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Published on September 21, 2016

Teaching kids to pay attention on purposeTeaching kids to pay attention on purpose

Calmer Choice photo - Fiona

Fiona Jensen

When Fiona Jensen’s daughter and friends came home distraught over the suicides of two of their classmates in 2010, she realized that teens were lacking some of the necessary coping skills to deal with the increasing stressors in their lives.

The first hint of the current opioid crisis was also beginning to appear, another clue that young people were turning to harmful and self-destructive answers to life’s challenges.

Jensen and a small group of like-minded Cape residents decided to start a grass roots effort to teach kids more positive ways of coping. The result was Calmer Choice, a program now being taught in local schools.

“One part of what we teach is mindful awareness, which is basically paying attention on purpose to whatever you are experiencing,” Jensen said. “When you pause to do that, you create this space where you actually can create choice. We are teaching children to find that space between a thought and an action.”

Jensen had begun a mindfulness practice herself about two years earlier that really helped her with her life-long struggle with anxiety. She wished she had learned to find that quiet place within herself when she was younger and thought such a program might help not only kids her daughter’s age, but also younger children.

Calmer Choice was born and in the past six years they have brought their curriculum to 18 area schools.

A Big Difference

Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School health and physical education teacher Allison Graham said she has seen a big difference in students since the program began there.

“I’ve seen calmer transitions between classes,” Graham said. “I had a student write me a note thanking Calmer Choice for helping him learn how to deal with his homework anxiety. I’ve overheard students talking about having trouble sleeping and other students will ask, ‘Have you tried mindfulness?’ Students have even talked about using it before MCAS.”

Calmer Choice instructors also teach brain neuroscience, social emotional learning and health and wellness using age-appropriate curriculum for children from kindergarten through high school. It’s a 16-session twice-a-week program that begins with teaching children awareness of sound and then moves on to breath. Every third lesson is a lesson in kindness and generosity.

“We talk to children about their brains and about the stress response,” Jensen said. “One of the amazing things about the human brain is that when you express gratitude for something that it actually secretes a hormone that makes you feel better.”

Bart Main, MD, a psychiatrist at the Centers for Behavioral Health of Cape Cod Healthcare is on the board of directors of Calmer Choice. He said that one of the reasons Calmer Choice works is that it teaches people to respond using the more thoughtful pre-frontal cortex of the brain rather than the more primitive amygdala which governs emotions.

“The notion that we don’t have to just react to emotions, that we can pause and reflect and then respond in a more deliberate fashion is foreign for so many kids,” Dr. Main said. “The concept that we can experience these feelings and then choose how to respond gives us complete control over our lives. It’s absolutely critical for what we would refer to as maturity.”

Some Changes This Year

Calmer Choice earned wide praise until early February 2016, when Dennis-Yarmouth Regional School Committee member Michelle Conover presented school superintendent Carol Woodbury with an ultimatum to discontinue the Calmer Choice program or face possible litigation.

Jensen and the board of directors reacted exactly the way they teach children to do – they took a big pause and stayed calm. They looked over all their literature and made some minor changes to language to reflect what the program actually does.

Conover was concerned that the Calmer Choice program was a Trojan horse for Buddhism, which would violate the constitutional tenants of religious freedom and separation of church and state. Jensen said that no one at Calmer Choice is Buddhist and pointed out that people were practicing contemplation before Buddhism began.

The Calmer Choice program is not meant to be offensive to anyone, Jensen said. With that in mind, they sent their curriculum to a well-known religious scholar and expert Candy Gunther Brown, PhD and asked, “Is there anything that shouldn’t be in here from a religious standpoint or that would be offensive to you?”

Calmer Choice members also sought input and feedback from local Christian leaders, such as the Rev. David Otis who is retired from First Light Church of Cape Cod in Chatham and Bob Huff, the prayer pastor at Gateway Christian Center in Cotuit. They also spoke at length with Lawrence Brown, an interfaith minister who teaches humanities at Cape Cod Academy in Osterville.

“The response was they felt it was a really important program,” Jensen said. “They said that a lot of the young people that were attending their churches were really in need of it and that they were wholeheartedly behind it. They suggested a couple of things that we might do differently, and we changed those things.

“For instance, they suggested rather than having children send kind thoughts to those they love, they might do kind things for those people, instead.”

Going Forward

Superintendent Woodbury supported keeping the program and, in March of this year, Conover publicly stated that she was satisfied with the outcome that the school will send opt-out notices home to parents before the program starts in their child’s classroom. The opt-out option has always been available, Jensen said, even though it’s rarely been used.

Calmer Choice’s ultimate goal is to teach individual schools to handle their program internally. The Falmouth school district was recently awarded a $100,000 grant by The Peter and Elizabeth C. Tower Foundation over the next three years to independently teach the Calmer Choice curriculum at their four elementary schools.

During the first year, Calmer Choice instructors will do all the teaching and a voluntary training of staff. The second year, they will train one to two employees in each building to become Calmer Choice instructors. The third year, those instructors will work as apprentices and watch one lesson, then teach one lesson, on and off.

“By the end of the third year, if all goes as planned, they would be able to provide their own Calmer Choice program,” she said.

A guidance counselor at Quashnet Elementary School in Mashpee and a health and physical education teacher at the Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School in Harwich are already trained to teach Calmer Choice independently.