Glitter jars, breathing balls fight children's stress
Posted 1:01 a.m. Sunday
CARROLLTON, Texas — Henry Zavala slowly expanded a plastic rainbow-colored sphere in front of his classmates at Davis Elementary School. The first-graders sat in a circle at the front of the classroom with crossed arms and eyes closed as they all took a deep breath in sync with the colorful expanding toy.
"I feel calm. C-A-L-M," Henry, 6, told The Dallas Morning News (http://bit.ly/2dTM5Zk) after the breathing exercise.
The "breathing ball," as it's known among the students, is one of several mindfulness techniques the Carrollton school has adapted within the past three years. Lisa Williams, the school's principal, said she became interested in self-regulation after reading several articles on the subject.
She said she decided to implement mindfulness-based exercises in the classroom because they can help students better handle stress and regain their focus.
"We are at a high poverty school and the students can have lots of trauma," Williams said. "I know that can make it difficult to learn."
Classrooms at the school are equipped with "breathing balls" and "glitter jars" that are used at least once a day.
The glitter jars are made with a plastic bottle, water and glitter glue that students shake when they become distracted. The students will then sit and wait until the glitter falls to the bottom of the bottle to help them regain their focus before returning to their work.
Fourth-grader Frany Tullis said her friend gave her a jar after commenting on how pretty she thought it was. She now uses it to calm herself down at home when she's frustrated with her brother.
"I use it a lot, especially when my brother gets on my nerves," Tullis said.
The classes also have "calming stations" where students can sit, either voluntarily or by their teacher's suggestion, when they feel they need a breather.
Students are also taught to use hand gestures to let their teachers know when they feel upset or are getting close to "flipping their lid."
Lynsi Christiansen, a fourth-grade math teacher, said her students will ask her to start a mindfulness session for the whole class when they feel they all need a few minutes to regain their focus.
"It's a language we can share and it helps build a sense of community," she said.
Each classroom has adapted its own way mindfulness methods based on its students' needs.
Jesus Prieto, a first-grade bilingual reading and language arts teacher, has his students sit at their desks with their eyes closed while he plays ambient music from his phone.
Other classes have "wiggle strings," a thick piece of elastic placed under desks so students can wiggle their feet. This helps those who have difficulty staying at their desks move around without having to get up.
Sonia Nguyen, a fourth grade bilingual language arts teacher, said she was skeptical of the mindfulness methods at first. She said she soon realized the exercises were an effective way to communicate with her students and boost their inner-confidence.
"They are learning self-control and it's giving them a way to prepare themselves to not be threatened by challenges," said Nguyen. "It helps them believe in themselves. We can tell them they can do something, but once they know they can then they own it."
Nguyen said the boys in her classes are now willing to open up and talk about their feelings and she has seen an improvement of grades from all of her students.
Kindergarten teacher Natonia Lafreniere said she was also a bit skeptical when Williams first told her about mindfulness but she now practices it with her students every day.
Lafreniere also helped lead a mindfulness session for Carrollton-Farmers Branch ISD faculty and staff this past summer.
"We read and share research based articles and data to show them," she said. "In training an adult you have to open their mind."
Davis Elementary School's counselor, Netti Prasad, said she has seen less conflict between students since it was decided to implement mindfulness interventions in classrooms.
"I had a fifth-grade student who was sobbing in my office and I couldn't understand what he was saying," she said. "He was so upset so he turned around, grabbed the breathing ball and used it to calm himself down."
Experts say data is still being gathered about the extent of the influence these types of exercises provide in promoting youth academics and behavioral and mental health. Dr. Nathaniel Riggs, a human development and family studies professor at Colorado State University, said that is because the field is relatively new and large-scale trials are limited.
Riggs said some small-scale studies have shown that mindfulness practices can promote youth self-regulation, impulse control and have also been shown to decrease stress. Although mindfulness may not directly affect academic performance, there has been some evidence that shows it may enhance student readiness to learn and as a result, indirectly improve their academic performance.
Prasad said the school's environment has improved a lot in the past three years and students have even asked her to help them create glitter bottles to help them away from school.
"Students tell me about how they are using them at home," she said. "That's what makes me happy to hear."