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Mindfulness Matters: Train Your Brain to See the Good

As we poke our heads into January, a great way to start the new year with a fresh attitude is by embracing Mindfulness, says Pamela McKenzie, K-8 Achievement and Behavior Specialist at Fortis Academy in Ypsilanti, Michigan.

Mindfulness is the art of being amazingly aware of all your senses at that moment, but without judgment or believing there’s a right or wrong way to feel. It’s about identifying your feelings and letting your brain explore them as they come.

It’s a process McKenzie is teaching students to embrace to make better decisions throughout their day, and it starts with deep breaths.

“We talk about how important those deep breaths are as that first step,” McKenzie said. “No matter how old they are I will always talk about what it does for the brain.”

McKenzie likens taking a conscious breath to flipping a light switch, but it’s not just for kids. McKenzie relates to older students with facts about professional athletes and Navy SEALS that are trained in the technique.

“We’re going to turn off all those emotions and we’re going to turn on the logic so we can think through what’s going on,” she said. “Then we’re going to think about what that emotion was and why it was there. Those are the two things for every age level that we’ll do. We’ll take breaths until we notice that our pulse isn’t racing, that we feel like we’re clear-headed.”

Once their breathing is under control, McKenzie helps students identify their feelings – a task that comes as an eye-opening challenge for some.

McKenzie recalled a time when a student came up to her because she felt something was wrong with her, that she didn’t have any feelings that day.

“I quizzed her,” McKenzie said. “She said she wasn’t angry, so we went to the mood meter and looked into the green area. I said, ‘down here in the green, are you feeling calm today?’ And she said ‘oh, that’s what that feeling is.’ She’s often angry, so this was a new thing for her. Such a big part of it is helping them identify the words to how they’re feeling.”

McKenzie said many of the students at Fortis have individual mood meters right on their desks to help identify what they’re feeling throughout the day. It often prompts them to enter her office to point out how they’re feeling and start the process of either celebrating that emotion or learning how to guide it to a better place.

McKenzie offered a few techniques she uses with her students that can be helpful for all ages:
  • Zipper Breaths: Pretend you’ve got a zipper on your belly button, and you take a deep breath to zip up straight instead of slouching, taking a nice big breath in as you go. It gives your lungs the ability to fill because they’re nice and long, while sitting up straight and tall makes you feel proud.
  • Imaginary Hug: This works great while limiting contact due to Covid-19. Think of a loved one and wrap your arms around yourself and take a deep breath. Squeeze yourself tight. Imagine your loved one is hugging you to let you know you’re ok. When breathing out, send your loved one well wishes.
  • Breathing Buddies: Lay on the floor and put a stuffed animal on your belly. Focus on taking a true, mindful breath where your stomach pushes out on the inhale and deflates as you exhale. Younger kids enjoy watching their soft friend moving up and down as they control their breathing, thus calming them.
A favorite exercise of McKenzie’s this time of year is Hot Chocolate Breathing.

“We talk about engaging our imaginations quite a bit, so for this we pick out our favorite mug, and hold it with both hands,” McKenzie said. “We imagine the mug full of rich, flavorful hot chocolate.”

Students are asked what happens if they try to cool their drink down with a hard or quick breath, and they’re quick to reply that the drink will spill. McKenzie demonstrates slow, gentle breaths to cool their cocoa, then guides them through the exercise.

“We talk about how wonderful the hot chocolate smells,” McKenzie said. “We focus on the breath in -- smelling the chocolate, then breathing out -- cooling the hot liquid down.

“Then for fun we take a sip and enjoy.”

The mind can be a powerful tool.
About National Heritage Academies:
Fortis Academy is part of NHA, a network of 98 tuition-free, public charter schools across nine states, serving more than 60,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. For more information, visit