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Students find their centers in Milton meditation class

At Collicot, (from left) Mayu Joiner, James Delaney, and Carly Carte meditate. At Collicot, (from left) Mayu Joiner, James Delaney, and Carly Carte meditate. (Photos by Kayana Szymczak for the boston Globe)
By Jennette Barnes
Globe Correspondent / December 8, 2011
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MILTON - Meditation helps 9-year-old Mayu Joiner concentrate in school. It teaches Kate Delaney, 10, how to calm down when she feels frustrated, and prevents Shea Flanagan, also 10, from getting angry at a classmate.

On Monday mornings, these Milton fourth-graders awake early and make their way to the library at Collicot Elementary School to attend a voluntary 45-minute meditation class. They sit in a circle, a mixed-age group in grades 1 through 5, dangling their feet from adult-sized library chairs.

Andy Kelley, a Milton dad, teaches the class.

On a recent Monday, listening was the theme. After an opening exercise in which each child greeted another with an observation or compliment, Kelley talked about the concept of mindfulness - being mentally present - and the difference between observation and judgment.

He pointed to his watch. He asked the children if it was ugly. “No,’’ came the reply. But even to call it a pretty watch, he said, is to make a judgment rather than a mindful observation.

Later, the children took turns improvising rhythms on a drum. “Let’s see how in tune we are with each other,’’ Kelley said. As each child played a rhythm, the rest listened, and then repeated it by clapping their hands.

Students say the course is fun, because they make friends outside their classrooms. They also say they learn important things, like how to keep their mind on a task and think before they act.

“Sometimes it’s very hard for me to concentrate in school, and it helps me concentrate,’’ Mayu said.

“I catch Mayu doing meditation at home, which I never thought I would,’’ said her mother, Ami Joiner.

Toward the end of the class, Kelley led the children in a five-minute silent meditation, asking them to breathe deeply and keep their eyes closed - which, save for the occasional peek, they did.

“It’s fun, and it teaches you to calm down when you get frustrated,’’ Kate said afterward. “And it makes you pay attention more and listen more.’’

Her mother, Amy Delaney, and a couple of other parents observe the class when they can. Children often struggle with social interaction, academics, or confidence, Delaney said. She has watched meditation boost her children’s confidence. Sometimes they take what they’ve learned and use it at home. At the dinner table, they’ll say, “Let’s listen to our breath,’’ she said.

Delaney wasn’t a meditator before she signed her three children up for the class. But she sees great value in it, as the children learn life lessons and improve their focus.

The children see changes in themselves, too.

“I’ve been having trouble with someone at school, so this helps me channel my energy so I don’t get mad at her,’’ Shea said. When he starts to get angry, he thinks about being calm.

A decade ago, Kelley was far from calm himself. He worked too many hours and had no time for his wife or newborn son. He kept waking up during the night.

A few years went by, and he tried meditating on and off. Then his wife gave him a book by Deepak Chopra, “Perfect Health,’’ about mind-body awareness and healing. Kelley didn’t read it right away, but when he finally did, he decided to take a weekend class with Chopra in New York.

After the class, he had more confidence he was meditating effectively. His wife noticed him sleeping better, and at work he became more reflective instead of reacting too soon. He said it made him a better manager.

He decided to study at the Chopra Center in California, and became a certified instructor. In August 2010, with his wife’s consent, he took the plunge and left his job making video advertisements for websites. He started teaching meditation and mindfulness workshops for corporate clients. In the fall of last year, he taught meditation at Glover Elementary School in Milton, where his son, Hayden, is in third grade.

Today Kelley teaches three classes at Milton elementary schools, continues his work for business clients, and markets himself as the “Boston Buddha’’ - though he is not Buddhist. Kelley says Boston symbolizes hard-working, everyday people like him, and they can benefit from meditation as he has.

What he likes best about teaching meditation to children are the reactions on their faces and their genuine, unguarded answers. At a time when the perils of bullying are so often on the minds of parents and schools, Kelley suggests his students ask themselves before they make a remark, “Is it true? Is it nice? Is it necessary?’’

His son, who has been practicing meditation for three years, likes the results. He feels more aware, kinder, and the focus helps him with his schoolwork.

For Dad, that’s good news, even if the paychecks aren’t what they used to be.

“I’m not making close to what I was,’’ Kelley said, “but the happiness quotient is much higher.’’

Jennette Barnes can be reached at jennettebarnes@yahoo.com.

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