May is National Mental Health Awareness month, and we are taking a moment to spotlight one of the Ed Fund’s outstanding mindfulness volunteers, Sonja Poloczek, who has been volunteering at Alvarado Elementary School since 2021. Sonja was also recently honored for her outstanding service as a mindfulness volunteer in the Ed Fund’s Volunteer Recognition Ceremony last month.
Countless research studies (like this and this) back the importance of mindfulness and breathing techniques to reduce stress and prevent more serious mental health concerns. Sonja is playing a very important role in helping children cultivate a mindfulness practice that will benefit them throughout their lives.
Read on for our interview with Sonja Poloczek. Learn more about the Ed Fund’s mindfulness program and how you can get involved here.
San Francisco Education Fund (SFEF): How did your personal journey lead you to mindfulness training?
Sonja Poloczek (SP): I started doing yoga early in undergraduate school. My teacher was amazing, she always focused on the needs of every single student and offered modifications of exercises when needed. I realized that being mindful in the movements actually helped me a lot.
I studied psychology, and I learned about the brain functioning, the positive impacts of stress management, and mindfulness. I could then relate my previous experience to my knowledge. Over time, I grew my mindfulness practice into other areas, like dance, communication, and my work with children.
When I read about the need of mindfulness volunteers in one of the SFUSD newsletters, I thought this would be a great opportunity for me to combine two things that I love: spreading the knowledge about mindfulness and working with kids.
SFEF: Do you have any advice for people who want to begin cultivating a mindfulness practice?
SP: Start simple. Try to find a time to practice every day. It doesn’t have to be long. Maybe before you get out of bed, at the bus stop, or before brushing your teeth. Take a few deep belly breaths. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Fill your lungs and feel your belly expand. After a few times, notice how you are feeling. Maybe you feel a tickle in your chest or your belly feels warmer.
SFEF: How has your mindfulness practice impacted your life?
SP: It is so empowering to see how curious and open-minded young people approach mindfulness and how much they take it into their everyday life. Mindfulness helped me being more understanding and accepting of all our feelings. It can be so much easier to be kind to others than to ourselves.
SFEF: Tell us about your experience leading mindfulness lessons in Ms. Megan’s classroom?
SP: At the beginning of the year, I could see how new and sometimes a little strange it was for the kids to find a mindful posture and practice focusing on their breathing. Towards the end of the year, however, it is so easy for them to be calm and breathe for more than a minute. I am so impressed by their progress!
SFEF: Can you share with us the most interesting story from your experience teaching mindfulness? Can you tell us what lessons or takeaways you learned from that?
SP: After reading “Puppy Mind” the students were invited to color in their own puppy minds. Some of the students named their imaginary friends. I thought this was so powerful, and it showed me that they understand the concept and could take it further.
I designed a lesson on feelings inspired by an exhibit of the Children’s Museum of Creativity. Each student got two colored pieces of paper. On one of them, they write a positive memory and name the feeling they had. This paper then gets folded or crunched up. The student can then carry it with them to be reminded of the good moment, maybe it can calm or cheer [the student up] during a stressful situation.
On the other paper, they write a negative feeling they recently had. This paper then gets shredded or torn. One student exclaimed, “This is so satisfying!” Negative emotions need to be released; we have to process them so they are not stuck in our bodies, and that is happening. In my class, we take it one step further. We use these colorful paper shreddings and turn them into something beautiful; some things I have seen include a bird, a square, or a feelings monster. With this activity I also hope to foster seeing the “pleasant in the present”.
SFEF: What feedback have you received from kids, their parents or teachers about the impact mindfulness training has on them?
SP: The best feedback is a warm “Hello” when I come into the classrooms. Or when I want to cross-reference something we learned before, and the students remember it. Some kids shared how breathing has helped them with making better choices. Teachers point out that the lessons transform the classroom into a calm space and that it is a valuable support for them.
One teacher shared with me, “There will be positive life-long effects from the work you do at this early age. It is like you are bringing the seeds of love and peace and putting them in the children’s life gardens. As seeds germinate and pop up at different times, so will these wisdoms start to grow in the children’s lives at different times. You have opened pathways for a better life for all the children you have taught. Thank you so much.”
SFEF: Any advice for readers who may want to get involved in the Mindfulness program at the SF Ed Fund?
SP: If you have 20-30 minutes per week (plus time to prepare and commute), submit your application! It is a wonderful opportunity to start something new and empowering, supported by amazing people. Andrew’s curriculum is awesome! I truly enjoy teaching mindfulness!
With just one hour a week, the SF Ed Fund’s incredible mindfulness volunteers help bring mindfulness and social-emotional learning to public school classrooms. Learning to understand emotions and how to manage them with skill is one of the most important lessons any human being can learn. Based on Andrew J. Nance’s Mindful Arts in the Classroom curriculum, Ed Fund mindfulness volunteers teach elementary school students various techniques to help them cultivate the skill of present-moment awareness.
Volunteer recruitment will begin in the Fall. If you’re interested in becoming a mindfulness volunteer for the 2023-24 school year, fill out the volunteering off-season form here and we’ll be in touch in the next couple of months with next steps. Learn more about the mindfulness volunteer program here.