At many schools, the third-grader would have landed in the principal’s office.
But in a hardscrabble neighborhood in West Baltimore, the boy who tussled with a classmate one recent morning instead found his way to a quiet room that smelled of lemongrass, where he could breathe and meditate.
The focus at Robert W. Coleman Elementary is not on punishment but on mindfulness — a mantra of daily life at an unusual urban school that has moved away from detention and suspension to something educators hope is more effective.
Here, students are referred to the Mindful Moment Room when they misstep or need calming. In a space decorated with bright curtains, lavender cushions and beanbags, program staff members coax students to explain what happened, to talk about their feelings, to breathe deeply.
The third-grader who scuffled with a classmate broke into tears. Staff member Oriana Copeland held his hand as they talked. There were no harsh words. He came around slowly.
“Inhaling deep,” she guided him. “Exhale and out.”
Mindfulness practices — becoming aware of emotions, staying in the present, using meditative breathing to reduce stress — are part of a schoolwide program at Coleman that has changed student discipline and, more broadly, affected the school’s culture. It is part of a larger effort by the nonprofit Holistic Life Foundation to bring yoga and mindfulness into Baltimore city schools and beyond.
Principal Carlillian Thompson said the practices help the school’s 378 students leave behind the stresses of their lives, including problems at home, violence on the streets and conflicts with friends, so they can get ready to learn. In a recent week, one student lost a parent and another experienced a house fire.
“When children come here, I want them to view this as a safe place, a safe haven,” Thompson said.
As mindfulness has become part of the school’s approach, Thompson said she has seen signs of success. There is more reflection, more awareness. “Children are more willing to take responsibility for their behaviors,” she said.
Schools across the country have increasingly embraced yoga and mindfulness practices, but few have done so with the whole-school approach Coleman is using, said Tamar Mendelson, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Research about the effect of mindfulness practices on children in school settings is still in its early stages, but there have been promising signs of social and emotional benefits, and a few studies have pointed to academic improvement, Mendelson said.
“The program seems to be working particularly well at Robert Coleman,” she said. “It is very powerful to hear students and teachers talk about positive effects, not only for the individual students but for the school community and climate as a whole.”
The effort at Coleman started about eight years ago with an after-school program. Thompson, the principal, said the power of the approach became clear to her one day when a child who was often in trouble for hitting her classmates and disrupting lessons walked into her office and shut the door.
“I just need five minutes,” she said.
As Thompson looked on with surprise, she said, the girl coached herself through breathing exercises. She told herself — speaking aloud — that she was not going to fight that day, she was not going to curse that day. She was 8 or 9 years old.
“I said, ‘There’s got to be something more to this,’ ” Thompson recalled.
The Holistic Life Foundation worked with the school to expand the program in 2014. Now there are weekly yoga classes and school days start with a recording over the public address system guiding students through breathing work, movement and meditation. It’s 15 minutes of mindfulness at the beginning of school and 15 minutes more when the day ends.
“It makes you calm down and have a great day,” said Jada Hinton, 6.
“I feel good,” said 6-year-old Kucaus Wright, who followed the guidance step-by-step on a recent morning, at times closing his eyes.
The Mindful Moment Room was another addition, a dedicated space to help students calm down, work on breathing and collect themselves. It provides 15 to 20 minutes out of the classroom to reset emotionally.
Students still get sent to the principal — 30 times last year — but not as often as they once did. For the past two years, there have been no suspensions at Coleman.
Educators at Coleman say the mindfulness effort has helped students and teachers.
Tayamisha Von Hendricks, who has taught for 11 years at the school, said mindfulness practices don’t fix everything but that they do make a difference. The morning breathing exercises help children start the day with more focus, she said. Lately, she sometimes stops class for a breathing exercise when she sees that students are off task or she is growing frustrated.
“You do it three times, and they calm down enough for you to give them a direction and you can redirect the whole environment,” she said.
For some students, like Janaisa Brown, 14, the techniques have been lasting. Janaisa — who as a third-grader inspired her principal — is in ninth grade, with a 3.8 grade point average. She said she and her brother have taught her mother yoga and she uses mindfulness daily.
“When I was younger, I was always mad all the time,” she said. “Now I got past that stage. I’m happy with my life.”
The teenager thinks of the program’s founders almost as adopted uncles: Baltimore brothers Ali and Atman Smith, and Andy Gonzalez, all of whom were undergraduates together at the University of Maryland in College Park.
The men started the after-school programs and ran them for many years with no pay, Gonzalez said, because they believed in the practices and wanted to help children benefit as they had.
In their daily lives, many Coleman students see drug dealing and hear sirens or gunshots; some don’t have stable housing, some worry about relatives getting locked up. The school is not far from where the Smiths grew up and where there was unrest after the death of Freddie Gray last year.
“These children face a lot of situations that most youth don’t have to deal with,” Gonzalez said. The program aims to help them learn to be less impulsive, more focused and self-regulating, with techniques that will endure throughout their lives.
Their effort has grown in recent years, and the three have done workshops, training and classes nationally and internationally. Holistic Life has yoga and mindfulness programs in 14 Baltimore schools, with schoolwide initiatives at Coleman Elementary and Patterson High.
Patterson Principal Vance Benton said his school practices breathing during a recorded announcement in the morning, similar to Coleman. It also has a Mindful Moment Room, but he says the dynamics are different in high school, where teenagers might not want peers to see them participating.
Suspensions are down at his school — 22 this school year, compared with 46 last year at the same time.
“It may not be taking the place of suspension, but it may be contributing to not having to suspend as much,” he said.
At Coleman, the Mindful Moment Room was visited often in October, with Holistic Life staff member Jamar Peete counting 256 referrals to the room that month. On one day in November, a dozen children visited.
One was the third-grader who had the scuffled with a classmate.
By the time he left, another boy had walked in. Then another. Just before 11 a.m., four boys were sitting on the lavender cushions and beanbags, with two staff members.
One began the breathing exercises they all have come to know.
“Inhaling deep,” he said aloud. “Lock your chin to your chest. Exhale and out.”