Students and staff members at Pickerington Elementary School this winter have implemented a new program centered around calming techniques and music that seeks to foster mindsets for classroom learning and quell anxiety and behavior issues.

Each morning and during lunch periods at Pickerington Elementary, a three- to five-minute piece of music from groups such as the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts or Opera Columbus prompts students to center their breathing.

The Mindful Music Moments exercises were created by Stacy Sims, who's also a novelist and children's book author.

Sims used "mindfulness" practices and exercise such as yoga to counteract her own anxieties and a battle with alcohol in the late 1990s.

Two years ago she developed her Mindful Music Moments program to help students in Cleveland Public Schools deal with their own emotional struggles and prepare themselves to learn during classes.

"This is a daily mindfulness and music program that creates a more calm, focused and balanced start to the school day," Sims said.

"Mindful Music Moments is about making a concerted effort to notice the world around us and within us.

"We notice our breathing. We notice our pulse. We focus on specific elements within the music. As a result, we're able to find stillness for our minds."

The program is used by about 40 schools in Cleveland and 20 in Cincinnati.

According to the Pickerington Local School District, when it was introduced at Pickerington Elementary as students and staff returned from winter break last month, the school became the first in central Ohio to adopt it.

"I had gone to an (Ohio Association of Elementary School Administrators) conference over the summer and Stacy led one of the sessions," said Lisa Lowe, a counselor at Pickerington Elementary.

"Over the last few years, there's been a lot of research around mindfulness and the benefits to students, teachers and schools."

Lowe said the few minutes students and staff take at the outset and middle of their days to relax and concentrate on breathing techniques show promise in helping chip away at barriers to classroom concentration and learning.

"It's just basically getting the students in tune with their own awareness of their bodies -- how their bodies are feeling or what their emotions and senses are doing in a movement," Lowe said. "The students enjoy taking time to decompress.

"I ask them to set their intentions for the day, something they're going to do for the day or for someone else. It's just a positive way to start the day, and it's also a way to say, 'We're in the school setting and if something happened during the morning or the day before, it's time to reset.' "

Sims visited Pickerington Elementary on Feb. 9 to discuss her program and talk to students about some of her children's books.

During a morning session in the school gymnasium, she led second- and fourth-graders through short, simple calming techniques like placing a thumb in their palm to find their pulses.

"Does anyone every get super-frustrated?" Sims asked "When you're super-frustrated, do you usually get stuck in frustration?"

After a student shared that "frustration stops" in his body and "takes a while for it to go away," Sims said exercises such as finding one's pulse and consciously slowing their rate of breathing can help them regroup.

"When we start to have frustration or stress or difficulty ... we want to be able to feel and move on," Sims said.

"Breathing and being aware of our breath and how it's moving through our bodies is the fastest way to move on."

Lowe said school officials were able to begin the program without interrupting classroom instruction time.

In addition to the selections from Columbus music groups, a voiceover from Sims is broadcast over the building's public address system and leads students and staff through a brief mindfulness exercise.

"The goal is to produce mental serenity in a world of constant external stimuli," said David Ball, the Pickerington Local School District's public relations director.

While some days students and teachers might be asked to think about how a music selection makes them feel, other days the prompt might simply ask them to think about slowing their breathing to create a sense of relaxation.

"This was a way I thought we could incorporate mindfulness concepts for every single student and teacher," Lowe said. "We ask them to just take a breath so they can have a better day."

nellis@thisweeknews.com

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