Relaxation leads to learning for students

crosenblum@centredaily.comFebruary 22, 2014 

— Peter Montminy is a child psychologist, not a magician, but he pulled off a neat trick Friday at Park Forest Elementary School.

Montminy transformed a class of third and fourth graders seated before him into a still and silent circle, their eyes closed, hands resting in laps.

“Wow, you just did your first practice of mindful body, your first practice of mindfulness,” Montminy said after the meditative minute ended. “What did you notice?”

And the children’s introduction to Mindful Attention Training continued.

Montminy, the founding director of MidStep Centers for Child Development in State College and Altoona, embarked on an 8-week program that aims to help Park Forest students cope more calmly and thoughtfully at school and in their lives.

“During the course of that, one of the primary takeaways is going to be shifting from a reflexive, reactive mode to a reflective, responsive mode of dealing with challenges, and teaching your children how to do that,” Montminy told parents and teachers Thursday at an orientation.

His curriculum of 15-minute, twice-weekly training sessions for four classes is based on the concept of “mindfulness” — paying close attention to present moment experiences. Strategies emphasize focusing on thoughts, feelings and sensations as well as surrounding sights, sounds and social interactions.

“It teaches you to pay attention to paying attention,” wrote Park Forest Principal Donnan Stoicovy to parents in a letter explaining the program.

“Neuroscience studies have shown that learning to mindfully focus your attention reduces stress, while increasing calmness and concentration skills in both children and adults.”

Trained in the Mindful Schools curriculum, Montminy already has taught the 16-session program as a consulting psychologist at Gray’s Woods and Radio Park elementary schools. This semester, he’s providing guidance at State College Area High School as well as Park Forest.

Stoicovy, a longtime yoga student, said a Park Forest study group had been researching mindfulness as a potential benefit for students before the school reached out to Montminy.

“We thought, ‘Well, we have a pretty open mindset here. Let’s dig a little deeper into mindfulness,’ ” she said.

Montminy, who said he hopes to spread the program to other local schools, covers sharpening listening skills, focusing thoughts, calming emotions and acting kindly toward others, among other topics.

He said many children are swept up in the frenetic pace of modern life, overwhelmed, just like their parents and teachers. Continual stress often leads to primitive “fight or flight” responses, when “we get disconnected from the calm, rational, thinking part of our brain, and what’s involved is the emotional part,” Montminy told parents.

“We have a lot of impulsive reacting to things, rather than thoughtful responding to things,” he said.

To kick off his first lesson in Becky Conner’s third and fourth grade class, Montminy defined mindfulness as “a special skill of being able to focus on what’s happening right here, right now.”

He had the children practice “mindful bodies” — sitting “like a statue” — and listening in silence to their environment.

Students told him they felt relaxed, heard their heartbeats and the heater’s hum or found their thoughts drifting to memories.

“So automatically, when we get still and quiet, that allows us to notice things that we hadn’t before,” Montminy said.

Halfway through, he pulled out a brass singing bowl. Before striking a ringing tone, he asked his audiences to not only assume their mindful body poses, but also to put on their “mindful ears” and listen carefully.

When they couldn’t hear the tone any more, they raised their hands.

“Look at the power of concentration we’re already developing,” Montminy said. “You guys are really good at this.”

Dawn Ebbs’ first and second grade class also is participating in the program.

Ebbs said her daughter, Lilly, a Radio Park third-grader, absorbed Montminy’s instruction so well last year, she still uses mindful strategies to help fall asleep at bedtime.

“She takes time now to actually think about things without reacting,” Ebbs said.

Jo Morrison, a Park Forest counselor, said school counselors and teachers want to continue the curriculum and eventually extend it to all the students “to keep it going after Peter has started it.”

The strategies, she said, could help students handle tests, sports, the arts and anything else they tackle.

“I think this is a wonderful thing to have in your toolbox,” she said.

Montminy’s students each will keep a journal to record thoughts after lessons. He ended their first on a reflective note — literally — for his usual farewell.

“I’ll ask you one more time: Please be seated in your mindful bodies. And we’ll all join together, just three gentle breaths as we listen to the closing bell,” he said, the ringing tone stretching to silence.

Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620. Follow him on Twitter@CRosenblumNews.

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