Armed with Love

All of the talk lately about school shootings and arming teachers reminded me of one of my heroes.  Antoinette Tuff was the school bookkeeper in DeKalb County Georgia who in 2013 single-handedly prevented a school shooting by disarming the potential gunman.  Did she have a weapon? No.  But she was armed with calm, kindness, and compassion.  These crucial social and emotional skills helped her to save the lives of countless children and their teachers.  

As the full-time Peace Teacher at my school teaching more than five hundred kids every week I see a big part of my role as triage. I do my best to look out for the lonely, angry ones, the ones who always seem to be alone, the ones who aren’t connecting with the other kids. I don’t know anything about their reading or math skills. There are other wonderful teachers to take care of that. All I’m concerned with is their hearts and happiness. I’m lucky to work with an amazing SEL team who can take it from there and dig in and help. Why are schools spending more and more money on guards and staff whose sole purpose is to break up fights and discipline kids? Why doesn’t every school have a Peace teacher? Why isn’t this the most urgent need?

My students started calling me the “Peace Teacher” years ago and the title has stuck. At Lafayette Elementary school here in DC, all of the kids take a weekly Peace Class, based on a mindfulness-based social-emotional learning curriculum that I developed. I started out fifteen years ago teaching conflict resolution but I realized that the children had a hard time remembering how to use their conflict resolution skills when they were in a real conflict and were actually angry.  They didn’t have any skills to help them to recognize their emotions and calm down enough to work things out peacefully.  This is what led me to bring mindfulness into my classes.  

I wasn’t a mindfulness practitioner back then but my research led me to believe that the skills children can develop through mindfulness were exactly what they needed to help them achieve our conflict resolution goals.  I took a crash course in mindfulness over the summer and dove in warily with my first class.  I was surprised and thrilled to learn that the children loved it.  They were totally open and didn’t have any preconceived notions.  They could see it for what it really is, a set of skills that we can learn to help us to focus better, to manage our emotions, to calm ourselves down, to become kinder and more compassionate.  To be more peaceful.  After a year of teaching mindfulness to my students, I realized that the mindfulness practice was deepening every aspect of my curriculum. 

The combination of more traditional social-emotional learning lessons with mindfulness was like magic. The results we were seeing were remarkable.  The reports of fights and bullying were way down, kids were reporting that they were practicing mindfulness because it made them feel kinder, less anxious, less nervous, more confident, sleep better, have less anxiety about tests, the list goes on. Teachers reported that their classrooms were calmer and their students were more focused and kind.  

What started out as a little experiment quickly grew to be a school-wide program with all of the classroom teachers leading daily Mindful Moments, a team of 5th graders going into first grade classrooms to teach mindfulness, faculty members beginning to have their own mindfulness practices, an alternative recess space called Peace Club, and our school rules being reframed as “Speak Mindfully, Act Mindfully, Move Mindfully.”  

I believe that social-emotional skills are some of the most important skills that children can learn in school and that mindfulness is the best foundation for that learning.  But I also believe that having a dedicated Peace Teacher in a school really makes a difference. 

This work is critical.  All children need to learn these skills – not just the ones who are referred to the school counselor for extra help. Children in DC and across the country are living in an increasingly scary, uncertain world and it shows.  Children are anxious and stressed. Active shooter drills are terrifying and it is harder and harder for parents to keep kids sheltered from the mess our world is in.  Yes, we must make sure our schools are safe, but what our kids need to be armed with are the skills to deal with these difficult times.

Mindfulness-based social-emotional learning programs are not expensive, they benefit all children and they are backed up by research.  These skills help children be happier, healthier and more ready to learn. I believe that this kind of school-wide social-emotional learning intervention helps to prevent some of these smaller problems from becoming the kind of big problems that sometimes lead to unnecessary tragedy.  Of course, no amount of school-based intervention can completely compensate for serious problems in the home or the community but I believe we owe it to our students to give their hearts as much attention as we give their heads. 

Neuroscientists have shown that happiness is a skill that can be learned and that mindfulness is the best way to learn this skill.  This is life-changing information.  There is much that we can do in school to help all of our students learn the skills they need to cope with challenges, to become more resilient, and to be happier and healthier people for life.  I see firsthand every day how important this work is to my students.  What could be more important?

