‘MindUP’ in Manhattan Pennekamp Elementary’s Unique Approach to Mental Health
Sunday, January 1, 2017

by Eric Garner, BCHD Senior Communications Specialist

Every morning at Pennekamp Elementary School in Manhattan Beach begins the same way. Before the first class bell sounds, nearly 600 students, teachers and parents gather together in organized groups on the blacktop for a full minute of complete and utter silence.

Not a giggle, scoff or even a whisper disrupts the quiet, as the hundreds in attendance — primarily energetic elementary schoolers — pause in concert to mindfully set their personal intentions for the day.

When the minute draws to a close and eyes slowly begin to reopen, Principal Toni Brown emerges from the center of the crowd to personally thank the group for starting their day off with a “mindful minute,” before quickly dismissing the students and teachers to their classrooms in a remarkably calm and orderly fashion.

“We call it our ‘morning moment’ or ‘mindful minute,’ we’re still working out the name,” laughs Brown, who is in her third year at Pennekamp. “But it’s a really great way for our student body to come to a complete stop and gather their thoughts and intentions for the day ahead. I run a community-oriented campus, so it’s also an opportunity to connect parents and staff and create a true sense of community.”

The unorthodox morning activity began last year as the brainchild of Brown and her leadership team. Their idea stemmed from Pennekamp’s recent integration of an evidence-based program called “MindUP,” which uses neuroscience, mindful awareness, positive psychology and social-emotional learning to teach students healthy ways to manage their emotions.

The nationally-recognized program, developed by the Hawn Foundation, was implemented two years ago in each of the five public elementary schools in Manhattan Beach Unified School District (MBUSD), where officials have voiced growing concern in recent years about the high levels of stress reported by its high-achieving students.

MBUSD is ranked near the top 10 percent of all school districts in the state by the California Department of Education, but is challenged by higher-than-average substance use rates, especially among middle and high school students.

Directed locally by Beach Cities Health District (BCHD), in partnership with the Hermosa Beach, Manhattan Beach and Redondo Beach school districts, MindUP’s research driven curriculum blends mindful awareness practices with the science behind how the brain functions and reacts to stimuli like stress, anger and anxiety – emotions that research shows to be increasingly prevalent among young people today – to help students become emotionally articulate and grow socially.

“We as parents and teachers sometimes say to kids, ‘settle down.’ Well, what does that mean?” asks BCHD Director of Lifespan Services Kerianne Lawson, who oversees the program for BCHD. “We have to teach our kids to be conversant in how they are feeling. MindUP provides a framework for kids to clearly express themselves and channel stress, anxiety or anger in a healthy manner.”

Since first implementing the program in select Beach Cities schools six years ago, a significant number of principals and administrators have reported fewer incidences of bullying, disciplinary office visits and emotional outbursts on campuses where MindUP has taken hold.

“It helps students self-regulate and clear their minds rather than acting out,” says Lawson. “The result is better decision-making.”

BCHD provides local teachers with the required training to administer the in-class lessons, which include daily breathing exercises, meditation and interactive lessons on the brain. Each teacher is encouraged to tailor the lessons to fit their personal teaching style and classroom culture.

This flexible approach empowered staffers at Pennekamp to create color-coded “emotional thermometers,” which students use to physically point out their feelings during routine “emotional check-ins.” If students report to be feeling in the orange or red range of the thermometer – signaling high levels of stress, worry or frustration – there is a designated space in every classroom where they can go to calm their minds.

In Michelle Syverson’s first grade class at Pennekamp, students practice a combination of yoga and MindUP breathing techniques each day after returning from the playground or gym class. “We use a website called GoNoodle.com to guide us through few beginner poses after an active situation like lunch or recess. It helps my students reach a level of calm before its time to re-focus and learn.”

Principal Brown reports that the curriculum also teaches a “shared language” related to how the brain works when difficult emotions are bubbling up – allowing her students and teachers to communicate more effectively about sensitive situations or feelings.

“When issues do arise, I’m seeing students stop and take a minute to mindfully breathe and calm their minds, because that’s what they are being instructed to do in class,” says Brown. “It’s become a common language on campus, and I can see the growth.”

However, it’s not just students benefitting from MindUP. Teachers like Syverson – a 21-year veteran of the Manhattan Beach Unified School District who started teaching at Pennekamp seven years ago – say there has been a noticeable shift in the approach to dealing with behavioral issues and emotions on campus. The majority of teachers at Pennekamp are now leading mindful meditation after students return from lunch to quell the post-play wiggles and allowing for intermittent “brain breaks” during the school day to reduce stress and anxiety.

“When students are escalating, we have a better understanding of what is triggering the behavior, so we can help the student understand the situation and self-regulate,” Syverson says. “I’m in my 23rd year of teaching and my approach has evolved in the last two years, because being able to get to a common, calm place with students really helps in a learning environment.”

The response from parents regarding the program has also been very positive, especially among those who participate in the mindful morning exercise during drop-offs, according to Principal Brown. “I have moms and dads regularly come up to me and say ‘that was the first opportunity I’ve had all week to really slow down and take a moment to reflect and relax my mind.’ Practicing mindfulness is a really nice way for all of us – students, teachers and parents – to start our days on a meaningful, positive note.”

To learn more about the MindUP program in the Beach Cities, visit bchd.org/mindup.