The sixth graders shout out answers in excitement as their teacher tries to explain an upcoming project on entrepreneurs. He knows exactly how to quiet them. He pulls out a small metal pole and starts hitting it.
Ting, ting, ting.
The students quiet down and begin their breathing exercises, the silence an astonishing contrast from just moments earlier.
Meditation and breathing exercises are daily rituals at Grant Elementary School in Richmond. Principal Farnaz Heydari introduced these practices in an effort to reduce bad behavior, which had led to high numbers of student suspensions.
Heydari, like school principals around Richmond, and indeed the U.S., is trying to find a way to improve student behavior in school. She believes she’s found a program that works. Only 16 students received disciplinary suspensions in 2016-17, a small fraction of the 154 who were given the same punishment two years earlier.
“Many social curriculums were made,” Heydari says, but they, “were not providing tools to deal with trauma or outbursts of anger.”
Heydari attributes the improvement in discipline in her school to the mindfulness exercises led by the Mindful Life Project, a Richmond nonprofit that helps students with behavior problems regulate their emotions through social and emotional learning.
Jean Gabriel Larochette, founder of the project, said he started it to bring the practice of mindfulness to children to help them calm themselves and practice self discipline.
Larochette says, “mindfulness gives us the GPS to navigate life in an expressive not a reactive way.”
At Grant Elementary, teachers and students practice five minutes of mindfulness in class every day. A mindfulness instructor also facilitates two 20 minute sessions each week.
Students at the school say they notice big changes in themselves.
Ania Lynn, 11, a sixth grader who started at the school this fall, said she used to lose her temper a lot, which led to many conflicts. Now, she says, “there’s no conflict. It’s easier.”
“The mindful practices calms me down when I get here,” Lynn said.
Some students are teaching their friends and family how to regulate their emotions at home.
“I taught my mom the breathing exercises to help her calm down and to make her feel cool and calm and it’s helped her feel better,” said seven-year-old Sergio Ibarra, a second grader at the school.
Esis Santos, 11, said he’s taught his eight-year-old brother how to do the mindfulness breathing exercises. “When my brother gets mad, I help him calm down, to breath in,” he said.
Larochette laments the fact that more schools haven’t signed up for his program. According to the organization’s website, it has 11 partner schools in Richmond and 22 across the Bay Area. Many schools have cited a lack of funding, he said.
Demetrio Gonzalez, president of the United Teachers of Richmond union, said funding the program is a challenge for the district.
Partner schools pay from $15,000 to $28,000 annually for between two and four weekly sessions with his program, Larochette said.
That’s too expensive for many schools, Gonzalez said.
“Even though it’s restorative justice, $15,000 is pretty heavy for the funding schools have now,” Gonzalez said.
Some schools prefer Tool Box, a district-led initiative which is an alternative to the mindfulness program, Gonzalez said.
“It depends on the needs of the schools. Some schools have taken out the program because it’s not for them,” Gonzalez said.
Marcus Walton, a spokesman for the school district said schools in the district get between $68,000 and $162,000 to spend on special programs for students.
The district gives schools the autonomy to choose their special programs for themselves, Walton said.
“Mindful Life is not a one size fits all,” he said. “Many students have success with the program, but schools decide what’s beneficial for their students.”