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Outreach program brings mindfulness to Florida schools to help students relieve stress and anxiety

Mindfulness in Florida schools

About two years ago, Cathy Whitt saw how a horrific life-changing event in the local community could have far-reaching consequences.

That event was the mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on February 14, 2018, a half hour drive from where Cathy lives and works as the coordinator of Holy Cross Hospital’s Growing Healthy Kids, a health and wellness outreach program for lower income elementary schools.

“Everybody knew somebody who knew somebody— the whole county was affected,” she says. “The stress level among students, teachers and community members was through the roof. It had a huge impact on everyone.”

That’s when Cathy, a STOTT PILATES® Certified Instructor, ZEN•GA® Qualified Instructor and Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT 200), decided to bring more mindfulness into the classroom. While Cathy had long been teaching Pilates at these schools, focusing on mindfulness and yoga were relatively new for her. But people had been asking for it and now was clearly the time to deliver on that need for respite.

“I saw how mindfulness made me feel and how it was helping me in my life; it was pretty easy to embrace. It calmed me down. I don’t bite off more than I can chew any more. As most Pilates/fitness people do, it’s always feast or famine, so you try to cram in as much as you can in one day. But now I’ve slowed down and I’ve shifted my mindset.”

With the skills she’s acquired from her mindfulness training, things that used to cause her anxiety, like driving in traffic, are now more manageable. She leaves earlier, she consciously thinks about her breathing and as a result she feels more aware. When she’s waiting in lines, she gives herself permission to be bored instead of finding constant distractions.

The mindfulness program she’s brought into the elementary schools has been similarly embraced by her students.

Cathy leading class in standing stretches

School is so structured, so this gives them a moment to be free, to move and experience something a little less rigid and demanding.

“It’s super important. We’re so bombarded with so much technology and so much going on around us all the time, to have the opportunity to be still and quiet, is really important and makes a big impact. You can feel the shift in the energy in the room as everyone calms down, even among the adults!”

This school year, she’ll be presenting her program, Science of Movement, a 30-minute class that encompasses elements of STOTT PILATES, yoga, ZEN•GA and Merrithew Fascial Movement, to schools across the county via a live broadcast.

She says the key to getting kids engaged in mindfulness is to keep it simple. “That’s a mistake we often make with mindfulness, that it has to be this complicated thing and then we talk ourselves out of it. It can just be a minute or five minutes, but the more you do it, you condition yourself, and then five minutes actually becomes quite short,” she says.

She leads the kids through about five minutes of mindful breathing and then she begins the movement flow, altering the tempo of her class and the exercises to suit her students’ mood.

“We do a few different breathing pattern exercises, like ‘smell the roses’ and ‘blow out the birthday candles’ to help them connect to that deeper belly breathing. We’ll do a mental journey to a favorite place and I’ll ask them to imagine what that place looks like, smells like, feels like. I’ll ask them what colors they see and if there are any tastes associated to this place. I give them leeway to be creative.”

With Cathy’s experience across a range of modalities, she’s been able to adapt her programming to suit her young clientele.

“Movement and being healthy and teaching people is my passion,” she says. “I feel great about my knowledge base and how it’s evolved and how I can pull from this extensive toolbox and help my students have a positive movement experience.”

Kids in seated pose in class

Bring mindfulness into your life

  • Organize yourself and your kids the night before so you don’t start your morning in a rush
  • Try to avoid starting your day with technology, but do incorporate a little ritual time in the morning, whether that’s eating mindfully or listening to music, start your day peacefully because it will only get more hectic from there
  • If you have a morning drive, incorporate some deep breathing— with eyes open— to control anxiety and stress behind the wheel
  • When you’re in line at the grocery store or waiting at a doctor’s office, give yourself permission to be bored. Practice balancing on one leg, roll your shoulders, stretch your arms, or just stare off into the distance and count your breaths
  • At night time, try to practice some mindfulness for one minute, then increase to five minutes, or go for a post-dinner walk

If you work with kids, let us know in the comments how you teach them mindful movement!

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