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Mindful : April 2013
Some 20 blocks west of North Smallwood is Windsor Hills Elementar y School, where those first 20 boys attended HLF’s after-school program. It was Cassie Smith who introduced Ali, Atman, and Andy to the principal. Cassie has worked in a variety of positions in the local education system, from probation officer for the Department of Juvenile Services to running mentorship programs and professional training. Since then HLF’s program hasn’t changed much, offering the kids a combination of instruction on breathing techniques, yoga, homework assistance, and team sports. The principal at Windsor Hills thought it would be a purely athletic program, but the teachers noticed a difference in the students right away. “The teachers said to me, whatever they are doing, get them to keep doing it,” says Cassie. “ Before, these kids were always getting in fights, always getting suspended,” says Ali. “But they loved the program. Holistic Life had 100% attendance every day.” After a year HLF moved the after-school program to the Druid Hill YMCA and enrollment went up to 27. They star ted including girls. Around the same time, they introduced more activities, including urban gardening and field trips. “ We started taking them hiking and camping, to show them that, yeah, the world is bigger than just these square blocks you live in,” says Ali. “It grew from there; they started to understa nd.” In HLF’s fifth year, with their first group mov- ing into high school, a friend suggested the trio should consider their own neighborhood, the North Sma llwood area, for new students. Working with kids from their own block, Ali, Atman, and Andy’s lives were enveloped by the program. “It beca me a 24-hour-a -day thing,” says Ali. “ With all the kids there, we didn’t get a break in the summer. It was 365. It changed the dynamic of things.” Andy says that all this time spent with them has “changed the concept of cool” for these kids. “ When it comes down to it, we’re their homies.” “They’re the real thing,” says Mark Greenberg. “They have this sense of mission that is all their own.” Greenberg is the director of the Prevention Re- search Center for the Promotion of Human Develop- ment at Penn State University. Three yea rs ago, he and Tamar Mendelson, assistant professor in the Depa rtment of Mental Health in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, conducted a yearlong pilot study on the work HLF has been do- ing, measuring the impact of yoga and mindfulness on the kids’ stress levels. Greenberg noticed it’s not just children walk- ing in, doing yoga, a nd leaving. Discussion is part of it, too. “Ali, Atman, and Andy are transmitting a worldview about the holistic nature of our world, our interconnection, our need to take ca re of our environment, the need to take care of our relation- ships,” he says. “ It’s implicit in the way they model 1 Start with love If kids know we genuinely love and care for them, no mat ter what happens, they will be a lot more engaged. They may not have that family at home, so they’re looking for a suppor t system, people who care about them, who have their back. 2 Breathe The breath is a power ful tool to help kids relax physically but it also helps their minds stop racing. It puts them in contact with how they feel. It’s ver y power ful, for anyone, at any age. We star t every class with the breath. It’s a centering tool that we use to bring our students to focus in the room and inside of themselves. And over time they see how it’s changing them, the way they feel about things, the way they interact with other people, the way they let other people control their moods or not control them, their impulsiv- ity. If someone pushed them, in the past the kid might have reacted. But once they gain that introspection, there’s a split second when they think, “I could punch this person or I could stop, go away, and do some breathing.” They know the outcomes. Look what happens when you walk away: You don’t have to deal with all this nonsense. 3 Meet the kids where they are You can’t go in with any precon- ceived notions; you gotta figure out what’s going on with them. Where they are physically, mentally, and emotionally, and work from there. Never expect the cookie-cut ter approach to work. Have an idea of what you want to do, but be prepared to throw it all out the window at the drop of a hat. One of the best tools you have is obser va- tion: being able to gauge the energy and temperament of a kid and adjust from there. If they’re too hyper, encourage some physical activity to burn off the excess energy. When you sense they’re ready, you can push them along a bit. As the kids get older, we ask them: “ Who are you?” They’ll say their name, but we say, “No, that’s your name. Who are you?” There’s this realization that they’re a par t of a larger whole, which helps them feel respon- sible for themselves. 4 Letgoof expectations It’s great to have goals for a child, but you are set ting your- self up for failure if you have too many expectations. You’ll star t to blame yourself when those expectations are not met. The impor tant par t is for you to be in the moment, too. Be flexible and be resilient. 5 Have fun! The kids have to be smiling, laughing, and having fun. Tell jokes, watch some car toons so you can include pop culture references, quote songs they like—any thing you can do to relate to them. Superhero movies and quality car toons can help. You can see Bruce Banner in The Incredible Hulk movie doing breathing exercises to keep calm. We ask the kids, “Do you wanna be the Hulk, or do you wanna control the anger?” Helping Kids Find Calm By Ali, Atman & Andy 48 mindful April 2013 community