It starts first thing in the morning, when the principal of Warner Arts Magnet Elementary School, Ricki Gibbs, comes over the loudspeaker.
“Boys and girls, when I count to three, I want you to take a deep breath in, and you’re going to reach tall to the sky,” Gibbs says, his voice booming through the hallways and into classrooms. “And now, when we let that breath out, boys and girls.”
This is what is called Warner’s “me moment,” a time for students to slow down and breathe.
And it’s how the East Nashville school begins, and ends, every day.
The exercise is part of a program called BeWell In School. Founded by former teacher and yoga instructor Riki Rattner, it aims to curb behavior issues and reduce stress by teaching children to tap into their breath.
Warner is BeWell’s pilot school, and it’s already transforming the culture. It’s lowered behavior referrals by almost 75% this year, helped boost test scores and improved teacher morale.
When Rattner arrived at Warner, it was on the heels of a difficult year. Warner had been placed on the state’s list of lowest performing schools and had racked up hundreds of behavioral referrals. Gibbs, Warner’s fourth principal in six years, was eager for new ideas.
“Most of the time, when children act up, they are trying to process something,” Gibbs says.
So he offered Rattner a classroom and the freedom to try her ideas: school-wide breathing exercises, support for teachers and individual sessions with students, all in the effort to help kids to see how anger feels in their bodies and what they can do to quell it.
“Do you feel your heart beating faster? Does your body feel hot? Do you feel everything tensing up into your center?” Rattner says she asks students, to help them understand their body’s reaction to anger and stress. “[We’re] starting to help them develop that body awareness, which they’ve lost if they’ve experienced a lot of trauma.”
An overwhelming number of Warner’s kids live in poverty. Almost 90% qualify for free lunch, and most live in low-income housing nearby. Many children come to Warner carrying trauma and troubles with them, Gibbs says, and behavior issues inevitably follow.
“But now that we’ve given them avenues to work on mindfulness, to work on just calming themselves getting to their center place,” Gibbs says, “where they can just be children and not worry about a bunch of what I consider grown folk things. It’s decreased significantly.”
Last year, from August until December, Warner logged 93 behavior referrals. This year it’s just 25. Gibbs credits much of it to Ratter’s work.
So far her salary has been paid by private donations, although Metro Schools will be pitching in for the spring semester. However, after that the school will need to once again raise private funds for the program, Gibbs says.
In some of Baltimore’s public schools, students are referred to Mindful Moment Room when they need some time to clam down. Other cities like Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Detroit have all experimented with meditation and mindfulness programs.
Rattner’s room, tucked away on the top floor of Warner, is awash in sunlight and brimming with plants. Soothing music drifts out of a desk speaker.
On the floor are yoga mats, toys and a lounging nook, giving students a private place to just be.
“We’ll do some breathing. We’ll do some movement. And they go back to class,” Rattner says of the time she spends one-on-one with students.
Students come here for all sorts of reasons. They may be having an off day, or involved in a squabble, or not on task in the classroom. They can be directed by their teacher or ask to come themselves.
Most sessions last just 15 minutes, a way to reset a student without stealing precious instruction time.
On a recent morning, a bespectacled fourth grader named Gabriel comes to see Rattner after a tiff in art class.
“Let’s get you checked in and calming down. Taking care of you,” she tells him.
She hands Gabriel an intake form where he fills out his name and circles an emoji face that best describes his current feeling — angry, sad, stressed and so on.
A few minutes later, after Gabriel settles into a cozy corner filled with pillows and stuffed animals, Rattner approaches him.
“Do you want to talk to me about what happened?” she says.
Gabriel launches into a story, about a classmate trying to take his pencil. “I tried to walk away but he followed me and tried to punch me and kick me,” Gabriel says. His eyes brim with tears.
“You didn’t retaliate in any way, and I am really proud of you for doing that, for staying calm,” Rattner responds, leaning in close.
Then, Rattner gets Gabriel a comfortable cushion to sit on and retrieves a colorful expanding ball from the shelf.
“So when we breathe, Gabriel, we want to breathe into our bellies. It fills up like a balloon.” She expands the ball as they breathe in together.
“And then we exhale pull your belly button in,” she says, letting out a long exhale.
Next she brings over a five-minute liquid timer, filled with colorful oily bubbles. She shakes it up and places it before Gabriel. This is how we feel when we get upset, she tells him.
“But then we breathe,” she says. “And things start to calm, they start to settle and we realize we’re OK, we’re safe, we have people who love us and we are capable of doing great things.”
The bubbles begin to fall and settle in the timer. Gabriel stares at it, resting his chin on his hands.
“This is time for you. Time to take care of yourself,” she tells him. “This is your ‘me moment,’ OK, Gabriel?”
When she checks back with him, five minutes later, she asks how his body feels.
“Beautiful,” he says.
“Beautiful! Ah, I love that,” she tells him.
Thirteen minutes have passed. Gabriel says he’s calm now and he’s ready to go back to class.