Awaken Pittsburgh develops mindfulness programs for youth, teachers
January 24, 2017 12:00 AM
From left LaTonya Rickerson, Chenoa Matthews and Nik Fisher, react as they discuss responding to conflict during a mindfulness class for teens led by Stephanie Romero of Awaken Pittsburgh at the All of Us Care program held at the Family Worship Center in Sharpsburg.
D'Arcy Sykes does a cross-brain training exercise during a mindfulness class for teens led by Stephanie Romero of Awaken Pittsburgh at the All of Us Care program held at the Family Worship Center in Sharpsburg.
Stephanie Romero, right, executive director of Awaken Pittsburgh leads a mindfulness class for teens in the All of Us Care program at the Family Worship Center in Sharpsburg.
By Jill Daly / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Newly armed with a doctorate in education, Stephanie Romero, executive director of the new nonprofit Awaken Pittsburgh, is developing curriculum for mindfulness with projects in various sites in the Pittsburgh area.
During her studies — with a focus on mindfulness as a teacher — she discovered efforts to use meditative practices to help at-risk youth. Ms. Romero said she found a compelling curriculum called Path of Freedom, designed for at-risk and incarcerated youth and adult prisoners and developed by Kate Crisp and Fleet Maull.
The program goal is to give participants greater self-awareness, improved impulse control and greater social awareness.
Ms. Romero has delivered the Path of Freedom program to prisoners in the Allegheny County Jail.
“It changed the way I worked with kids,” she said. “It changed me deeply.”
She had been a teacher at South Fayette Middle School and enjoys that age group, she said.
“They’re really malleable. That 12- to 16-year-old age is when they are doing identity formation. There’s a different way to interact with the world. …”
In 2015 she started the nonprofit and secular Awaken Pittsburgh. It offers two mindfulness courses, Path of Freedom for teens and Mindfulness in Schools. It’s partnering with the All of Us Care after-school program in Sharpsburg to develop a mindfulness course for teens in that setting.
Launching similar curriculum in schools should start with administrators and teachers, Ms. Romero said. “We have to have a culture where we’re all working together.”
Teachers model an awareness that helps themselves and in turn helps their students, Ms. Romero said. A teacher can see students need time and a quiet space to avoid getting too upset and can help them find that. “You start to eliminate disruption.”
Ms. Romero, Carrie McCann, program developer for Awaken Pittsburgh, and Mt. Lebanon High School teacher Tina Raspanti have participated in teacher training developed by Penn State education researchers Patricia Jennings and Mark Greenberg. In a 2013 study, they reported that mindfulness training for teachers was found to improve their social and emotional competence and leads to less stress and burnout and better classroom experiences. The program, called CARE for Teachers, is available for teachers in kindergarten through 12th grade (www.care4teachers.com).
For the coming school year, Awaken Pittsburgh is working out the details of programs in three school districts.
Place for calm
Ms. McCann and Ms. Romero reunited with the teens in the All of Us Care program recently after the new year and created a quiet space for them in the program director’s office.
Eight Fox Chapel High School students, most from the Sharpsburg area, settled in and showed a friendly ease with each other. They took turns reporting their emotional temperature, an exercise that builds the students’ awareness of their emotional state and also lets teachers know where the students are at the moment, Ms. Romero explained later.
One young man brought in a sign that says “Triggered,” instigating some talk about what emotional trigger he might be referring to. A stillness about Ms. Romero contrasted with the students’ energy. They tucked phones and tablets away to focus on the program.
For several minutes they slowed down, sitting still and quietly focusing on their breathing. “Notice where in your body you feel yourself breathing,” Ms. Romero said, beginning and ending the soothing exercise with the ring of a bell.
Participant Brianna Cooley, 14, reported that a song in her head made her struggle to stay focused. “That happens sometimes,” Ms. Romero said.
Tsion Burch said he has found relaxed breathing works for him outside of the group — three or four counts of breathing in, seven counts of holding the breath and eight counts of exhaling.
That day’s subject was “what is conflict?” and Ms. McCann explained how conflict can occur, using a ladder illustration in a slide show to break down each step. The steps rise from the initial experience up through what a person notices, how a person adds meaning to it, makes assumptions, draws conclusions, forms beliefs and, lastly, either takes action or doesn’t take action.
Then five possible ways of taking action are explored, using animal natures illustrated in slides: A lion competes, a zebra makes a deal, bees collaborate, a chameleon is accommodating, and a turtle avoids.
“Can you think about some downsides of being a bee?” Ms. McCann asked, explaining that sometimes there’s too much collaborating and a person takes on too much work.
The teens considered various scenarios — adapted to suit the teens’ lives, involving friends and parents — and practiced using the animals to describe how they would respond to a conflict.
Walking away after the class ended, LaTonya Rickerson, 15, said she liked it: “It’s nice and calm and relaxing.”
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