Southern Hills Middle School students learned about yoga, meditation and other mindfulness activities along with participating in team-building activities with Avid4 Adventure. Students took a walk around a nearby lake to learn about mindful movement, learned calming breathing techniques and heard about the importance of a growth mindset during a day of workshops.
“We felt compelled to do this,” said Kristen Kron, a counseling intern at Southern Hills. “With the stress and anxiety students are feeling in this crazy world, they weren’t feeling very present. We wanted to give them strategies to help them be healthy and happy.”
Southern Hills counselors Victoria Valencia and Chris Congedo developed the Boulder school’s first Social Emotional Learning week with help from Kron and Dee Marie, founder of Calming Kids.
“No matter where you go, there’s this constant bombardment of stimuli,” Marie said. “There’s no way to disconnect. To shift to empathy, compassion and higher reasoning, we have to strengthen the part of the brain in middle schoolers that’s not fully developed.”
Southern Hills’ efforts are part of an overall school district focus on social emotional learning. The district previously brought in a five-member team from the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning to conduct an analysis.
This school year, the district also hired 10 elementary counselors, two behavioral health advocates and a half-time coordinator. Before, only middle and high schools had counselors, with elementary counselors identified by schools at all levels as the highest budget priority.
At Southern Hills, Valencia said, she’s seeing lots of anxious kids.
“We want them to have tools available to help them cope with difficult situations and emotions,” she said. “We want kids to learn how to assess what they’re feeling and learn how to self-regulate.”
Kron added that the goal is to keep the project going by consistently integrating the practices students learned from the anti bullying program into the school day.
During the week, she led a session on meditation, asking students to sit with backs straight and focus only on their breathing. Then, she had them relax their muscles, one after the other, with music playing and lights dimmed.
“Right now, I just want you to breathe,” she told them.
Some students said they found the lesson relaxing, while others said it was challenging to stay still or not be distracted by noise around them.
Seventh-grader Julia Abboud said she liked that the workshops provided practical advice, but preferred more active ones to those with a lecture format.
She added that she would like the school to add a regular meditation time.
“That was pretty relaxing,” she said.
Classmate Tory O’Brien said her favorite was yoga.
“My mom goes to yoga every morning, but I’ve never been to a class. I was surprised, but I was actually pretty good at it. It was really fun.”
Click here for a 2 minute anti bullying video demonstrating Checking In: CALMING KIDS ~ Checking-In
Checking In — The First Step Toward Mindfulness At CALMING KIDS, we strongly believe that a child who practices nonviolence is also a child who practices self-awareness and mindfulness. Children who are aware of themselves also tend to be more aware of the effects their actions have on others.
Oftentimes, kids who feel frustrated or angry will lash out by bullying or hitting one another before even taking a moment to assess what they are feeling and why they’re feeling that way. We created the CALMING KIDS curriculum for schools to teach children to pause after experiencing whatever it is they’re feeling, so that they may understand it — and themselves — better. As a result, the amount of bullying and violent acts among children is greatly reduced.
The first step to helping children achieve mindfulness is to teach them to “check-in” with their bodies and minds. With younger children, ages preschool through third grade, it can prove extremely helpful to start with an introduction to body awareness.
For children of all ages, CALMING KIDS approaches mindfulness with an exercise called “Checking In.” Children are encouraged to check in once or twice a day, especially when not feeling their happiest. They are taught to observe their postures and breath, which will help bring awareness to which emotions they’re feeling, and the kinds of thoughts that are coming to mind. In checking in, kids are learning how to get in touch with themselves and gain more control over how they express themselves. For a short anti bullying video tutorial on Checking In ~ click image above
Learning how to calm the mind and check in with our body sensations and emotions is a challenge for most of us. Responsibilities and social media tend to keep us running from one task and distraction to another. As adults and teachers, we model to our kids and students the ‘cult of busy-ness’ and then feel frustrated when our kids are glued to screens at every free moment. When I was a school teacher, gone all day and then busy in the evenings with grading papers and planning classes for the next day, my 10 year old son was ‘kept busy’ with his smartphone and computer. Now at age 15, when he’s not at school or sports, he has his headphones on and is on his smartphone, the tablet they gave him at school, or his computer…it’s hard to even get his attention or initiate communication when we’re in the same room!
