habits we introduce a new way of operating and we must practice. We practice during moments of calm to imprint these tools so the brain remembers what to do during stressful situations.”

UB.U has worked with schools in the Eagle Valley before, but this is the first time they have implemented their curriculum on a K-12 scale in one school. Because of that, the mindfulness initiative at VMS includes lots of new ideas, and will likely continue to evolve and adapt as it settles into place.

“Our goal--or goals--at VMS, center around providing tools for students and teachers,” said Desmond. “Those tools may be used to strengthen focus and attention, to help participants learn more about themselves, their behavior and what makes them unique, to understand the concept of common humanity, and/or to practice gratitude, empathy and compassion.”

You won’t find gratitude and empathy in the everyday school curricula. Which is what makes this initiative so truly groundbreaking--it uses scientifically proven methods to help students develop focus and attention, self-awareness, and to demonstrate self-regulation, social awareness and compassion.

“It really started with Regina Hernandez, a student whose Senior Project, ‘A Mindful Community’, was designed to bring mindfulness into a third grade classroom,” explained Drescher, when asked about the origins of this initiative. “Regina partnered with UB.U  in addition to collaborating with Elena Georgouses, a VMS parent and skilled mindfulness practitioner, for her senior project. Then, over the summer, it grew and we thought ‘maybe we should bring mindfulness to the VMS community (including students and faculty) on a grander scale.’”

That “grander scale” has been realized for the 2017-2018 school year. The mindfulness initiative is being woven into the very fabric of VMS culture—for every age group from the upper school to the lower school, and even for the faculty who started their year with a mindfulness-focused retreat during faculty work week in August.

Faculty and Staff learning from UB.U mindfulness practitioners during the faculty retreat at Shrine Mountain Inn. 

The new upper school Personal Growth Program includes the mindfulness elective. Which is a semester-long course where students develop their own mindfulness skills, and then will later serve as mindful mentors for other students and teachers around the school. Anne-Marie Desmond of UB.U is partnering with veteran VMS teacher, Kate Blakslee, to teach the class. And so far, it has had very positive feedback. “We have worked out a ‘recipe’ for each class based on student feedback,” said Blakslee, describing the elective, “We begin with a guided meditation, then learn a new ‘tool’ or concept that will help with mindfulness, play a game that reinforces the concept, and end with a relaxation exercise. This may be the best part of the week for some students.”

Students practicing a guided meditation during the upper school mindfulness elective. 

Other examples of mindfulness practices in action can be found in all divisions of the school. Some are more formal, others are used as tools to help focus attention at a particular moment. Consider a few highlights: Kim Cope Tait, an upper school English teacher who is also a certified yoga instructor, has been working with VMS athletics teams to integrate mindfulness into the school’s sports programs through yoga. Middle schoolers will have the opportunity to take a mindfulness and yoga elective, taught by VMS parent and UB.U instructor, Tracy Clery. And in the lower school, children are participating in an after school Mindfulness Club where they practice yoga and other meditative exercises with Sasha Bilow, the lower school Spanish teacher. Mindfulness even found its way into a recent fourth grade hut trip where Bilow led a yoga practice at 10,500 feet on the deck of the the hut overlooking the surrounding mountains.

Lower School students practicing "Tree Pose" during the mindfulness after school club with Sasha Bilow. 

In many VMS classrooms, one might also find focus tools like glitter jars—repurposed water bottles containing liquid and glitter and when shaken create a sort of snow globe effect. The settling glitter provides something on which to focus attention and serves as a physical model for the settling of the mind. This tool is particularly useful during transitions back to the classroom from high energy activities like recess or break.

Third graders focus on a "Glitter Jar" at the end of their morning Homebase meeting. 

The mindfulness initiative isn’t just to the student’s advantage, either—the faculty also benefits on several levels. “We all find laughter as well as a sense of peace in each class.” Said Blakslee, speaking of her mindfulness elective. “The best part is that we are sharing the experiences together and learning and practicing a skill that has been around for thousands of years. We are having real conversations and relaxing into delightful quiet times. You can't help but leave the room feeling a bit lighter and centered.”

This kind of contemplative approach to cultivating student self-awareness and emotional wellness is progressive. And although this is the first year VMS and UB.U are working together, they are confident that this will become an important part of the school’s identity. When asked about her hopes for the Mindfulness Initiative’s first year, Dr. Drescher responded without hesitation:

“During our first year, I hope that we are exposing our community to this practice so people understand what it is … understand how beneficial it can be to one’s physical and psychological well-being … I know it will resonate with some more than others, but we want everybody to know what it is, how it works, and to begin to incorporate that into their lives.”

This story was contributed to VMS News by freelance writer, Will Brendza,  working in collaboration with the Vail Mountain School Advancement Office.