A federal judge recently ruled that an Illinois law requiring public school students to observe a moment of silence was unconstitutional. But in Chicago, some teachers are finding that moments of silence–achieved through practicing short, simple calming exercises throughout the day–are hugely beneficial to their students. They become much more relaxed, focused, self-aware, emotionally stable and ready to learn, not to mention better behaved.
Through a program called “Calm Classroom,” teachers lead their students in exercises, which consist of stretching, deep breathing and concentration techniques, to foster and maintain a peaceful classroom and effective learning environment. The exercises are done either sitting or standing and take from one to three minutes to complete. The techniques can be practiced whenever students begin a new subject, move to a new classroom or need to center themselves. For example, before a test, students can do deep breathing to clear their minds and focus. Or when children’s minds start to wander, the teacher can bring them back to attention by ringing a bell; the students then concentrate on the sound of the bell, and as it fades to silence, they notice the silence within themselves.
Calm Classroom is a three-hour professional development training program for kindergarten through twelfth grade school leaders and faculty, developed by founder and president of the Luster Learning Institute, Jai Luster. Jai, who is also a [Integral] Yoga instructor, had been teaching deep breathing exercises, meditation and chair Yoga to a group of staff and administrators at National-Lewis University in Wheeling. That group, said Jai, was active in the development of programs for schools and thought the techniques Jai was teaching them could be adapted to schoolchildren. They helped form a board of educational advisors for Luster Learning Institute.
The Calm Classroom program prepares teachers and school administrators to facilitate research-based classroom management techniques. The training is conducted in a three-hour workshop format. Participants receive a training manual and two CDs, and the teachers choose which exercises will be most age appropriate and beneficial for any particular classroom situation. After the training, the workshop leaders spend several hours with the principal to set up the program. Luster Learning also provides ongoing support through periodic classroom visits to assess the effectiveness of the practices and help teachers tailor them to the needs of the current students.
Last year five Chicago schools signed on to the program, including Gompers Elementary School on Chicago’s South Side. The principal, Melody Seaton, hoped the program would help eliminate behavior disorders at her school. On December 19, 2008, Fox News visited the school to film children practicing the exercises and to interview staff and students. One of the teachers reported an improvement in grades and in reading only one month after implementing the program. A student noticed that after doing an exercise, “We are quiet. Everybody is concentrating.” Another student said that when he has a difficult problem to solve, “I breathe in and breathe out, and I’ll feel better, and I’ll actually get the problem right.” Principal Seaton, beaming, said, “I was pleasantly surprised–pleasantly surprised.”
In an interview on “Chicagoing with Bill Campbell,” ABC-TV, on January 18, Jai shared that as a child, it had been difficult for him to stabilize and focus his mind. As he grew up, the tools of Yoga became a part of his personal journey. In addition to having a long corporate career in finance, from which he retired in the mid-90s, Jai has been teaching deep breathing, focusing and concentration techniques for 40 years.
Jai explained that until children learn techniques to manage stress, they act out. After they become aware of alternative ways to meet challenging situations, they let go of the more violent tendencies, and over time they develop an automatic ability to manage stress. In addition, says Jai, “The teachers throughout the day also calm down, and so they are dealing with disciplinary issues in a much more direct, comfortable way than they have ever been able to deal with before.…It has helped lower the need for disciplinary referrals.”
In addition, says Jai, “We get a lot of reports from the children about being able to deal with issues at home between their siblings and some of the more intense things with parents. They’ve gotten skills.”
Bill Campbell commented that Jai is “pioneering 21st century skills for dealing with life that are easily accessible–every one of us has what is necessary–without a lot of cost, to be able to be in a place of peace and calm and make choices and decisions where before we didn’t even think we had that opportunity.”
Jai commented that because Calm Classroom is presented by the teachers, schools save money, “and it benefits the teachers as much as the kids.”
Amy Lux, a children’s health/education advocate for Chicago Public Schools and founder of the Coalition for Children’s Health, met Jai at the Illinois Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance conference held in St. Charles, Illinois, in late 2007. She is very supportive of Jai’s program and points out its value in helping students transition between classes. “You can’t walk into a classroom after lunch or after switching classrooms and expect kids to turn their brains back on instantly,” said Amy. “Jai has all sorts of research from his program that show that doing his program a couple minutes here and there brings the attention span up immensely and adds up to an hour of extra teaching time, because there are fewer distractions from the students who have attention deficit or impulse control issues.”
By Sharon Steffensen, reprinted from Yoga Chicago magazine, March-April, 2009