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January 9, 2012
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MindUp: Giving students a leg up in Basalt

BASALT - Soon, students at Basalt Elementary School will take more than potty breaks and snack breaks. They will take "brain breaks."

"Brain breaks are short periods of focused breathing," said Kathy Hegberg, a Basalt-based child therapist who has worked as a counselor at the elementary school on a contract basis. "But with just 20 seconds of this, it is amazing the difference you see in the kids."

Brain breaks - as well as several other unique teaching techniques - are part of a new "social and emotional" learning program being implemented at the elementary school this year. The program, for pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade students, was created by the Hawn Foundation. Actress and part-time Roaring Fork Valley resident Goldie Hawn is behind the foundation, and it was a talk by her at the Aspen Brain Forum in September that brought the program here.

"Both (Basalt Elementary School Principal) Suzanne Wheeler-Del Piccolo and I went to the Brain Forum, and we were both really jazzed about what Goldie had to say and about MindUp," said Hegberg, who is helping launch MindUp locally on a strictly volunteer basis. "So we were determined to make it happen."

Through personal connections, Hegberg was able to secure a $5,000 grant from the Bruce T. Halle Family Foundation, which set the ball in motion by covering the program's direct costs. The next step was getting buy-in from the teachers.

"How did we do it? We have a stellar principal who understands her staff and the process," Hegberg said. "Suzanne knew she couldn't just push this through. She talked with her staff, there was a presentation, and the teachers voted. They wanted this."

So last week, teachers were trained in the MindUp program and were even paid a visit by Hawn herself.

"The teachers were tickled," said Hegberg, who assisted two certified MindUp trainers with the Jan. 2 session. "Goldie came, and she talked about the program so passionately and eloquently, it would be impossible not to be excited.

"This is not just another star cause. She is intimately involved in MindUp, and it shows."

According to the Hawn Foundation website, the MindUp program - which is in place in schools across the United States, in Canada and abroad - consists of 15 lessons for three developmental levels (pre-kindergarten through second grade, third through fifth grade and sixth through eighth grade). It is organized into four units: Let's Get Focused, Paying Attention to Our Senses, It's All About Attitude, and Taking Mindful Action.

The website says the program has five goals: develop students' skills in focusing their attention; sharpen students' awareness of their environment and themselves by paying attention to what they sense and feel; strengthen the positive human qualities students possess, including their capacity to understand the perspectives of others and to be empathic, helpful and kind; increase students' optimism and well-being; and foster a cohesive, caring learning environment and thereby an optimistic classroom.

But, Hegberg said, the end results are much greater.

"Kids can really relate to this. They want to learn about how their brains work, they want to participate, and they can feel a difference," she said. "The bottom line is it changes people on all levels. And there is evidence to prove it."

According to the Hawn Foundation, MindUp is based on science. The organization's website states that it "supports research studies conducted by university-associated social scientists and neuroscientists and develops evidence-based educational programs for children, such as MindUp, using cutting-edge scientific research on the brain and social emotional learning."

This makes it different from other social and emotional learning models, Hegberg said.

"The reason I like this one is it's based in science," she said. "It has a solid foundation from which to build upon."

Part of that building process is the training, which the school has finished. Implementation is next, which Hegberg said is generally seamless because much of the MindUp curriculum weaves into existing curriculum.

In fact, Hegberg said MindUp actually makes teachers' jobs easier.

"The few minutes a day it takes to implement the program saves twice that much in classroom management," she said, adding that ultimately, in schools where MindUp has been in place for some time, academics went up and bullying all but disappeared. "After a certain amount of time, some teachers say they don't have to run their class because the kids are doing it.

"The kids learn how to manage themselves."

As such, Hegberg and the Hawn Foundation hope to bring the MindUp program to elementary and middle schools across the Roaring Fork Valley.

"Everybody we've talked to gets excited about it," she said. "It's a tremendous program. We really should take it to Congress and have them try it."

jmcgovern@aspentimes.com


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The Aspen Times Updated Jan 9, 2012 06:10AM Published Jan 9, 2012 01:56AM Copyright 2012 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.