Recently, Dee Marie and Gina Kane of CALMING KIDS came out with a new pocket-sized book called Finding Calm in a Moment: 108 Practices in Movement, Mindfulness and Meditation for All Ages. I decided to commit for a few days to taking 5 minutes every morning to practice a super short meditation or two. I was drawn to the two page section on the heart, called “Heart Health.” In it are four simple practices to connect with your heart…two involve putting your hands on your heart and checking in with your heartbeat and breath, and two suggest diving in to your heart with your mind’s eye, visualizing an expedition into the heart, or a beautiful lotus flower blooming on a lake in the heart. All four meditations probably took about 5 minutes total, and at the end I felt refreshed, and connected to my heart and my emotions as well as my breath and the warmth and beauty within me.
By the end of 3 days, I had all four of the meditations memorized, adding them to my personal toolkit of ways to find calm in a moment.
It occurred to me while I was doing the meditations one morning that a child who was being bullied (as I was as a child), or a child who was a bully, would be so helped by connecting with their heart in this way. By practicing self-awareness, by being willing to feel our own warmth and aliveness, we automatically are connected to resources within that we could never get by staring at a screen. Something so simple as putting your hands on your heart and feeling the expansion of your chest for a minute could have such a profound effect on yourself and your day, and the children in our world!
“At CALMING KIDS, we strongly believe that a child who practices nonviolence is also a child who practices self-awareness and mindfulness. Children who are aware of themselves also tend to be more aware of the effects their actions have on others.”
Being self-aware leads to non-violence towards yourself and others. It just takes a few short minutes to build a habit of self-awareness that can last throughout your day, potentially making a major difference in your life.
As adults, instead of (or maybe in addition to?) modeling ‘busy-ness’, we could model for the kids in our lives a commitment to taking a few moments in our day to put down what we are doing, and check in with the sensations in our bodies and the emotions swirling through our hearts. Can we get into the habit of practicing self-awareness, especially when we are upset, anxious, overwhelmed, or frustrated? Can we commit to creating non-violence within, first, and then see that spread into the world around us?
For a short and simple guided practice to show teens how to check in with their bodies and emotions, visit
How relaxation and mindfulness are helping kids self regulate, an article by Angela K. Evans in the Boulder Weekly, October 20, 2016:
Often, someone will stop Dee Marie on the street in Boulder and say, “Hey, you were the yoga lady at my [school]. I still remember to breathe when I get tense. I still remember the things we learned.”
As the founder of CALMING KIDS (CK): Creating a NonViolent World, Dee Marie has been teaching yoga in Boulder Valley schools for more than a decade. Centered around the Sanskrit wordahimsa, which she translates as “non-violence towards self and others,” her curriculum is part of a national effort to combat violence in schools. October is designated Stop America’s Violence Everywhere (SAVE) month by American Medical Association (AMA) Alliance. Started in 1995, AMA Alliance members have implemented more than 700 SAVE projects around the country.
As the SAVE representative for the state of Colorado, Dee Marie, a long-time member of the AMA Alliance, started CALMING KIDS in 2004 in response to a growing concern with the increasing number of school shootings taking place around the country.
“We did four years of study to prove that if we teach in the schools, we can decrease violence and help children with relaxation and self-regulation,” she says.
First Dee Marie trained teachers in the curriculum, but it quickly expanded to teaching the school staff how to practice the same principles of relaxation and self-regulation, as well as conducting classes for the kids with the goal “to try to create the new paradigm in the schools which is (she inhales and exhales slowly) that we can relax,” Dee Marie says. “The schools just need relaxation. Everybody needs the ability to focus, relax, come into their center to help them in all aspects of their life. With children, it’s to help them with test taking and their anxiety as well as their communication with each other on the playground. And with the teachers, it’s to help them with the bureaucracy and to keep going day after day in an environment that is very demanding.”
