Mindfulness Informs EASTCONN’s Interdistrict Grants Program
For many teachers, students and parents, mindfulness became a life raft during the COVID-19 pandemic, offering time-tested, easy-to-follow methods for regulating moods, outlooks and emotions.
Long before the pandemic, however, EASTCONN Interdistrict Grant facilitator Esther Soffer introduced mindfulness practices – deep breathing, meditation, bell-listening and other techniques – into her work with local school districts.
“About seven years ago, I went to my director at the time and said, ‘Hey, I’ve been reading about this mindfulness thing. I read a couple of articles and I really want to try this,’” Soffer said.
Soffer also took inspiration from Ken Caputo, a Mansfield karate instructor, who taught social-emotional learning to his students in between kicks and punches. “He taught them how to breathe and use their body to calm themselves,” Soffer said.
When Soffer pitched mindfulness as the focus of a new grant, her director’s response was positive but cautious. “The feedback was, ‘You can try anything you want, but I don’t know if it’s going to work,’” Soffer said. “And I was like, ‘Cool, I’m going to try it.’”
Soon after, Mindful Transformations – one of five Interdistrict Cooperative Grants currently facilitated by EASTCONN – was born. And when the coronavirus pandemic hit, Soffer and fellow grant facilitator Stephanie White found they had ample resources on hand to help students, teachers and community members.
“It was the perfect thing then, and it gave us some experience in doing this work before the pandemic hit,” Soffer said. “Right now, we’re really seeing a need for mindfulness – in teachers and adults especially.”
EASTCONN’s cutting-edge work on Interdistrict Cooperative Grants is nothing new. For more than two decades, the agency has collaborated with the Connecticut State Department of Education and local school districts on programming that brings together students from disparate backgrounds to combat racial, social and economic isolation and improve academic performance.
Last year, EASTCONN received funding for five grants – America’s Mosaic, Faces of Culture, Farming Our Land and Sea, Forensic Detectives and Mindful Transformations. The programs served over 1,200 third- to eighth-grade students across 17 districts in northeastern Connecticut and in Hartford. (Only 19 Interdistrict Grants were awarded across the entire state in 2021-22.)
“The success of our grants is the result of EASTCONN’s focus on equity through the implementation of bringing urban, rural, and suburban districts together through collaborative partnerships,” said Anna Forlenza-Bailey, Ph.D., outgoing Director of Talent Development at EASTCONN. “Esther and Stephanie move the work forward through their creativity, passion and commitment.”
White, who came to EASTCONN three years ago after teaching in Windham Public Schools for eight years, said a number of schools have expressed interest in partnering with the agency around the social-emotional lessons and mindfulness work she and Soffer incorporate into their programs.
“That’s been a really big selling point – that and the sense of community we’re able to bring to schools by partnering them with other districts, with their pen pals,” White said. “They get to write to one another and meet each other virtually, because everyone’s been so isolated, especially young children.”
Jake St. John, a teacher at Voluntown Elementary School, said his students always walk away from EASTCONN’s grant programs knowing kindness and compassion is the way.
“Being able to participate in programs with Esther and Stephanie is always a gratifying part of the school year and I can not stress how my students have benefited from their work,” St. John said. “Teaching in a small rural school district, it is always exciting to see students' eyes open wide when the world is brought right to them.”
Soffer and White aren’t immune to the heightened emotions they encounter in the classroom – virtual or otherwise. Several weeks ago, a shy fifth-grader learned the two facilitators had instructed a class a day earlier in the town where he used to live.
“We were telling them that we had just been in their partner classroom yesterday and met their pen pals,” White said. “One boy said, ‘I moved from that town and that's my friend!’ He started to cry, and he went over to his teacher and hugged her. It was so sweet to see a student moved to tears, just knowing that he had a connection to someone from his past.”