If a student gets in trouble at the Curiale School in Bridgeport, the person they would have to answer to is Eric Sigman, the vice principal who handles disciplinary action. In April Sigman introduced Come and Learn Mindfulness, or CALM, program, a meditation and yoga curriculum. He created it to change the school’s standard disciplinary model that involved sending students to his office if they misbehave.
Sigman arrived at Curiale in November. He wanted to make an instant impact, so he put a desk in the hallway to be closer to his students.
“I have a desk in the hallway for the middle school kids. I sit there all day, every day, as needed, and I’m a firm believer that these kids need to know that someone cares and someone’s watching.”
A student knocks on the door of Sigman’s office to ask him to break up some horseplay in the library. Sigman rushes out to calm the students down.
He says a consistent problem he’s noticed throughout Curiale is students are too distracted. Sigman says they also bring the stress from trauma caused at home to class. All of his students receive free and reduced lunch – a sign that poverty and food insecurity may affect their behavior at school.
“Some of the adversities that these kids have faced, we can’t even imagine,” says Sigman. “So it’s my goal to be able to give them the tools to handle those adversities, whether it’s in school or outside of school.”
Yale published a study in 2016 that showed students of color were suspended more often and received harsher punishments than white students in Connecticut. For example, students of color are three times more likely to receive one or more suspensions when compared to their white counterparts.
Sigman says the racial disparity in punishment, often called the school-to-prison pipeline, is why he wanted to take a different approach to helping kids stay out of trouble. So he called the program director of Kaia Yoga, Gina Norman, at her studio in Westport, Connecticut.
He said: “I want to do this program, will you support me?” She said, “Absolutely, yes, and in addition to helping you, I’m going to get 40 mats donated.”
Now yoga instructor Shinda DeRosa volunteers five days a week to lead several 20-minute group meditations at the school. DeRosa walks students of all ages, sizes, and ethnicities through several yoga stretches, poses and breathing techniques.
“We focus more on mindfulness, just to be able to teach the kids like how to self-regulate their emotions,” DeRosa says. “To help keep them out of trouble, we teach them a lot of breath work, with just like a few yoga poses here and there thrown in because they love that stuff.”
Before the end of each session, DeRosa transforms an empty classroom into her studio with meditative music. She hits a metal singing bowl that rings at a frequency meant to mimic the mantra “om” during the meditation. Students lie on their backs in corpse pose on their mats.
Then she closes the session with this: “Hands to your heart, eyes closed. Please repeat after me, ‘May we think peaceful thoughts, make we speak peaceful words, and may we have peace in our hearts. From my heart to yours, peace out.’”
After the session, teachers like Catherine Clohessy say they notice a difference in their students.
“When they make a poor choice they now reflect and they realize the choice they made,” says Clohessy. “Instead of getting argumentative or getting upset, they practice the strategies they’ve learned.”
Child psychologists point to a lack of scientific evidence about the benefits of yoga and meditation on children. Devon McCormick, who works with the Restorative Justice Practice at the University of New Haven, says it’s difficult for research to determine whether or not CALM will prevent bad student behavior.
“There’s only ever going to be so much meddling you can do with a school, and so coming in and dropping in to evaluate while kids are trying to get centered and sit still and be mindful, it just feels too artificial,” says McCormick.
McCormick believes the data-gathering process is flawed because there’s no causal relationship to determine if mindfulness changes student behaviors. But she believes there are more objective indicators, like small mood changes, to prove it helps.
Curiale School still wants to collect data of its own. School administrators say they plan to track the number of suspensions before and after the yoga program.
The students themselves say they feel a difference after their sessions. Anthony Gibbs, a 7th grader, enjoys the CALM room, but some students told him they use it to skip class.
“We need to stop taking advantage of her,” Gibbs says. “We need to go there when [we’re] really, really mad, instead of going there every single day just to fool around.”
Yoga instructor Shinda DeRosa says she hopes students like Gibbs learn to use these coping skills. She says a class like CALM would’ve been useful for her while growing up.
“Maybe some of the things that I had to go through could’ve been avoided just by being able to use my breath and calm myself down,” says DeRosa.
Back when she went to school in Bridgeport, DeRosa got in trouble for fighting. She thinks she acted out because of the abusive environment she faced at home. DeRosa found yoga later in life and uses it to inspire others. Now she feels her life has come full circle because she brings mindfulness to kids who face challenges like she did at their age.
“It’s really making me feel like my life before this CALM room is starting to make sense to me,” Derosa says. “I believe that this is why I’m here.”