COOLIDGE -- Mindfulness is a state of mind that starts one breath at a time. In her classroom at Heartland Ranch Elementary, Melonie Call has seen first hand the impacts this approach has had on her students.
Call is a special education teacher who got her start in education as a paraprofessional. Long before she used to strategically roam around the classroom giving direction to students, Call was a Pinal County corrections officer.
Within the scope of her law enforcement career, Call was trained to teach inmates how to meditate. Today, she emphatically shares the benefits of meditation with anyone who asks.
“When I retired, I wanted to do something to help the next generation,” she said.
Her desire stemmed from much of what she had seen as Corrections Officer. “I saw way too often adults that didn’t know how to deal with their emotions and didn’t know how to self soothe.”
But it wasn’t always that way. When she first was introduced to the idea through a training she attended on the practice while working in corrections, Call was not exactly thrilled.
“I remember thinking, ‘This is so stupid,’” she said. “(But) it ended up being really beneficial to me.”
Meditation often gets a bad wrap, as many people tend to associate it with “hippies” or forms of spiritual practices, Call said. Science, however, has shown that meditation can have an exceptional impact on the overall health of the brain and the body.
A routine meditation practice can help curb the aging of the brain, heighten awareness and even ease symptoms of diseases such as high blood pressure.
With the intention to spend more time with family, Call retired from her corrections career and decided to go on a year-long cross-country road trip with her daughter. But when the pair returned to Arizona, Call quickly realized that she needed a job to keep her busy.
She decided to take up a position as a behavior health paraprofessional at Heartland Ranch, and she began to implement what she had learned about meditation through her background in law enforcement to help soothe the student she worked with.
“We would just go into another room together, I’d put on a meditation and it would calm him down,” she said. “So I saw the value in it even more with kids.”
The teacher she worked with at the time then approached her about teaching, and she soon began working on obtaining her master’s degree through Arizona State University.
Realizing that applying meditation in an educational setting was one of her passions, Call began to delve deeper into the subject while writing her master’s thesis. She completed a study using one of the students from the elementary school as her primary subject and wrote a paper entitled, “Cognitive Reconditioning through Meditation and Self Efficacy.”
Call will be presenting her research at the Teacher Educators for Children with Behavior Disorders Conference in October at Tempe Missions Palms. The talk will expose other interested members of the education system to the findings of her study on meditation within a formal education setting.
Since implementing a routine meditation practice within her classroom, Call has witnessed improvements in how her special education students deal with habitual behaviors.
The day begins with a 15-minute meditation first thing in the morning, giving students an opportunity to get centered and focused before jumping into lessons. While many of her students are at different levels of proficiency in meditation depending on their grade level, Call uses a few anchors to assist the class in becoming more self-aware even before they begin meditating.
The techniques include encouraging students to focus on their breathe, the sensations they feel in their body (known as the body scan), the use of positive words and even their posture.
“Simple things like how you stand determine how you feel for the day,” she said.
In addition, each student gets three “Take a Break” tickets at the start of everyday. The tickets enable students to spend time in the classroom’s meditation room or meditation corner for 15 minutes.
Students can use the tickets at any time, regardless of what is going on in the classroom Call said.
In effort to keep interruptions during lessons down to a minimum, students also get “talk” tickets at the beginning of the day. “Talk tickets” provide five minutes of free time to discuss any topic with any teacher in the room.
Call also reinforces self-efficacy through a set of ground rules students are expected to adhere to.
“The first thing we do is we outlaw certain words in our room,” she said. “Can’t, won’t, don’t — those are not allowed in our room.”
If a child makes a negative comment, which can anything from saying “I don’t like this” to “I had a bad night,” they are then asked to find one positive comment about the same subject.
This particular rule, Call noted, is all about changing a student’s mindset.
Through the practice, students become much more self-aware and can exert greater control in their responses to situations that would typically illicit a strong reaction from them. Such, Call noted, was the case with one student in particular who, although was not apart of Call’s research for her paper, shocked her with dramatic impact meditation had on his behavior.
She remembers one incident in particular that happened in the last month of school, and recalls working in a one-on-one session with the former sixth grader in her class, who at the time was solving math problems. The student, Call said, would often get easily frustrated and express his frustration through anger — so much so that he was nicknamed “The Hulk” based on the popular comic book character.
Call had asked the student to work on one more math problem, at which point he began to grow frustrated. According to Call, the sixth grader huffed and slammed down his pencil.
But then the unexpected happened. Instead of reacting with more anger, the student sat back in his chair, went into a meditation pose and took a couple of deep breaths before picking up his pencil again and saying “Ready.”
“We couldn’t believe it,” Call said. “I was like, “that right there is the reason I do this.’”
The meditation and self-efficacy program has been so successful in her classroom that Call is now extending it to help a group of general education students as well. The purpose, Call said, is to give students that may struggle with behavioral issues the resources to self-soothe.
In addition, she also works with students to help them identify feelings and behaviors they may be struggling with, as well as aiding them in establishing a positive mindset.
The approach teaches students the importance of “slowing down to enjoy things,” she said.