Are you a monkey or a panda? A monkey jumps from one activity to another, always thinking about the next task, while the panda is serenely focused on the present. If you’re not sure which of these terms describes you—or even why the question is important—ask a Fay third grader. This exploration is just one component of the Lower School Wellness program, which helps students build resilience, practice empathy, and explore the challenges of adolescence in a safe and supported atmosphere.
Wellness in the Lower School is part of the weekly class rotation, and the curriculum features developmentally targeted topics that include mindfulness, conflict resolution, peer pressure, and stress management. There is also flexibility to respond to the specific needs of the group, notes Wellness Department Chair Hope Rupley: “If we sense that a class will benefit from addressing a particular topic that day, we adjust.”
Grade Three: The Mindful Monkey
In a technology-obsessed culture where multitasking is supposed to be the most important skill, it is becoming increasingly clear that students no longer know how to single-task. To counter this trend, Fay’s Wellness faculty have made mindfulness, the state of being focused on the present, the central focus of the third grade curriculum.
To understand the concept, third graders read Lauren Alderfer’s Mindful Monkey, Happy Panda, which tells the tale of an unfocused monkey and his zen panda pal. When the monkey asks the panda for the secret to his calm happiness, the panda explains that he is always present in the moment: when he works, he works, and when he plays, he plays.
In third grade, mindfulness practice often starts with the tapping of the singing bowl, a bell-like, metal bowl that produces a long melodic hum. Students listen to the chime and focus on the sound. In other mindfulness exercises, students imagine that they have a steaming cup of hot chocolate in their hands. They inhale deeply to draw in the rich aroma and exhale deeply to cool off the drink. Without realizing it, they are practicing deep breathing, a tool they can use to regulate their emotions and maintain focus. Throughout the year, students strengthen their “mindful muscle,” challenging themselves to see how long they can stay in a mindful state.
Grade Four: Exploring Empathy
In fourth grade, Wellness class provides a framework for students to discuss the changing dynamics of friendship, gender roles, and stereotyping. Using the prompts “boys are supposed to be…” and “girls are supposed to be…,” students examine stereotypes about the strengths and attributes of boys and girls.
Fourth graders also focus on the issue of empathy. In one activity, students discuss ways to turn statements like “Stop being a cry baby!” or “Don’t be dumb!” into expressions of empathy. Students also engage in role-plays and skits to practice empathetic behavior. “We want students to put themselves in someone else’s shoes,” says Hope.
Grade Five: Practicing Perseverance
In fifth grade, the Wellness program focuses on skills to help students to deal with an increasingly challenging academic program and the introduction of interscholastic sports. This year’s fifth graders focused on perseverance and positivity: they learned about Kayla Montgomery, a young woman diagnosed with multiple sclerosis who went on to become one of the fastest runners in her home state of North Carolina. The students wrote letters to Kayla reflecting on how her story has motivated them to persevere, and they ran a morning meeting on the topic of perseverance.
In the spring, fifth graders divide into gender-specific groups for a month-long puberty seminar focused on how one’s body grows and changes throughout adolescence. Discussions about puberty can be a source of anxiety for parents and students alike, but by fifth grade, Fay students have built a level of trust and comfort within their Wellness groups that facilitates authentic questions and meaningful reflection.
Sixth Grade: The Foundations of Friendship
In sixth grade, students begin to rely more on peer groups as a source of information and advice but are also challenged by changes in the social structure. Single-gender classes provide a supportive atmosphere to discuss peer pressure, relational aggression, social media, stress management, and physical boundaries. “Removing the boy/girl dynamic makes it easier for students to ask questions without fear of being judged,” says Wellness teacher Molly Murphy.
A highlight of the year is the visit from The Improbable Players, a performance group that addresses substance abuse, addiction, and its impact on the family. At this age, many parents believe their children are too young to be exposed to discussions about drugs and alcohol. However, the early and proactive approach to the topic is purposeful. “We want students to be prepared when they are faced with difficult choices,” says Hope.
The benefits of the Lower School Wellness program can be clearly seen as students enter Upper School. At an age when kids start to close in, share less, and internalize more, Fay students who have participated in Wellness classes are still open to discussing the sticky topics that accompany the adolescent years. “When I meet with the seventh grade girls, it strikes me how courageous, vulnerable, and kind they are,” says Hope. “They feel so connected, and there is such a sense of belonging. That is the beauty of what they have created.”