A large part of the SAVE campaign is combating bullying in schools. According to DoSomething.org, approximately 3.2 million students are victims of bullying each year and 17 percent report being bullied two to three times a month or more. Bullying can lead to kids skipping school and even dropping out. Moreover, 71 percent of students report that bullying is a problem in their schools and 67 percent say their school doesn’t handle bullying effectively.
With CALMING KIDS, Dee Marie hopes to change these statistics by equipping kids with personal and relational skills through the practice of mindfulness.
“It’s deep program in a child-like and fun way,” she says. “We’re going after some deep concepts here — how we breathe and how we think affects how we act and how we feel.”
In addition to the physical aspects of yoga, the CALMING KIDS curriculum includes practical role play so the kids can practice dialoguing what they would do in certain situations. The program allows the kids to think about potential situations and how to react to them.
“What do you do in this situation? Is it appropriate to walk away? Is it appropriate to say something? Is it appropriate to tell the teacher? It’s really important to understand the three choices and when to use them,” Dee Marie says.
Other questions she asks the kids are: “How can I have a compassionate heart? How can I find calmness even though you’re being mean to me? How can I stand up to you and know it’s not about me, it’s about you? Where are you coming from? Where is the other person coming from? Is it good for the community is, it good for you? What are the repercussions going to be?”
These are big questions for all of us, especially kids. But that doesn’t deter Dee Marie from asking them anyway. And, as her research shows, it’s working.
“What we found was that not only did we help the kids that were targeted, the bullied, rise, but the bullies relaxed and started to understand what they were doing,” she says. “… We empower the targeted, we relax and bring some consciousness to the bullies and then we get the bystanders to show up. Bystanders have to chime in and talk, not just sit back and watch or laugh.”
Dee Marie knows from personal experience just how rehabilitative and freeing these principles can be. In the early ’80s she was a professional dancer in New York City, performing mostly modern jazz and theatrical dances. But one snowy night, the cab she was getting into was hit by a truck.
“I was told I would never walk again and I definitely never would dance again,” she says. “[But] I rehabilitated myself through many techniques and the best of them all was yoga therapy.”
Fully recovered from the accident, Dee Marie had found a new passion. She went on to study at the Himalayan Institute of Yoga Science and Philosophy in Pennsylvania and became a certified yoga therapist in 1986.
For the last 25 years, Dee Marie has been in Boulder working with people of all ages and abilities, teaching yoga and offering yoga therapy to people with brain injuries, kids with disabilities and others.
Courtesy of Dee Marie
Dee Marie first implemented the CALMING KIDS program in Boulder Valley schools, but it quickly expanded into Summit County, Denver, Arvada and most recently Jefferson County. And it’s spread internationally as well. Dee Marie has developed an extensive training curriculum bringing educators from Mexico, Colombia, Puerto Rico and Palestine, among others, to train in Boulder.
“My mission is to get yoga to everybody and anybody,” she says. “Yoga is not a system of exercise. In classical yoga we do movement in order to get our body comfortable. We do yoga in order to regulate our breathing. We do mindful meditation and concentrations to focus the mind. In classical yoga, we look at our communication skills and how we’re appearing to the community.”
She’s also written several activity workbooks for children to accompany her classes, the first of which, “Yoga Keeps Me Calm, Fit and Focused” has been translated into multiple languages, and they are being used in schools Mexico, Central America, Saudi Arabia and Palestine.
“The more we get the body, the breathing, the mind in a calmer, more loving and more released place within themselves, the more they can handle anything that is happening in the outer world,” she says. “Negative confrontation will come to us no matter what age we are. It’s understanding just how to have a compassionate heart and the compassion that you can give to others whether they are your friend or enemy.”
Dee Marie says the goal is to make the ideas behind CALMING KIDS mainstream by 2020, hopefully decreasing violence in schools both here and around the world.
“I’ve devoted my life to it and I feel like I make this much (she depicts about an inch with her fingers) of a difference considering where it’s going,” she says. “It’s scary, we watch the media and the type of movies that are coming out, and what they are teaching the kids is to pick up a gun and shoot. So I feel like I have so much work to do.”
