November 20, 2019

Profiles in Education: Pause, Breathe — Finding Equilibrium And Self-Awareness in the Classroom

MINDFULNESS: Erin Galbraith teaches mindfulness to all levels, preschool through middle school, at Princeton Montessori School, helping overwhelmed children and teachers “to be able to stop and pause, use their breath to find equilibrium, and allow their nervous system to balance.”(Photo courtesy of Princeton Montessori School)

By Donald Gilpin

Erin Galbraith had been teaching yoga in the area when she started an after-school program at the Princeton Montessori School, where her son and daughter were enrolled. Her classes were popular, so she offered an additional class for parents, and then started teaching teachers some yoga once a week after school, emphasizing with them the value of taking care of yourself. 

One day five years ago Head of School Michelle Morrison came to her with a vision for a program that would involve all the students in the school. “I didn’t have to sell anyone on anything,” Galbraith said. “She came to me with ‘This is our need. I want you to do this.’ and I said ‘great.’”

Galbraith continued, “She was seeing children who were very busy outside of school, with a lot on their plates in this sped-up culture. I think she was feeling that they needed a way to resource that inner calm that lies inside us, to help children become aware of their inner world. I think she knew this would be a real resource for children in this chaotic world.”

“We weren’t really calling it mindfulness then,” Galbraith said. “It was just a moment of quietness, with maybe some yoga too. It has morphed into what it is now,” a weekly mindfulness program called Tune In in every classroom.

Morrison explained, “Our values in Montessori include a commitment to knowing oneself, managing stress effectively, and connecting to something greater than oneself,” all of which accord with the basic principles of mindfulness education.

“Erin began meeting weekly with our preschool through middle school students and after a year really felt the kids were adopting life skills that improved their mental health and social-emotional interaction,” Morrison added. “From there, we decided to expand and also include the teachers in training and application, so mindfulness became a part of our day, all day long.” 

Drawing on her work with MindUP, a program of the Goldie Hawn Foundation based on helping children through using the brain to calm oneself, and the Mindful Schools program, Galbraith began to hone her approach.

“It’s largely about repetition,” she said. “I start every class — it doesn’t matter the grade level — the same way and I end the same way. I ring a bell and ask people to put on their mindful bodies and listen to the sound of the bell and to raise their hand when they can no longer hear the bell. Being very intent on this repetition, the children know what to expect each time.”

Galbraith’s weekly classes are 15 minutes long for the younger grades and 30 minutes for the older children, but in many classrooms the teachers have chosen to extend mindfulness lessons. 

The teachers, who participate in the class exercises, “are then able to use the ideas and the language for the rest of the week,” Galbraith said. “If I’ve taught a certain breath that helps to calm a child, for example, then teachers can use it throughout the week as needed.”

Many teachers have adopted Galbraith’s strategy for helping children to make transitions, for example, from being outside during recess to coming inside to their desks. “The teachers have a strategy and a vocabulary to teach children, and the children know what is expected, and they can readily use that tool to calm down or focus,” she said.

Other mindfulness techniques help teachers and students to deal with conflict in the classroom or anger or fights with siblings or nervousness about a test, performance, sporting event, or even insomnia.

“Yes, teachers do use these techniques, and several teachers have also gone and taken mindfulness classes themselves,” Galbraith said. “Teachers tell me they’re practicing it in the classroom, and they see the children practicing it.”

Galbraith has watched her program grow each year, and she sees progress manifested in the behavior of the students, in the teachers, and the school as a whole. She is optimistic about the future of the program and particularly about the long-term impact on the students. 

“My hope for the program is that these children will continue to learn and know that as things get overwhelming around them — whether it’s the global news or the distractions of the computer or the bombardment of information — they will have a choice to recognize that they’re feeling overwhelmed, and they will be able to stop and pause and allow their nervous system to balance, and they’ll use their breath to find a little more equilibrium. And I hope they’ll have a thoughtful response rather than a knee-jerk reaction to what’s going on in the world.”

Galbraith is also hopeful that mindfulness education will continue to spread far beyond Princeton Montessori. She taught a teacher anxiety workshop for Princeton Public School teachers this past summer, where she talked about pausing and breathing as an important technique for controlling anxiety, “especially when a child is being inundated by anxiety or fear.” She added, ”I would love to see mindfulness education as part of their program in the public schools.” 

Galbraith summed up her thoughts about the importance of mindfulness, “simply bringing your awareness to your own experience,” and particularly its value in the stressful modern world.

“We are suffering in many ways because we are so focused on all these external pressures, the pace of life, and being disconnected from one another. We need to begin to pause and draw our awareness back to ourselves so that we become more comfortable with being with our inner world. Then we can examine more closely how we feel, how we react, how we relate to other people.”

She continued, “I tell the children it’s about finding our home base — this body, this breath that’s with us always, and it can provide a place to rest.”