Here’s what you can do to bring mindfulness and SEL to your children and your school:

  1. Introduce mindfulness to your family. Mindfulness doesn’t have to be serious.  We have lots of fun in Peace Class.  There are wonderful books such as Mindful Monkey, Happy Panda by Kerry MacLean and Anh’s Anger by Gail Silver to help kids learn some of the basic concepts.  I’ve written two books for kids (and have two more on the way) called Rosie’s Brain and Henry is Kind that introduce kids to brain science and compassion practice respectively. There are apps like Calm, Headspace and Mind Yeti that have recorded lessons for children to try.  For free you can try watching mindfulness practice videos by me at or by my friend mindfulness hip-hop artist JusT me at  

2. Take Five – One of the simplest but most useful mindfulness practice I teach in Peace class is called Take Five Breathing. All you do is trace your hand slowly while breathing in and out.  Breathe in as you trace up starting at your thumb, breathe out as you trace down.  It’s simple, fun, and it really works.  

3.  Advocate for Mindfulness-based SEL in your school.  Mindfulness is having a moment right now and more and more schools are beginning to catch on,  However, not all mindfulness programs are created equal.  Research is showing more and more that it is the combination of mindfulness and social-emotional learning that makes the difference.  Many programs offer 8-week introductions to mindfulness.  This is a great start, but as someone who has been teaching mindfulness weekly to children from pre-k to 5th grade I can say that this is where the real change starts.  It’s ongoing and it’s school-wide. That commitment is why we are seeing the real changes.  If you want to learn more about how to bring mindfulness-based SEL to your school check out  

Mindfulness, inclusion and umbrellas in the rain

This morning as I was walking our dog, I came upon a group of middle schoolers waiting on the corner for their bus. Or I should say, corners. On the right were two groups of talking, jostling kids, huddling close together under shared umbrellas in the rain. On the opposite corner was one boy, without umbrella or hood, weighed down by a soaking backpack. He was looking away from the group, unsheltered and disconnected.

This scenario hit close to home. For the last three years, my partners Linda and Jillian and I have devoted ourselves to developing, writing and publishing our Peace of Mind Curriculum. We believe that teaching mindfulness skills to elementary school students as the foundation for social and emotional learning lessons leads to kinder, more empathetic, happier children, and more inclusive schools. I wondered how much emphasis the school the corner kids were heading to placed on social and emotional learning, and whether the group of kids had considered the lone kid.

As I was approaching the corner, contemplating what I could do to brighten the boy’s day, I saw the kids on the opposite corner begin to look his way and talk a bit louder. My heart sank, my breath constricted, my stomach hurt, and my body’s emotional memories of middle school were triggered, expecting the old story of exclusion and teasing to play out.  And then, unexpectedly my whole body relaxed as I watched what unfolded:

The two groups of kids on corner merged into one, called out friendly greetings to the boy, and crossed the street, covering him with their umbrellas – not to make him uncomfortable, but to include him.  As I passed I saw a slow smile forming on the boy’s face, and felt an easiness in the group.

Beautiful. Hopeful. Profound. A new story.

We know that children have the innate desire and ability to be kind. We know they want to have good relationships with their friends, and nearly every child would rather work out a problem peacefully.   We also know that young children, not to mention older children and adults, often have a hard time noticing and managing their emotions so that they can act or speak kindly and make decisions that strengthen relationships and make compromise possible.

Mindfulness helps.   Someone in that group on the corner was mindful of the lone boy’s predicament and motivated his or her peers to make a kind choice. It’s hard to know if this changed the boy’s life in any meaningful way, though it did bring a smile to his face on a cold wet morning. But we do know, based on current research and our own experience, that the kids who acted in this kind way are likely to feel happy about it, and to act in kind ways again.

Even though this is what we teach, this simple kind act of moving the umbrellas from one side of the street to the other took my breath away.  Our children already have the innate ability to create a more peaceful, fair and kind world. It’s our job to help them see this and to model and nurture the behavior that will get us there.

– Cheryl  2/23/18

Football and Mindfulness?

Football and mindfulness? 

Most people wouldn’t think that football and mindfulness would really go together, but in Peace Class, you never know what will happen.  Last Monday morning my students came in even groggier than usual.  It was the morning after the Superbowl and most of the kids had stayed up much too late.  Iwas trying to think of a way to wake them up so that we could do our mindfulness practice. 

We were getting ready to do a practice adults call “noting” that we call “Popcorn” in our Peace of Mind Curriculum.  In this practice we try to count our breaths and whenever we notice that our minds have wandered away we “pop” our finger and then start counting again. It’s a fun practice that the kids enjoy, especially when I call it a mindfulness game.  We always talk about how this practice helps us to strengthen our focusing muscles so that it is easier for us to concentrate.  

