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After last year's brawl, Cheltenham schools try mindfulness to keep the peace

Nothing dramatizes the desire by Cheltenham school leaders to change the classroom culture better than the push for mindfulness instruction.

Cindy Goldberg, a mindfulness and positive psychology coach, leads a third- grade class in mindfulness training, at Glenside Elementary, in Glenside, PA, Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018.  JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer.
Cindy Goldberg, a mindfulness and positive psychology coach, leads a third- grade class in mindfulness training, at Glenside Elementary, in Glenside, PA, Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018. JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer.Read moreJessica Griffin

When teacher Cindy Goldberg stood before a classroom of 26 Cheltenham ninth graders for the first time on Monday, she asked them to put away electronic devices and challenged them to "think about a time in your life when you've done nothing: no TV, no eating, no nothing."

As the kids pondered such a rare event, Goldberg showed them a video of a woman walking toward an open cellar, then glancing down at her phone before tumbling over the cellar door into the void.

"How did she not see that?" a student blurted out.

"It happens," responded Goldberg, a former elementary school teacher who since autumn has been teaching mindfulness to students in the Cheltenham School District.  "Most of us are living our lives very, very distracted. You have social lives, tons of deadlines. You have a lot going on in your lives."

As Goldberg pivoted to deep-breathing exercises, she introduced students to a growing trend in American classrooms: using meditation to improve performance and behavior. But the class also marked a new front in the Montgomery County district's crusade to curb a disciplinary crisis that came to a head last spring in the diversifying suburb on Philadelphia's northern border.

Nine months ago, a hallway brawl at the 1,500-student Cheltenham High School injured seven teachers and staff and spawned viral videos as the teachers' union said a culture of violence and disrespect had spiraled out of control. The uproar led to an emotional community meeting and a pledge from Superintendent Wagner Marseille for radical new approaches to improve school climate and culture.

Since September, stricter measures have included tracking students as they entered the high school or lunchroom by swiping computer-chip cards. "Some of the kids perceive it as Big Brother," principal Ray McFall acknowledged, but the ScholarChip program has reduced loitering in the cafeteria.

Most new initiatives in Cheltenham, however, take the carrot approach to encouraging good conduct, rather than the stick of harsher discipline.

Through a program called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS, Cheltenham High School launched a youth court where student judges and juries decide minor disciplinary cases; turned to peer mediation to resolve disputes or bullying between kids; and worked with teachers to promote "restorative measures" aimed at teaching students to behave better, rather than just doling out punishments.

"With minor offenses, we're saying how can we have this be a learning experience and use it to establish or mend the relationship?" McFall asked. "If there's an incident where a student is disrespectful in class, rather than simply write a referral and have that student be disciplined, a more appropriate response might be a conversation between the student, parent, and teacher …"

More than a dozen new or strengthened initiatives since the May 2017 unrest also include three new climate and culture administrators, two new mental health and wellness counselors, a coordinator to work with students serving in-school suspensions, and mentoring partnerships with such groups as Black Men at Penn and the National Association of University Women-Suburban Philadelphia branch. Cheltenham-based Gratz College has worked with the district on a training program called Developing Strategies for Mediating Classroom Conflict.

New staffing has cost $648,503, according to the district, which did not provide the price for training and other programs.

McFall said that although he thought some perceptions in the community last year about chaos at Cheltenham High were exaggerated, he agreed that "respect was an issue," but he believes there's now a healthier culture in place.

"If I'm walking up behind a kid and they curse, I'll say, Can you please watch your language?" the principal said. "Last year, I might have gotten a negative response. This year, almost always they'll turn around and say, 'Sorry, Mr. McFall, I didn't see you there.' That's all I'm looking for." Statistics also tell a story of improvement, with disciplinary reports down 31 percent for seniors and 46 percent for juniors, class-cutting reduced by more than half, and no fights in the lunchroom.

But nothing dramatizes the desire by Cheltenham school leaders to change the classroom culture better than the push for mindfulness instruction. Goldberg, a former second-grade teacher who became interested in meditation to reduce stress about a decade ago, earned a certificate in applied positive psychology – along with 26 other Cheltenham teachers – and began working earlier this year with students in the district's four elementary schools, where she teaches six weekly lessons.

Like Cheltenham,  hundreds of schools across the country have implemented some form of mindfulness training, seeking to use meditation as a way to help students better focus, reduce stress, and improve their classroom performance.

On a recent visit to a third-grade class at Glenside Elementary, Goldberg asked the students whether their mindfulness exercises have helped so far. One said she was stressed over "a million projects" for school and that deep breathing calmed her. Another told Goldberg she turned to mindfulness when she got mad after her brother had taken some of her toys.

"I went to my room and took a mindful moment and I felt happy," the third grader reported.

Among the students' class exercises is circle breathing, in which they trace a circle with their fingers and breath in, then trace it the opposite way and breath out. They know the three parts of the brain – the prefrontal cortex, the hippocampus and the amygdala, which causes the fight/flight/freeze reaction in stressful situations.

For another exercise, Goldberg told students to close their eyes as she played sounds of the sea. She asked what they heard; the waves crashing, a seagull, the wind, they said.

"When you feel frustrated you can sit down and breath and that works for most people," Goldberg said.

Teachers seem sold on the benefits. "During a math lesson, the kids were antsy," said third-grade teacher Roshanna Floyd. "I said, Let's take a mindful moment. Everyone lies on the floor and breathes. After we went back to our lesson, they were much better."

Mindful breaks are even helping in kindergarten.  "They'll come to me throughout the day and say, 'I need to go to the peace corner' " – where there is a timer for breathing, "mindful" putty with lavender, and stress balls, said teacher Sue Dunham.

Goldberg is now taking the program into the high school, the epicenter of community concern. To start, she asked the ninth graders to try keeping their mind on one thought for a minute. A few students closed their eyes, while others put their heads down. Only four or five said they were successful.

Goldberg asked the kids to breathe through their noses and be mindful of each breath. "And just enjoy this moment. It's one of the few times in your day someone is going to ask you to do nothing. And doing nothing is good for you."

After class, some students said they'd already downloaded a meditation app called Calm on their smartphones and were ready to try mindfulness to help get through hectic school days.

"When you're little, it's fun being crazy," said Tatyana Scott, 15, who is loaded with homework and tests, "but now you've got to breathe."