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Reducing stress by getting in tune with your inner self could help elementary school students succeed, researchers say.

The UW-Madison Center for Investigating Healthy Minds will start a three-year project this year with 700 fourth- and fifth-grade students in the Madison School District to see if centuries-old mindfulness techniques can improve grades, attitudes and behaviors.

The techniques include breathing exercises, getting in tune with one’s body and emotions, and “dropping in” to one’s present state of mind.

The UW center got a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education for the project.

“When children are young, they are setting their patterns for life,” said Lisa Flook, an assistant scientist at the center. “Their emotional and social well-being matters.”

The project will also include the students’ teachers, 20 to 30 of them in 20 elementary schools.

A specialized team will train students and teachers in “mindfulness-based stress reduction.”

“Such practices, particularly early in life when neuroplasticity is at its peak, have the potential of helping children pursue a trajectory of healthy development,” said CIHM founder Richard Davidson.

After the first year, investigators will gather data from the schools, including student performance on computer tasks of attention, student mood, anxiety and perception of the classroom environment, student attendance, academic and behavioral records, and teacher surveys of their own job stress, psychological well-being, mood and empathy.

The hope is to make mindfulness a routine and integrated aspect of the school day, something the schools want to continue on their own after the study is done.

“How do we support teachers and students after the program?” Flook said. “Mindfulness is like a muscle; you need to keep using it to keep it trained.”

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Bill Novak is a general assignment reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.