With a crowd of school staff, parents and students gathered for a final Battle of the Books competition at Red Rock Elementary School, one young competitor crossed her arms, slowly patting each one.
For the school's social worker Danette Jones, the student's mindfulness-based movement showed her lessons were sticking.
She brought the story to a Mindful Movement lesson, where she leads fourth graders through a series of yoga-based movements. The weekly sessions are part of South Washington County Schools' budding mindfulness curriculum for elementary schools.
Over the past four years, the district has been working to integrate mindfulness skills into classrooms, which has allowed students to build relationships and academic skills by honing their ability to self-calm and focus. With positive results, staff began finding ways to work the techniques into different grade levels. The work is also part of an effort to meet recently added statewide socio-emotional learning benchmarks, Jones said.
"The sooner they learn them, the easier they are to use," Jones said. "We don't want to wait until middle school or high school where we have even bigger issues with mental health issues and stress."
While the exact structure varies by school and age group, at Woodbury's Red Rock Elementary School, students progress along a tiered system. In kindergarten, they learn about simple yoga-based movements, such as child's pose, with the help of storytelling.
"One of the kindergarten teachers would do something like, 'Start out as a seed,' and that looks like child's pose," Jones said. "'And now you're going to grow, and kneel, and reach towards the sun.' You just work all that into a story."
In some of the first and second grade classrooms, teachers focused on a three-pose series to help students focus, calm themselves and feel awake. Students then made posters of themselves doing the poses to go around the classrooms.
In another case, students returned from winter break to a "deep breathing challenge," where classrooms could track how often they practiced deep breathing. If they met 30 days, they earned another mindfulness session with Jones.
"Third grade is when we really hit it, because that's when we start MCA testing," Jones said.
The first year they began teaching mindfulness movements and self-calming techniques to third graders, 90% met or exceeded math standards on the MCA, Jones said.
"One of the teachers said to me, I was doing this all wrong — I was doing jumping jacks and trying to get them all revved for the test," Jones said. "These are life skills. They are based in research and they work."
High-achieving schools such as Red Rock often see anxiety among students because of high expectations, Jones said. It's not uncommon for second graders to have bouts of perfectionism.
"Their personalities are more highly wanting to conform and be a pleaser, and so all that just kind of tips the scales a little bit in that direction," she said. "We talk about how to make the brain happy, how to be positive ... being able to talk positively and give a pep talk to yourself, that's important."
Yoga in the classrooms has become increasingly common nationwide. In Minnesota, Kathy Flaminio began teaching yoga-based movement to students ahead of the trend in 2005. The movement began growing between 2007 and 2010, she said.
Now, she serves as the national director of training development for Yoga Calm, a program in which she has guided thousands of professionals in yoga-based movement and emotional regulation strategies for use in settings including classrooms. She's worked with teachers around the state, including staff at South Washington County Schools.
"We’re teaching teachers how to read bodies," Flaminio said. "People are always trying to calm kids down, but they need to release. So if you're really upset, let’s do a releasing breath, or a plank or down-dog. We teach how to use these different movements to get a certain effect. And the kids learn what works for them."
As the trend has spread across districts and states, Flaminio says she's seeing improvement in attendance, students' time spent on tasks and relationship skills. She's also had teachers report lower noise levels overall and less students being referred out of the classroom for behavior issues.
"Teachers are saying, this saved my life this year, or, this is totally changing how I’m teaching," she said. "We get comments like this all the time. "