In 1983, when I was in third grade, the bullying began. The popular girl in class wanted my best friend to be her best friend, and so she made it her task to belittle me, scorn me, and gossip about me, until my best friend betrayed me and went over to the dark side. So not only did I lose my best friend – someone I had spent a lot of time with, shared personal secrets and hopes with, and relied on for support – but now I was openly bullied by her, and the popular girl. I remember being surrounded by about 10 kids on the playground – taunting me, pushing me, throwing things at me – and looking over at the teacher on duty, who was carefully looking in the other direction. I didn’t view the adults at the school as any kind of solution or offering help, so I just tried to tolerate the abuse the best I could. As the school bus rounded the corner to enter the school driveway, I would get panic attacks, my heart rate went up, cold sweat on my skin. That year, I developed a strange habit of hyperventilating…my breath was out of control, and the more I tried to breathe, the more out of breath I felt. I would get sent to the nurse to ride it out by breathing into a paper bag, then sent back to class. No one – not my parents, the teachers, the school nurse…ever stopped to ask why a 9 year old girl was hyperventilating at school.
The popular girls began writing on the bathroom walls, graffiti about how I was the “scum of the earth”. Which I believed and internalized. But in some effort at self-defense, I wrote back on the bathroom walls. So we all got a week of detention after school, forced together into a room to stew in anger and hatred for each other. There was no effort at intervention, at opening a conversation about what was going on, about the hateful things that were written on the walls.
In the 4th grade, I stopped going outside at recess. It wasn’t safe. I dreaded the lunchroom. I begged to eat my lunch in the classroom with the teacher – which wasn’t ever allowed.
By the 5th grade, some strange behavior started up. I would dress every day from my mother’s closet, wearing clothes that were too big for me, and putting on lots of make-up. Some sort of effort at willing myself into adulthood, out of a situation that was so out of my control, and so intolerable.
And in middle school, the truly self-destructive behavior began. Cutting myself, smoking cigarettes, drinking, being promiscuous with boys much older than me, fantasizing about suicide, smoking pot…the long road of addiction, co-dependency, and self-hatred had begun.
Here are some statistics about the current state of bullying in our country:
Over 3.2 million students are victims of bullying each year.
Approximately 160,000 teens skip school every day because of bullying.
1 in 10 students drop out of school because of repeated bullying.
Of course, I’m just one example…but I believe that being alienated by and an exile from my peers at an early age, helped to set in motion the self-destructive and addictive behavior that lasted throughout my 20s and well into my 30s.
Here’s an abstract on a study called “Bullying at school—an indicator of adolescents at risk for mental disorders”
A number of 14–16 year old Finnish adolescents taking part in the School Health Promotion Study (n=8787 in 1995, n=17643 in 1997) were surveyed about bullying and victimization in relation to psychosomatic symptoms, depression, anxiety, eating disorders and substance use. A total of 9 per cent of girls and 17 per cent of boys were involved in bullying on a weekly basis. Anxiety, depression and psychosomatic symptoms were most frequent among bully-victims and equally common among bullies and victims. Frequent excessive drinking and use of any other substance were most common among bullies and thereafter among bully-victims. Among girls, eating disorders were associated with involvement in bullying in any role, among boys with being bully-victims. Bullying should be seen as an indicator of risk of various mental disorders in adolescence.
That study confirms my experience, and is a clear sign that if we want to stem the tide of destruction that addiction is causing in our country, bully-proofing schools is an important step.
One bright spot, for me, however. When I was 12, I learned Sun Salutations, a basic yoga series from the Ashtanga tradition. I practiced that series every day all throughout my teens and 20s. It was a small raft of self-care in an ocean of self-hatred. A few minutes of taking care of my body, instead of trying to hurt it. It felt good, but didn’t cause guilt or shame afterwards. Somehow, that little bit of light helped me hang on through the darkness.
Today, I’m a yoga teacher. Yoga has, at several points, literally saved my life. Taking the time for self-care, moving my body, breathing deeply, and making a connection with something beyond what I can see, has been a lifeline. Let’s offer that lifeline to anyone ready to catch it.
Please support CALMING KIDS: Creating a Non-Violent World in bringing yoga into the schools, and help children like me find yoga!