“How do you think the ability to focus might have helped Nick Foles (the Philadelphia Eagles quarterback) win the game?” I asked.  Suddenly everybody was awake.  The kids had a lot of opinions but most were about the Patriots.  So I decided we needed a reenactment.

I said, “Okay so say that I’m the quarterback.”  I grabbed the little Peace bear that sits on my shelf to be my football. Now, I know next to nothing about football, but I get the basic idea, so I chose someone to be the receiver and she ran back and forth across the room from me.  Then I chose three kids to be the people who are trying to block the receiver.  Then I chose some kids to be the giant men trying to tackle me.  Then I chose some kids to be the cheering crowd on either side.  Then I chose some kids to represent the millions of people watching at home.  Once everybody had a role we started the “game.” 

In slow motion, I pretended to throw the ball to my receiver and I narrated my thoughts.  “Geez the receiver is running all over the place, and those big guys keep blocking him, and these giants are running at me ready to mow me down, and the fans are so noisy, it’s deafening.  And there are millions of people watching this at home.  My job is on the line and my coach and all my teammates and all their families are counting on me to make this pass.  Yikes!  That’s so much pressure!!!”  

Then we froze and I asked the kids what I needed to do.  “Focus!” they said.  “Breathe!” they said.  “Block it out!” they said.  “Aha,” I said.  “So do you see how the practice of trying to focus on your breath and then noticing when your mind wanders and trying to bring it back over and over again could come in handy for the quarterback?” I said.  And they got it. I saw the light bulbs going off like a Christmas tree.  So we sat and we did our mindfulness practice like a football player would. 

Many professional sports teams have Mindfulness Coaches now, including the Seattle Seahawks, the Chicago Cubs, the LA Lakers, and the Golden State Warriors.  As George Mumford, the author, mindfulness teacher, and mindfulness coach to Michael Jordan and LeBron James says, most professional athletes are about the same when it comes to physical ability.  The thing that sets apart the truly great players is what he calls the “mental game.” My students can’t control how their bodies will turn out – how tall or big they are going to be is already determined by their genes. However, the mental game is available to anyone.  And it is something that will help them succeed at whatever they decide to do.  – Linda

Neuroscience and Mindfulness in Early Childhood

What can 4 and 5 year olds learn about neuroscience and their brains? As it turns out, plenty! This week we finished up our Peace of Mind Pre-K and K unit on the brain, and it never fails to amaze me how much these little brains are soaking up. When we first started out five weeks ago, the words “hippocampus” and “amygdala” were so foreign and strange on their tongues (pickle-campus and hippo-camper were two of my favorite bungles) and truthfully, felt strange to me as an educator to be teaching, too. “Maybe this is too much for them,” I thought. “Maybe I need to slow it down a little more, or come up with cutesy phrases like “wise owl” instead of “Pre-frontal cortex.” But by the second class, I was impressed that several kids were already using their hippocampi to recall all these terms and facts after just one lesson! By the third and fourth weeks, more kids joined in with recalling the three parts of the brain we had been learning and what each part does. As the material became less novel and more familiar, our enjoyment of the content increased too.

At Peace of Mind,  we believe that this knowledge helps children better understand their emotions, behaviors, and reactions, which leads to increased self-control and self-management. After completing lessons on our “overactive amygdala,” students tell me how they tried new foods, smelled a horrible smell but stayed calm, and took deep breaths to think about a reaction instead of just yelling and screaming. Some of them tell about showing moms, dads, and siblings how to keep from “flipping their lid” as well. Four and five-year-olds. When we equip them with this level of self-awareness at such an early age, they can certainly grow a lot!

And just imagine where these brains will be in a few years after repeated exposure to this material when the emotional reactions and decision-making stakes become so much higher in adolescence. For more information on the neuroscience behind Peace of Mind’s curriculum, check out Dr. Dan Siegel’s groundbreaking work, or our resource page.  – Jillian

Peace of Mind Makes its Mindful Movie Debut

In the spring of 2015, staff and students of Lafayette Elementary School, Peace of Mind’s home school,  were filmed and interviewed for a documentary about mindfulness by director Paul Mcpeace-of-mind-washington-dc-kidsGowan.  The resulting film, just released, is titled A Joyful Mind. We were supposed to be a very small piece of the film, but the filmmakers truly got it, and the section on Peace of Mind takes up almost ten minutes of the whole 60 minute documentary! It’s wonderful to hear students speak so eloquently about how mindfulness practice helps them academically, to deal with strong emotions and to be better friends, and helps them live happier, healthier lives.   Truly, this is why we do this work.    Check out the trailer here!