Denver schools are investing in teaching techniques like finger breathing. That’s what it means.

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Wednesday was a big day in Inmaculada Martn Hernndez’s class. Students in a college Spanish conversation class at Danforth North High School were doing a Model United Nations presentation, and their teacher sensed they were nervous.

So after Martn Hernndez reviewed the day’s goals, and before the students paired up to strategize, she led them through an exercise called finger breathing.

She holds her right thumb with her left hand and instructs her students to do the same.

Breathe in, she told the students in Spanish. catch. Exhale.

She repeated the exercise for all 10 fingers.

Quick mindfulness breaks are a staple in Martn Hernndez’s classes. They are also part of a growing number of strategies, including free virtual and in-person therapy, to address student mental health needs amplified by the pandemic. The finger breathing classes are offered by Upstream Education, a Denver-based nonprofit that offers small-scale wellness classes for middle school and high school students.

Tessa Zimmerman, executive director of Upstream, said North High was one of the first schools to use Upstream, and currently more than 40 public schools in Denver use Upstream.

Bernard McCune, executive director of expanded learning, athletics and activities for Denver Public Schools, said district leaders decided to spend nearly $60,000 in federal pandemic relief funds to fund the expansion project after seeing Upstream’s actions. Partial funding. The Concerned Denver Foundation, funded by voter-approved tax dollars, also supports the expansion plan.

McCune said you can’t leave a school in the upstream business and not be impressed.

Zimmerman started Upstream because she herself had anxiety as a child and had panic attacks in school. That changed when she received a scholarship to a private high school, where the principal led students in mindfulness activities in the classroom every day.

Zimmerman said these events changed her life. I went from a student who hated going to school to a student who loved going to school, she said.

When Zimmerman went to college, she became aware of the inequity she experienced: She had access to mindfulness activities at a private school, but many other students did not.

So Zimmerman came up with the idea for a social and emotional learning curriculum for teens and entered it in a 2016 design competition for the DPS Imaginarium, the district’s former in-house innovation lab that closed due to budget cuts. Disbanded in 2019. Zimmerman won $9,000 from DPS to help her launch Upstream.

Over the past seven years, the organization has refined its tools with the help of students, including a task force of 10 students Upstream paid over the summer to review dozens of its courses to make them more relevant sex. Teachers also provided feedback.

“What we found from teachers is that they really want to do this work, but if they have a 30-minute lesson, it’s not feasible,” Zimmerman said.

For this reason, Upstream keeps all courses 10 minutes or less. Finger breathing sessions last 4 minutes. Another lesson designed to teach students to demonstrate grace is 7 Minutes. In it, students briefly write about a challenging moment they encountered recently and then listen to their teacher read phrases such as “I’m not alone and I can always start my day over again.”

Lesson plans include a script of what the teacher should say next: You can recite these phrases to yourself in the middle of class or during a performance when you need some comfort or a moment of self-compassion.

North High teacher Brandi Garcia started using Upstream during distance learning in 2020 and continued to use the tools once students returned to the classroom in person. She said she loved that they were super easy to follow. Plug and play.

Garcia said students feel much more relaxed after they practice upstream. She noticed that even students who were initially resistant eventually gave in.

Some kids will say, oh, I don’t want to do this, she said. And before you know it, they are there with the breath. And then they ask, are we going to breathe today?

North High School social worker Maria Hite uses Upstream with students in her therapy groups and one-on-one sessions. Upstream tech posters hang in her office, which has soft lighting, a box of fidget toys and a mini Zen garden with a rake.

On Wednesday, Zimmerman handed Hight a stack of square stickers. The stickers, the brainchild of an Upstream student working group, feature bumpy textures and instructions on how to perform a box breathing exercise, which involves tracing your fingers along the edge of a square and breathing in for four seconds on one side and exhaling on the other. A four seconds.

Haidt reveals her own box-breathing technique: She has students flip their phone screens down and trace the phones with their fingers.

“I spend a lot of time working with anxious students,” Haidt said.It would be easier if you could show a tool that runs really fast [to get] Buy.

Spanish teacher Martn Hernandez said she loves that the exercises create those moments of connection, even if not all students are willing to do so.

But everyone was calm and respectful.

Junior Audrey Gilpin was one of the students participating in finger breathing exercises on Wednesday. Gilpin said it was nice to enter Martn Hernndez’s classroom from the chaotic hallways of the 1,600-student high school and pause for a few minutes. Some students said it was a small respite that improved their own mental health and helped them feel more comfortable in class.

“It made me feel like my teacher cared about how I was feeling mentally,” Gilpin said.

Melanie Asmar is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado and reports on Denver Public Schools. Contact Melanie: masmar@chalkbeat.org.

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