Fourteen second-graders at Patricia J. Sullivan Partnership School sit in a circle on a colorful rug with their eyes closed and the lights turned off. A soothing female voice comes on the classroom speaker to talk the students through each stage of their mindfulness exercise.

“Think about how your hands feel in your lap and how your feet feel resting on the floor,” she says. “Bring your attention to your neck and your back, releasing or letting go of any tightness you might have.”

A projected image of a bare tree in a snowy forest appears on the whiteboard on the wall.

“Keep breathing in and out and imagine the tree in all the different seasons,” the mediation leader says. She explains how trees can be like people; they may seem bare in some seasons, but are just waiting to blossom in their own time.

After a few minutes, the students’ bright eyes open and the teacher asks them to share a time they were like that tree. When did something seem hard but they figured it out or it got easier? Hands fly up. The students share stories of having trouble reading or not knowing anyone in the class. They explain how things changed.

The guided mindfulness exercises are provided by a nonprofit called Inner Explorer, which helps students develop skills of attention, self-control, and resilience in as little as 10 minutes a day. A grant from the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay to Inner Explorer funds the program in eight Hillsborough County schools, including Sullivan.

Why mindfulness training?

Most of the 100 elementary students at the Sullivan Partnership School have lived or currently live at the Metropolitan Ministries homeless shelter across the street. Most also have been subjects to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES). That means they have been abused or seen abuse, have been taken away from family members, or have seen drug use and violence on a regular basis.

“Because of this, their brains have changed. It’s harder for them to regulate their emotions and pay attention in school,” explained Sullivan’s guidance counselor Gerry Nugent. “Many of our kids are agitated, given all their life experiences.”

The Inner Explorer mindfulness program offers their brains a way to reset each morning and focus on education.

How mindfulness impacts education

“We do it so we can relax and be mindful,” explained a second grader named Zahnae as she drew colorful leaves on a tree in her journal after the exercise. “It helps me do my work better.”

Data shows that programs such as Inner Explorer’s daily mindfulness practices is indeed effective in improving student success. According to studies, mindfulness has been shown to:

  • Increase math, science and reading performance by 28%
  • Reduce student behavioral issues by 60%
  • Reduce teacher stress by 43%

Increasing kids’ focus and giving teachers more time to engage students has been show to result in a 15% increase in students’ grade point average (GPA). The Sullivan Partnership school credits Inner Explorer as one factor in its recent academic gains.

Why mindfulness matters

The average person has 60,000 to 70,000 thoughts a day, and 90% are memories or experiences from the past. Sullivan Partnership School’s principal Dave McMeen believes in the power of mindfulness and Inner Explorer to help students deal with the rigors of their academic and personal lives, now and in the future.

“To create something new and to learn, you have to be in the present,” McMeen said. “Mindfulness helps train your brain how to cope. This is a life tool that they can take forward through life.”

Inner Explorer is one example of the competitive grants funded through Community Foundation of Tampa Bay’s focus on positive education. Positive education is a strength-based approach that helps students develop critical life skills such as grit, optimism, resilience, growth mindset, engagement, and mindfulness. Students with these critical life skills are more likely to be successful because they have a better ability to deal with and overcome traumatic experiences.