By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Jun 12, 2014 at 11:01 AM

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Parents, like teachers, know first-hand how kids can flare up. How a simple, "no," can lead to an "I hate you." Or how a perceived slight can lead to a physical altercation on the playground.

Teaching children mindfulness -- like teaching them math -- provides them a valuable skill and one that that will have practical applications every day of their lives, present and future.

Growing Minds is a Milwaukee non-profit that brings mindful awareness training -- in Spanish, too! -- to students in Milwaukee Public Schools, as well as a few others in the area.

"Being mindful means slowing down or ‘pausing’ before responding," says founder and president Susan Solvang. "Hitting the pause button allows one to move from the reactive mode to the thinking mode, where we use the smart part of our brain, or the pre-frontal cortex.

"The core skills we teach include the ability to focus, particularly through distraction, increase self-awareness skills so as to notice strong emotions and physical reactions of stress, and compassion skills including the ‘felt sense’ of kindness, generosity, gratitude and empathy. All our practices prepare the mind for intentional behavior and are founded on research that shows the brain has an ability to train itself through a trait called neuroplasticity."

According to Dr. Christine Molnar, mindfulness training is a secular form of Buddhist meditation and points to studies that show it can bring beneficial results.

"(It) reduces negative emotion and builds new brain cells in regions that play an important role in information and emotion processing," wrote in The Pennsylvania Psychologist Quarterly in June 2010.

Among the MPS schools that opened their doors to Growing Minds are Brown Street, Kilbourn, Cass Street, Escuela Vieau, Golda Meir, Hawley Environmental, Riley, Escuela Fratney, Maryland Avenue Montessori, Riverside University High, Reagan IB High and MC2.

Growing Minds' curriculum aligns with the PBIS behavioral interventions program that MPS uses and they can work with PBIS tier 2 students.

Lake Bluff in Shorewood, the private Milwaukee Jewish Day School and Shared Journeys, a charter school in the West Allis-West Milwaukee district, have also done training. Solvang says Growing Minds will branch out next year.

"We plan to do more training of staff in organizations and non-profits that interface with students," she says. "We have been asked do more training of the trainers. We are offering classes where staff in these organizations can be certified to use our curriculum to balance themselves and those they work with."

Growing Minds meets with interested schools to see if they will make the time commitment to the program. The fact that Solvang can help defray the cost of the program to schools via a scholarship makes the decision easier for many budget-challenged schools.

At Maryland Avenue Montessori, a parent heard of the program and arranged a meeting between Solvang and the school’s principal and school governance council chair (disclaimer: that was this writer).

"Our plan is to work with schools for at least two consecutive years so teachers and staff can better understand how to be more thoughtful and less reactive in the transitions of everyday school situations," says Solvang.

"Our outcomes improve the second year and buy-in is extremely high. Between the two years we offer training to deepen the understanding for teachers and provide curriculum training to increase sustainability."

The program can have a beneficial effect not just on students, but on staff, too, as is evidenced by testimonials from Cass Street School.

"For me, the practice of mindfulness provides a calming space within myself to recharge and continue with my day," said social worker Sarah Reuter.

"The short time we spend practicing mindfulness in the classroom repays us with more minutes spent teaching and fewer minutes spent redirecting student misbehavior," added third grade teacher Dave Kahn-Pettigrew.

"I am grateful for the positive impact mindfulness classes have had on the overall climate of our school. I am excited about the continued decrease in suspensions and increase in mutual respect displayed by our staff and students," said Principal Tyrone Nichols.

Anecdotally, my children approached the training eagerly and have said they enjoy it. They especially appreciate the calming moments that the training itself provides. My hope is that they’re internalizing what they learn and are finding ways, even subconsciously, to apply it in their daily lives.

"Responses from teachers, students and school administration has been extremely supportive," says Solvang. "Our outcomes show that teachers and students love our classes and use the practices we model, both in school and at home. Some of our highest outcomes include, feeling happier at school and at home, noticing strong emotions as they arise, focusing better, feeling kinder and calmer, and sleeping better."

The most difficult part for teachers, says Solvang, is remembering to schedule and then making time in already packed school days, for practicing the techniques. Growing Minds suggests four daily scheduled breaks of 30 to 60 seconds each.

These, she says, can serve as a release valve for children and adults alike.

"As the day moves forward stress builds up and both teachers and students can become more reactive. Allowing the mind to slow down throughout the day helps one to stay in the thinking mode and out of the reactive mode. Practicing in low stress environments will make for better abilities in high stress environments."

Again, speaking from personal experience, while my children say they like their mindful moments at school, there has been little apparent effect at home. 

However, Laura Bray, executive director of Menomonee Valley Partners, Inc., whose children attend Maryland Avenue Montessori School, says the training has had a positive effect on her family at home.

The language of 'taking a deep breath' and finding 'your mindful body' has been helpful to redirect (her son) Isaac and also calm us all down at home.  I find that we can channel focus and calm – and the mindfulness training / classes has helped.

"Isaac’s cousin attends Escula Fratney – where they also contract with Growing Minds.  It is fun to have family gatherings where they compare notes on their mindfulness lessons. Isaac doesn’t talk a ton about what happens in school – I usually have to drag it out of him. But he has said he appreciates the mindfulness work."

I asked Solvang how we can help them transfer their school-based knowledge to a different venue. She says that many parents have requested classes for themselves and scheduled as in-services at their children’s schools.

"Asking the child to be the teacher is a great way to encourage them to practice at home," she says. "Parents can be most supportive by asking their students what they learned in our classes and then practicing the skills together with their child. Parents often need cooling down time as much as their children and seeing a parent deliberately pausing is the best strategy for supporting your child."

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.