Vare Washington

September 4th, 2022

The Students of Vare-Washington Elementary

Nearly 98% of the elementary students at Vare-Washington School in Philadelphia live below the poverty line. Those circumstances directly impact schoolwork, teachers say, as students carry their home struggles into the classroom, which impacts grades, behavior, and academic and interpersonal development.

“What if,” every teacher asked over and over, “we could help our students manage what is going on around them and thus help them focus and improve their lives?”

What the teachers saw

  • 85% said students were more ready to learn
  • 85% said it improved the culture/tone of the classroom
  • 84% said students applied the techniques they learned on their own
  • 85% saw improved focus
  • 85% saw improved stress/anxiety management
  • 75% saw better engagement
  • 70% saw improved self-regulation/anger management

That desire led to a partnership with The Alliance for Decision Education.

The Alliance developed and shared with Vare-Washington teachers a program called Mindful Choices that focused on just one aspect of Decision Education. The program aims to develop students’ ability to better manage themselves, the situation they find themselves in and, ultimately, their decisions.

The results, school leaders say, was “transformational.”

“Often with poverty, comes trauma. So, for our students to have situational awareness as well as self-awareness has been a game changer,” said then school principal Zack Duberstein.

“We’ve seen students actively bringing Mindful Choices into their homes and doing it on their own in the hallway.”

Psychology Today

Fifth-grade students in Canada participating in a program similar to Mindful Choices outperformed their peers in cognitive control, stress levels, emotional control, optimism, empathy, mindfulness, and aggression.

They had:

  • 15% higher math scores
  • 24% less aggressive behaviors
  • 20% better view of themselves as a positive part of society

Kids Meditation: Mindfulness may increase children’s math scores

The impact is in the numbers. Duberstein said attendance increased by 14% and suspensions and disciplinary action decreased by nearly 2.5%.

Academics also improved. Students enrolled in Mindful Choices scored 10% higher in math and 13% higher in English than students who were not enrolled in the program.

In the program, students learned breathing techniques to calm themselves in situations that typically would be unsettling or challenging. They also learned to focus despite distractions, notice details, and be more aware of their surroundings. Other lessons were directed at mindful listening, empathy, and self-control.

Teachers shared the program with students through 16 short lessons. The students engaged with the materials and saw immediate results.

“Mindful Choices has really helped with academics in my classroom. I have actually seen students taking big deep breaths before taking a test or while they were taking a test,” said Vare-Washington Teacher Beatrice Keehfuss.

“Students now have the coping skills to deal with situations around them on their own.”

In addition, teachers said they also felt more in control of themselves, their own emotions, their class and their decisions.

“One particular day, the tension in the room between me and my students was really high…and I was not exactly a ray of sunshine,” one teacher said. “Mindful Choices popped into my head and I had them all start off matching my breath, and then we moved on to the ‘picture someone you love/someone you’re arguing with’ exercise. Once we finished, the classroom felt extremely peaceful and almost all of my students said they felt at peace with themselves and everyone in the room. They also commented on how much more relaxed I seemed!”

(Note: The Alliance worked in partnership with Vare-Washington during the 2016-2017 academic year. The program continues to be downloaded and used by teachers all over the world.)

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