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“Pay attention!” If you are a parent, teacher, or coach, you’ve used the term thousands of times. And most of us will admit the admonition often doesn’t work.
“That’s because we don’t teach children how to pay attention,” says Colleen “Coke” Hennessy, ’63. After 36 years of practicing law, she’s found a new profession. Hennessy teaches children how to better control their bodies and minds, and educates teachers on how to help support the practice.
“It’s called mindfulness – mindful breathing, slow deep breaths,” Hennessy says. “It helps us focus on what’s going on in our bodies right now. We relax, we become aware. We pause before reacting so we can make a choice about our best response in that moment. Teaching mindfulness to children moves the locus of control from a teacher or parent to the children themselves. It’s a tool for them.”
Hennessy was nearing the end of a successful law career in 1997 when she read about mindfulness and the teachings of Jon Kabat-Zinn, an internationally known scientist, writer and meditation teacher. She attended his classes and became hooked on his work, which combines science, medicine and meditation. She continued reading and attending seminars, and learned about teachers who were employing the concepts in elementary schools.
Today, she is six years into her permanent volunteer post as mindfulness teacher at St. Margaret of Scotland School in south St. Louis. Each month she teaches 21 classes of pre-K students through eighth graders about breathing, patience and finding answers. Twice a year, she holds training sessions for teachers, who incorporate mindfulness in their classrooms on a daily basis.
“Teachers and parents report that the kids really get it,” Hennessy says. She tells the story of a second grader who had worked hard on a complex snowman in the yard. Suddenly, his little brother ran out and toppled it.
“The older boy announced to his mother he was going to his room for mindfulness breathing,” Hennessy says. “He used the tool to collect his thoughts, then came back outside and rebuilt the snowman.”
Her decision to teach children in retirement came out of her years as a student at Maryville, Hennessy says.
“Part of our education was a service component,” she recalls. “Through serving we learned that giving back was part of life. It wasn’t always about taking. That’s what I’m doing now with mindfulness teaching.”
This story was originally published in the Spring 2015 edition of Maryville Magazine.