Helping Students Make The Calmer Choice

(Originally published in the Cape Cod Chronicle, October 8, 2015 )
By Kat Szmit

HARWICH ─ Imagine a classroom of second graders sitting quietly in mindful reflection, or responding to a recess dispute with thoughtful awareness. If Chatham Elementary School PTO President Jenny Wood is successful in her mission, such scenes will become an ongoing reality not only at CES but also in elementary classrooms throughout the Monomoy district thanks to a program known as Calmer Choice. 

"I heard of the program several years ago through a friend of mine and it seemed like it would be a wonderful fit for Chatham Elementary School, and really for all elementary kids," said Wood. "It teaches mindfulness skills from an early age."

As many parents of young children understand, sitting still and paying attention can sometimes be challenging. Calmer Choice can help with that. Calmer Choice is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that includes a series of programs aimed at teaching students mindfulness, a practice scientifically proven to help manage and reduce stress, strengthen a student's ability to control their own emotional responses, and increase their overall sense of well-being.

Calmer Choice is the brainchild of founder and executive director Fiona Jensen, who created the program as a way of helping young people navigate the often difficult waters of adolescence without getting lost in addiction or violence or ending their lives by suicide. Bringing programs to students at the elementary school level, she said, is key in helping them develop the skills necessary for better overall health as they get older.

"The ideal thing about the elementary grades and Calmer Choice is that we're teaching kids skills that make it easier to be a kid today," she said, adding that the program can help with standardized test taking, sleep, and social situations.

Jensen said that through the integration of mindful awareness practices, students become more aware of their emotions and their physiological reactions to situations, empowering them to make more thoughtful and less reactionary choices.

"We teach them social-emotional skills and basic health and well-being," Jensen said. "The beauty is that if you speak to anybody in the world of addiction, suicide prevention, violence prevention, if you wait until high school it's almost too late. The onset for anxiety disorders is age 4; depression is age 12 to 13."

The program, Jensen said, lets kids know that everyone struggles with anxiety, with worry.

"We normalize what it means to be a human being on this planet," she said. "We teach them that these are ways you can trigger your brain to release dopamine and serotonin. That when they hold the door open for their Nana, the reason they feel good is that they've triggered something good in their brains. We're empowering kids to take care of themselves."

Caroline McCutcheon has been teaching Calmer Choice classes for several years, including at Ezra Baker Innovation School in Dennis, and at CES. "The reason Calmer Choice exists is to build resilience in young people," she said. "We're giving them tools they can use the rest of their lives, to build healthy, strong children." McCutcheon visits classrooms for eight weeks, two days a week, for 20 minutes, for a total of 16 sessions, during which students pay attention to their breathing and have lessons on topics ranging from talking about the senses and the breath to sending kind thoughts to other people, gratitude, taking other people's perspectives, optimism, noticing thoughts, and noticing emotions and identifying them. "From what I understand from [past] parents, kids are using these skills at home to calm themselves down," said McCutcheon.

Wood saw firsthand the positive impact of Calmer Choice when she sat in on a class in second grade at CES last spring that was part of a pilot program.

"I saw the instructor, Caroline McCutcheon, and she was calm and looked at each child with calm awareness," said Wood. "I saw the kids close their eyes and sit quietly, basically. I noticed after the class that the children were incredibly quiet and moved to their next task quietly and easily."

Wood wanted to continue the lessons. When told that the district didn't currently have the money in the budget to support the $12,000 to cover program costs for grades 1-4, she turned to fundraising. On Nov. 20, Hangar B will host an evening of food, drinks and music to help raise money toward the cost of the program, which Wood hopes will be included in the FY17 school budget.

"Since I have been learning more about Calmer Choice, I have become more passionate about bringing it to the elementary schools because the goal of Calmer Choice is to give kids the tools to deal with life stresses, thereby avoiding having to turn to drugs and alcohol, and I am so on board with that," said Wood. "I want to do all I can to give the schools ways to help kids deal with life."

To make a contribution toward bringing Calmer Choice to CES, checks may be made to the Chatham Elementary School PTO, and any amount will be gratefully accepted. $1,000 will pay for one class to have the program.

"What we're hoping is that if we teach kids young enough, these skills are ingrained," said McCutcheon. "That they're still able to take that pause before they respond. I think that it would be ideal to have Calmer Choice throughout the entire school career. It just makes perfect sense for children to learn this."

For more information about the Nov. 20 fundraiser, visit chathamelementarypto.com or email heyjennyg@gmail.com or stephgoley5@gmail.com.

For more information about Calmer Choice visit calmerchoice.org. 

(c) 2015, The Cape Cod Chronicle