When parents get excited about what their children are learning at school, social-emotional and mindfulness skills get reinforced at home. To jump start mindfulness at her school, Katie Wohlford got the whole school performing – and transformed her teaching as well.
We caught up with her to watch the play and capture her memories of a trailblazing project.
Name: Katie Wohlford
Cohort: Mindful Teacher Class of 2018
My work with kids: School Counselor
School: Fairview Elementary School in Buncombe County District
Location: Asheville, NC
About my community: Fairview is a rural school neighboring Asheville, North Carolina. It’s an artistic town. There are many fruit, vegetable, and animal farms in our area where our families grow food to sell.
“It’s a play about mindfulness and how to keep calm whenever you have a strong feeling or emotion. Because if you’re not calm, you’re just going to miss all the special moments in life.” – Fairview Student
Here at Mindful Schools, we heard about the play you created for your whole school. What inspired you to write a play for everyone to participate in? Was it based on the brain-science you taught?
Our school has an Open House every year. Last year I spent hours preparing activities and learning centers about the biological aspects of feelings – excited to orient parents about our SEL and mindfulness program. But only six families came to my room. The 2nd grade musical was the last event in the evening; I stopped by to support the students. The theater had at least 300 parents and family members, all with their phones out recording video and taking pictures.
I realized that if I wanted the parents to learn what I teach the students, it needed to be a show! Amy Gdala Joins the Cortex Family was born. Although only a small group acted in the play, all the other students sang in between acts to highlight social-emotional lessons we’d explored. The goal of the play was to make it clear that when kids are upset, they have an imbalance in their nervous system and that we’re working on particular skills to help calm down.
One skill presented in the play was a grounding exercise, which teaches us to be more aware of our surroundings. The audience was invited to try the exercise along with “Amy.”
- I invite you to close your eyes.
- While you’re seated, feel your seat underneath you. Feel the weight of your body and legs pressing down on your seat. (count to 3 Miss-i-ssi-ppi)
- Notice your shoulders and jaw. See if you can loosen them just a little bit. Relax those muscles.
- Now notice your feet. Do they feel heavy or light? Cold or warm? Can you feel your shoes making contact with your feet/? (count to 3 Miss-i-ssi-ppi)
- Place one hand on your heart and one on your belly. Feel your heartbeat. (Count to 3)
- Feel your stomach fill with air when you breathe in and empty of air when you breathe out. (count to 3 Miss-i-ssi-ppi)
- Now blink open your eyes.
- Notice how you feel right now.
- That should help Amy calm down.
We had 600 parents attend the two performances! And that’s how we successfully introduced mindfulness to our whole parent community.
Your school’s video about combining SEL and mindfulness training is so inspiring. How does your district plan to continue using mindfulness?
Our county has attempted to build a model that is well-rounded and self-sufficient, so we drew from a range of SEL and mindfulness resources and programs. Another counselor and I completed the Mindful Teacher Certification training. We have a quarterly Community of Practice led by two Mindful Schools graduates, Jelena Popovic and Lucy MacGregor, which keeps our whole staff engaged in learning mindfulness. We also have an annual mindfulness conference, now in its second year, to bring focus to mindfulness and give us all a chance to keep current.
Your work with the Mindful Teacher program influenced how you teach social-emotional learning at Fairview. What changed for you during your training?
I use Mindful Schools lessons and Second Step SEL lessons during each class with the students. We have 30-45 minutes together so we’re able to fit in both.
Practicing mindfulness enables students to build the inward focus – to notice how the body is speaking to us, offering us body clues, while SEL curricula reminds students to identify those body clues when they are having strong feelings. The ongoing practice of mindfulness becomes a reliable foundation, so SEL becomes available to every student.
Did you receive a grant to fund this?
We received a US Dept. of Education, Elementary and Secondary School Counseling grant for $1.2 million. This included sending two of us through the Mindful Schools Certification year-long program.
Are you doing some research for a look back at what was achieved?
We use DESSA scores (social emotional measures) to determine our students’ progress. These scores are being processed by Western Carolina University. I’m looking forward to seeing what they reveal.
It’s time to go back to school! How are you prepping for a mindful school year?
I’m keeping up with my personal practice, feeling inspired by my fellow mindfulness teachers from our July retreat – so many fun lessons to do with students! Also, for myself, never forgetting to PLAY 🙂
Thanks Katie, for sharing your story!
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