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Stories from the Field

New Jersey Educator Encourages Mindfulness to Help Community Cope with Stress

by Tara Lisciandro-Hornich

Tara Lisciandro-Hornich is a veteran 18-year high school teacher at Matawan Regional High School in Monmouth County, New Jersey. For more than a decade, she has incorporated mindfulness activities into her own classroom routine. With the sudden change of circumstances due to COVID-19, she’s still using those activities in her online classroom and also leading virtual mindfulness sessions to support colleagues and parents throughout her community.

What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is short for Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. It is made up of simple breath-work focused exercises and activities that assists people with stress, anxiety, depression and pain, many of the things educators, students and parents are facing now.

What’s an example of a mindfulness activity?
Mindfulness can be as simple as a breathing exercise while laying down, sitting or standing. It teaches you to breathe from the base of your abdomen instead of from your chest. I usually walk my students through the anatomy of the body and help them understand why their bodies should be linear, how that helps, instead of always finding themselves bending a and sinking into desks and chairs.. This helps the oxygen flows easier. After completing the exercise, I’ve found that students are more present, more grounded and more focused on the tasks ahead of them.

What’s the immediate result of doing these types of exercises?
If students just experience a minute or two to breathe and, I’ve found that it helps really ground and center a lot of their thinking for the rest their current day. The immediate response from some kids is that they like it and want to do it again! I spent September and October teaching them how to do it so we can use the practice throughout the year.

How did this virtual mindfulness session with colleagues and parents come about?
I had been working with the school administration for two years to add an actual mindfulness course. As that was approved, school administration thought why not work with coworkers and parents that were interested to help them get through this time? It’s great because it is open to anybody in the community via livestream on our district YouTube channel and it will be recorded for those who want to go back and watch later on.

Would you say practicing mindfulness helps students perform better academically or socially?
I would say both. For some, over the years, it’s been a way for them to feel more comfortable talking to friends and teachers. It’s helped them open up about talking about getting into college and getting jobs. It’s given them the confidence to seek help for the subjects they were struggling with and express how they were struggling.

Have your students taken these exercises beyond your classroom?
Yes! I had a group of students a few years back preparing to take their Italian AP exam. I received a call from the proctor before the test saying “I think your students are praying!” They were actually practicing one of the regular exercises as a group to calm themselves before the test. Three of those students have now become teachers.

In these virtual sessions, what are you relaying to your colleagues?
I want them to have access to resources. I’m letting them know that beyond that session I will be available to help them on how to practice and implement mindfulness activities until they feel comfortable. For some, they have to get comfortable practicing it themselves before they take it to their students.

What are you relaying to parents?

I used to teach family yoga and this is similar! I encourage families to have group mindfulness moments. Whether it’s family dinners or a family walk, I want them to know you can implement this into your day without a lot of work. For the moms and dads wearing multiple hats of parent and teacher, learning to take a mindful breath while playing with your kids, making dinner or out on an activity will help them move better through the day.

When do you use it?
A few minutes at the beginning of each class. It’s very helpful during test times when student anxiety is usually higher.

Have you had colleagues adopt mindfulness strategies?
I’ve done workshops for different schools on mindfulness. I’ve gotten emails afterwards saying that the educator may not be comfortable implementing it into their class but that they’re incorporating it into their morning routine. I’ve seen colleagues, educators and administrators, utilize it in their own worlds in a way that works best for them.

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The NEA Foundation joins the nation in mourning the passing of a stalwart for justice and equality for all, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Supreme Court Justice of the United States.