Special-needs students use meditation to control behavior

Charles E. Gallagher, a therapist visiting the Bristol Township School District, conducts a summer exercise with second, third, and fourth graders.
Charles E. Gallagher, a therapist visiting the Bristol Township School District, conducts a summer exercise with second, third, and fourth graders. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 27, 2011

INQUIRER STAFF WRITER

Brandon Heinz, an eighth grader in the Bristol Township School District, told occupational therapist Charles E. Gallagher that he had been asked to sit still "millions of times."

The problem is that it's not always easy.

For Brandon, 14, and his classmates - students with autism, attention-deficit disorders, or other special needs - controlling signs of anxiety is often a struggle.

So Gallagher made a suggestion: Breathe.

"In through your nose, and out through your mouth," he instructed. Then, he said, let out a big sigh.

Gallagher went on to teach the students meditation techniques to help them cope when frustration threatens to overwhelm.

The session, at the Benjamin Franklin Freshman Academy in Levittown, was part of the district's summer initiative to help 25 first through eighth graders gain the social skills they often lack because of their special needs.

Students with conditions such as autism and attention- deficit disorders have difficulty reading the social cues of language, voice, and behavior and consequently might react in ways that appear inappropriate. They also can experience high levels of anxiety.

"They feel out of control," said JoAnn Allison, the district's supervisor of special education. "A lot of the strategies we have are to help them feel they have control of their environments and themselves."

Gallagher, who has studied a treatment approach known as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, fit in perfectly, Allison said.

Mindfulness is a concept that means "paying attention on purpose in the present moment without judgment," said Gallagher, who has trained at the Mindfulness Institute at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.

Meditative exercises such as deep breathing help practitioners pay attention to the reactions of the body and mind in stressful moments, said Don McCown, a faculty member at the Mindfulness Institute. Once those reactions are recognized, the person can work toward controlling them.

Meditation also can help youngsters control their anxiety enough to reduce any medications they are taking, said Christina DiNicola, a pediatrician with the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Jefferson.

Early studies show promising results in youngsters with attention-deficit disorders who use yoga and biofeedback to relax, DiNicola said.

Allison incorporated a few yoga practices last year in the summer program, which the district operates with the Delaware Valley Children's Center, an organization in Wrightstown that provides mental-health services.

This year, Allison invited Gallagher, a therapist at the Delaware County Intermediate Unit, to lead a 30-minute session on meditation.

At the school, Gallagher talked with students in three classes - first and second graders, third and fourth, and fifth to eighth.

Students ran quickly throughout the room, and then in slow motion in exercises designed to get them to notice differences in their body when moving quickly and moving slowly. Gallagher clinked a meditation bell to signal when to stop and go.

He taught them about breathing deeply while standing up and while sitting down with their hands on their belly. He taught them to focus on sounds in their surroundings.

"How do you feel?" Gallagher asked the class of older students.

"My body feels more calm," said Zachary Ford, 10. "My face feels like it loosened up."

In the class of third and fourth graders, Christine Smeltzer, 8, said her body felt like she wanted to take a nap.

Christine said she might use the techniques outside the classroom during times when she's frustrated.

That means when "kids are telling me what to do or bullying my friends," she said. The breathing would help her feel "calm."


Contact staff writer Kristin E. Holmes at 610-313-8211 or kholmes@phillynews.com.

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