Kindergarten students at Glencoe's South School participate in a mindfulness lesson. (Photo courtesy of District 35.)
A soft, hollow ring echoes through Kirsten Cimino’s second-grade class. Immediately, her students’ attention is drawn to the woman at the front of their classroom, their mindfulness facilitator, Katie Kolbe. The chatter stops, little bodies shifting and straightening to sit tall.
As Katie rings the singing bowl a second time, the room falls silent. It’s shocking to see a room of 6- and 7-year-olds so calm and attentive. They take a big “belly breath,” filling their lungs with fresh air, and are ready to begin their mindfulness lesson for the day.
This fall, Glencoe School District 35 took an innovative and revolutionary step toward student well-being. For six weeks this school year, every single classroom in the district will receive 20 minutes of mindfulness instruction each week.
“When you look at what is happening in the world right now, there is more responsibility being put on educators and school systems to create change,” says Glencoe’s West School Principal Dr. David Rongey. “We need to emphasize patience, good character, and understanding others.”
In collaboration with Grow Through Mindfulness, a nonprofit from Wilmette-based mindfulness studio Full Bloomed Lotus, the district hopes to grant students the tools to deal with the ever-increasing pressure of being a young person in an education system that is facing unmatched levels of violence.
The Grow Through Mindfulness Team from left to right: (back row) Lori Lichtman-Sander, Lori Laser, Becky Pontarelli, Christine Colbin Casper, Lori Muller, Sharon Bussell, Lisa Cohen, Elizabeth Whittle; (front row) Patti Interrante, Julie Freeman, Ramaa Krishnan, Danna Kriser, Prabha Sridhar, Katie Kolbe. Not pictured: Jane Pasin, Margie Falter, Ann Barbour, Julie Concannon
Full Bloomed Lotus Community
Ramaa Krishnan moved to Wilmette from India in 1998 and is the founder of Full Bloomed Lotus and Grow Through Mindfulness. She describes mindfulness as “activities we can learn to do so that we can be present, unbiased, and open to whatever is unfolding in any given moment.”
Ramaa, who came to mindfulness through a spiritual teacher after her own difficult teenage years in 1982, says it has enhanced her life to such a great degree that she cannot understand how people function without it.
She founded Full Bloomed Lotus Center for Self-Awareness in 2007. And from there, her students grew into a peaceful army of wellness warriors determined to better their families and their communities.
Bringing Mindfulness to District 35
The idea to pilot mindfulness in this year’s District 35 curriculum came to fruition when a long-time student of Ramaa’s, now Board Member and Business Development Director Lori Muller, approached her with the idea to bring GTM to her local school district — a district that she knew was special, having raised and supported two daughters through it. Last spring, Ramaa and Lori brought the idea to the attention of Glencoe School District Superintendent Catherine Wang.
For Dr. Wang, who has been with the district for 24 years, the decision to bring mindfulness into her school district was a no-brainer.
“The last several years we have seen such an increase in student anxiety, depression, and stress at earlier and earlier grade levels,” she says. “The students are struggling and as a result, so are their families.”
The Grow Through Mindfulness program had initially been piloted in Harper Elementary School in Wilmette, but the Glencoe School District is the first district-wide mindfulness initiative in the area.
Figuring out how to both fund the program and integrate it into the school day was what they anticipated to be the biggest hurdle. But, graciously, and without hesitation, the Glencoe PTO committed to funding the entire project as a dedication to helping students develop lifelong skills that will benefit them on whatever path they choose in the future.
“Bringing mindfulness to the classroom makes a statement,” says Ramaa. “It teaches our students that understanding how to live and move through the world is just as fundamental as math and science. It should not be an optional course, because life is not optional.”
Grow Through Mindfulness and the district decided it would be best to start the six-week program in October so that students could continue to benefit from it throughout the rest of the school year. Before beginning the program with students, Ramaa held an introduction to mindfulness for teachers in August. Then she hosted a workshop for all of the district’s educators during Teacher Institute Day in September. The workshop both familiarized Glencoe’s teachers with the lesson plan and emphasized to them that their well-being is just as important as their students’.
So far, teachers, students, and families have embraced the program wholeheartedly. Parents have even reached out to the district and individual teachers to thank them for bringing this program to their child’s classroom. Dr. Rongey said he even walks into his school’s classrooms and sees teachers taking their own initiative to schedule time for mindfulness into the school day.
Inside the Classroom
Weekly lessons begin with a review of what the class learned the previous week and then introduce a new topic. Skills are solidified with an interactive activity and ways for the students to practice their new mindfulness tools at home. Lessons are dynamic and engaging, but also provide students with refuge from the stress of their daily lives. Even Mrs. Cimino’s second-graders expressed the sentiment that they just had too much on their plates. These 20 minutes of stillness and reflection are giving students the important opportunity to learn to regulate themselves from an early age.
The curriculum builds upon previous lessons, covering topics such as mindfulness, breathing techniques, emotion regulation, body awareness, responding mindfully, and cultivating kindness toward ourselves and others. The lessons differ slightly between grade level to ensure they’re appropriately digestible for each age.
Lessons are taught by qualified mindfulness facilitators, like Katie Kolbe, who were students of Ramaa’s and have undergone training with Mindful Schools, a California-based mindfulness education program, in order to bring this program to Glencoe. Teachers are passionate, kind, and extensively knowledgeable about the science and research behind why mindfulness works as well as it does.
Mindfulness facilitator Katie Kolbe teaching a second grade class.
One such facilitator, Lori Laser, who raised four children through the Glencoe Schools, says it is incredibly humbling to be able to give back to and grow with the district in such a profound way. Lori also works to bring mindfulness to underserved and marginalized communities because she believes it is an incredible tool for empowerment and change.
So, What’s Next?
After the GTM program finishes their six weeks with the district, Dr. Wang plans to reinforce the skills through “Mindful Minutes” in the morning over the PA system. The idea behind Mindful Minutes is to start the school day with minute-long meditations pre-recorded by Ramaa and other mindfulness facilitators. Dr. Wang also talked about giving teachers recordings like the Mindful Minutes to utilize after high-energy times like lunch and recess, or when the class is having a hard time getting focused. District 35 also plans to continue offering programs for teachers into the new year.
Ramaa hopes to nurture and grow this conscious circle of educators and families by adding more schools and districts to the Grow Through Mindfulness ledger because she believes change comes about through community.
“By creating peace in our own lives, we begin contributing to the world in a more positive way,” Ramaa explains. “We change the world outside, only by changing the world within.”
Madison Muller is a senior at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, learning to navigate the contemporary media environment with compassion and candor. She enjoys writing about health, travel, and humanity. You can always find her with a coffee in hand. Madison is a proud supporter of the National Eating Disorders Association.