Local students practicing mindfulness

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BENNINGTON — "You're never too young or too old or too old to learn how to take care of your body."

That's how Deborah "Deb" Lewis described the importance of teaching mindfulness — a practice of being in the present moment with nonjudgmental awareness — to young children. This week, Lewis began two eight-week mindfulness education programs, one at Molly Stark Elementary, and another at Pownal Elementary.

"The younger you start, the easier it is for them to incorporate it into their everyday lifestyle," said Lewis, who owns Manchester-based Mindful Paths Stress Management & Yoga. "And that's important in mindfulness."

To that end, the program at Molly Stark is for the school's about 80 kindergartners, in half-hour sessions per class per week. The program is funded through a $1,500 grant through the health-focused nonprofit RiseVT.

Program costs actually exceed $1,500, but Lewis plans to write off the difference.

Kimberly Tenner, assistant principal of Molly Stark, said the plan is sustain mindfulness for years to come. A counselor at the school just started a two-year training program to be a mindfulness practitioner.

"We figured if we started with [Lewis], with this program in kindergarten, we'd be able to sustain it for years to come with our counselor and the kids would be familiar with it," Tenner said.

Lewis also taught Molly Stark staff about mindfulness at a recent faculty meeting as part of this effort to sustain the program.

She plans to come to another meeting after she finishes working with the kindergartners.

"If the teachers are on board ... they may even start implementing some of those techniques on their own, in the classroom," said Andrea Malinowski, program manager of Bennington County for RiseVT.

When Lewis' children, who are now in their 30s, were young, she would come into school to teach mindfulness on an ad hoc basis, whenever they'd let her in.

"I always have wanted to teach this," Lewis said. "Because I wish I'd known it when I was younger."

Lewis was about 38 years old when she first discovered mindfulness.

The effort to bring mindfulness to Molly Stark started when Tenner reached out to RiseVT about the possibility of getting an Amplify Grant through RiseVT.

"I've always wanted to bring mindfulness to Molly Stark," Tenner said. "We are trying to be a trauma-sensitive school, and mindfulness is one of the things that we can do for our students — all our students."

The goal is to help kids relax, calm down and be mindful, whether they have experienced trauma or not.

Tenner worked with Malinowski to get the grant for the mindfulness program.

Lewis teaches mindfulness to kindergartners through things like meditation and visualization, helping them learn that unhealthy dwelling on negative feelings leads to "bad chemicals" in their bodies — things like the stress hormone cortisol.

"[It's] accepting whatever comes," she said. "If you have a feeling that is sad, you accept it non-judgmentally. Because that's the only way you can work with it."

Instead of having bad feelings in the unconscious mind, the person practicing mindfulness is aware of the feeling so they can decide if it's worth their energy.

"Instead of pushing it away — like we do automatically," Lewis said. "Because that's what we're used to doing ... that's going to just make it worse and linger it in your system. And all those bad chemicals come with those bad thoughts, so you get sick over time."

Lewis said she sees many older people who would like to learn mindfulness.

"If we can get to the kindergartners, imagine what they know by 50?" she said. "People will be healthier, and it brings more compassion and appreciation to life, when you learn how to control your feelings and not worry so much."

Mindfulness is about letting go of worry, especially about things that cannot be controlled, she said.

Lewis said she teaches mindfulness to young children by going with their questions, teaching them about their breathing and getting them to notice their feelings.

Wednesday morning, in her first session at Molly Stark, she asked the children how they were feeling.

"The first little boy said, 'I'm sad,'" she said. Another boy said he was happy.

She said she also led them through relaxing their bodies, meditation and a visualization about "going to the moon on a moonbeam."

Lewis asked a few students afterward if they had fallen asleep during the visualization.

They said they didn't.

"They said no, they were doing cartwheels on the moon," Lewis said. Minds don't know the difference between imagining a situation and being in that situation, so imagining a good situation leads to good chemicals being released in the body, she said.

Next week, she plans to teach the kindergartners about thoughts — what they are, and where they come from.

Lewis is also running an eight-week mindfulness program for fifth-graders at Pownal Elementary School, which was also scheduled to begin Wednesday.

Grant funding has not been finalized, but Lewis plans to continue the program even if funding does not come through.

Lewis attended Pownal Elementary School, and her sister currently teaches fifth grade there.

Mindfulness is also important for older children, especially as they prepare to go to start middle school.

"They start judging themselves really bad," Lewis said. "This instills in them that you are right here, what now, what you're supposed to be."

Lewis said she wants to instill in children that they are enough, as they are.

"There's so much of ... 'I'm not good enough,'" she said. "And they believe it. And I want to get to them that thoughts are not necessarily true. They're not us."

Mindfulness is also important from a larger health perspective, as it cultivates self-regulation and coping mechanisms, Malinowski said.

Trauma or stressful events can cause physical problems that keep kids out of school, like headaches and stomachaches, she said. And this generation is the first that is expected to have a lower life expectancy than their parents, she said.

"If you are unable to deal with stress ... it can erode at your physical well-being," she said. "We're trying to foster that preventative self-care, to ward off [illnesses] down the road."

Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at pleboeuf@benningtonbanner.com, at @BAN_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 118.

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