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A visit to one Florida school where mindfulness is helping youngsters succeed

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Would you linger with me for just a moment for this story on mindfulness? Taking a few minutes to breathe and relax and center yourself. Mindfulness helps people get calm and focused and also apparently helps kids. Research suggests students who are more mindful have better grades and fewer absences. NPR's Pien Huang paused a moment, gave this some thought and visited a school in Florida.

(CROSSTALK)

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: It's 8:30 on a sunny, winter morning. The cafeteria tables at the Sullivan Elementary School are packed with kids hanging out, catching up and eating breakfast.

DAVE MCMEEN: So they have an apple strudel. They have fruit juice. They have a banana and milk.

HUANG: Principal Dave McMeen is wearing many hats this morning. He's greeting students, picking wrappers and banana peels off the floor and lining up the kids to send them off to class. Lesson one is self-control.

MCMEEN: So show me that right now by facing forward. Show me your toes. Show me your hands. Now show me your body. That means your body is still. When your body is still, then our mind is still, and we can focus.

HUANG: Sullivan Elementary School is a public school. It partners with a local nonprofit called Metropolitan Ministries which supports poor and homeless families in Tampa Bay. Principal McMeen says many of the students come from the homeless shelter across the street, and they're dealing with serious stressors outside of school.

MCMEEN: Students experience these traumas of which sometimes they don't have control over. While we have them, what do we have control over? It's those few moments to say, OK, take that hurt, take that pain, let's figure out how we can release it.

HUANG: Research shows that chronic stress can shrink the brain, especially the parts that play a role in learning and memory, and that mindfulness helps reduce that stress. It's now 8:50 in the morning. Principal McMeen takes us to the second and third-grade classroom, where a mindfulness session plays over the loudspeaker.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Breathing in and out. Placing the hands on my heart. Repeating to yourself, I have the power to make wise choices.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: I have the power to make wise choices.

HUANG: The transformation is amazing. Seventeen rambunctious kids are now settled at their desks. Their eyes are closed, and today's session is about forgiveness.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Forgiveness. The practice happens on the inside of you.

HUANG: For a full eight minutes, they sit quietly. They're not even fidgeting as they contemplate mean things people have said to them and how to let that go.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And opening the eyes when you're ready.

HUANG: After the exercise, a student named Grace (ph) shares thoughts with the teacher on how mindfulness helps.

GRACE: It can help you, like, relieve the stress so you're not angry and you don't take it out on somebody else.

HUANG: I tell principal McMeen that the transition I just saw was remarkable.

MCMEEN: That's what I experience each and every day. So it's very busy. There's a lot of activity and a lot of things going on, but we come together really quick and then we have to settle.

HUANG: The school uses a daily mindfulness program called Inner Explorer. It's used in about 3,000 schools around the country. Laura Bakosh is the program's founder.

LAURA BAKOSH: We do have a lot of schools that are doing it for a couple of years now consistently and are seeing very substantial improvements in both student behavior as well as student performance.

HUANG: The program adapts well-tested stress reduction techniques. Traditionally, these involve intensive lectures, retreats and long daily practices, but Inner Explorer distills it to 10-minute sessions that can be integrated into the school day. For instance, inviting kids to tune in to the sounds they're hearing around them.

BAKOSH: So right in this moment, you can hear a siren in the background. So we don't tell them what they're hearing, but we just invite them to notice. And as they tune into their sense of sound, that literally is building an attentional skill from a brain standpoint.

HUANG: The same goes for tuning into how they're feeling and practicing how to let things go. Neuroscientist David Creswell at Carnegie Mellon University says that research on mindfulness is coming up with initial, promising results.

DAVID CRESWELL: Showing that mindfulness interventions can broadly reduce suffering. You know, reduce people's stress, reduce their depressive symptomatology, anxiety.

HUANG: But Creswell says there haven't been large-scale experiments to show how much of an impact it can have on the population level. That is, the science isn't there yet to show whether mindfulness can turn around big, systemic problems like loneliness and addiction. Back at Sullivan Elementary, a fifth-grader named Avery (ph) says he's been practicing mindfulness at school for years, and he finds it helpful.

AVERY: I do it some mornings, not every morning. I just - the mornings that I do it is so I can cope and, like, have a good day.

HUANG: He had just used it at home when he was stressing out over a reading assignment. Avery's day is shaping up to be a pretty good day. Science class this morning smells delicious. The teacher, Patti Ferlita, is making chocolate chip pancakes.

PATTI FERLITA: What makes...

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: Gas.

FERLITA: ...The bubbles? Say it again?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: Gas.

FERLITA: Gas. That's what I was looking for. Awesome. OK. So it's being released, right? That's why we see those bubbles. OK. That's one indicator.

HUANG: Ferlita has been a teacher with the school for 15 years. She says the growing focus on mindfulness has made a big difference with the students.

FERLITA: A lot of them really started getting out of the me, me, me, and they pay more attention to each other and each other's feelings. And I don't know if you saw, but when McKenzie (ph) answered something correctly there, they hugged her.

HUANG: The kids also high-fived and applauded each other when their classmates got things right. And if a kid is having a hard time, Ferlita says they get a chance to take a minute to breathe and get themselves together. These types of reinforcements during class allowed the kids to practice mindfulness throughout the day. It might take until these kids are adults to prove that what they're doing is having a lasting impact, but here at the Sullivan School, they're not waiting for that data because they're seeing the mindfulness working now. Pien Huang, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.