WASILLA — Wendy DGraffenried recently won this year’s Alaska School Nurse of Excellence award, recognizing her various accomplishments at Wasilla Middle School (WMS). DGraffenried’s various accomplishments include her original, hand crafted ‘Brain Train’ after school mindfulness program. Her peers nominated her for braving new frontiers in the dawning era of trauma informed schools.

“I don’t just put Band-Aids on people,” DGraffenried said.

DGraffenried qualified for the award by excelling in the following seven categories the Alaska School Nurses Association looks for: “program management and practice improvements, quality practice, health education, professional development, collegiality, research, and leadership.” She said that all is part of her goal to be a “21st century nurse.” She covers the basics, such as meeting the state’s set of standard practices for hearing, vision, doctor referrals, but goes above and beyond that, developing specialized plans for each kid in her ‘Brain Train’ program, which played a big role in her selection for this year’s award.

“I wanted to shine for our school and our district,” DGraffenried said.

She said that created and structured mindfulness allows kids to see their thoughts as they think them and feel their feelings as we feel them, helping them unlock their brain’s executive functioning which can be lost in flight-or-flight mode. When a person is stressed, they typically enter fight-or-flight mode and have narrower options of thought and rawer emotional reactions. She said that mindfulness helps bring more self-awareness and control over stressful feelings, among various other benefits she’s seen work first-hand.

“Teachers, parents and community members, through mindfulness strategies, can develop increased self-esteem, creativity, relaxation, and self-control, while reducing stress, worry, anger, fears, and anxiety,” DGraffenried said.

Dealing with difficult emotions is a core principle driving trauma-informed schools. She credited the advent of trauma-informed schools with her chance to break out her original, hand-crafted program.

“That’s why I started nursing, to work with the troubled kids. Now is the time to share what I’m doing,” DGraffenried said.

She will be speaking about mindfulness at the upcoming Alaska School Nurses Association conference. She compared her works with the trauma informed curriculum to Angelina Klapperich’s Miss Alaska platform for her compassion campaign.

“Breathing brings the mind to balance,” DGraffenried said.

She plans to further develop Brain Train, with the hopes of integrating the program into the classroom, working with each teacher. She hopes to make this more than an after-school program and aims to have the entire district adopt it as a part of their trauma-informed curriculum. A handful of teachers have already expressed interest in bringing Brain Train into their classrooms. She said that students who undergo stress tend to fight, flight or freeze. She aims to bring more balance into class by teaching kids how to “self-care.”

“Kids can’t learn when their brain is flipped. I’m teaching the kids to take care of themselves,” DGraffenried said.

Each Monday and Wednesday, about a dozen WMS students hang out in the cafeteria when school is out. They wait until DGraffenried arrives, then they migrate to one of the computer rooms where they have some free time to socialize or play games on the computer. The students are jovial as they play pre-approved games alone or sometimes in teams. After free time, DGraffenried takes the students out of the computer rooms and into the school atrium, where they gather in a circle and begin their mindfulness exercises.

“I’m teaching them more words for the emotions,” DGraffenried said.

DGraffenried has each student fill out entry and exit tickets for each session, to quantify her data and gauge their overall emotional wellbeing. She has a color wheel chart with numerous emotions, such as anxious or silly. Each student does a “stress check in” by indicating their stress level from 1 to 10. She even has options with shapes and colors because sometimes a student may not have a word for how they feel.

“It helps give me an idea of where their mind is,” DGraffenried said.

Some students take Brain Train more seriously than others, she said. They perform exercises like “mixing fire and water,” with each kid moving their arms around in a Tai-Chi like fashion. She softly speaks out mantras and little rhymes like, “scoop the water from the stream and wash yourself clean.”

She often tells her students, “you’re worth one minute to have serenity and peace.”

They take deep breaths, hold it and exhale. Her go-to mindfulness quick fix is called the 7-4-8 breathing exercise. It only takes about a minute and can almost instantly relax an agitated child.

“Breathing is very good for the mind when you’re aggravated,” said one student, Truman.

WMS is one of 15 schools that are trauma informed schools in the district, with more to follow suit in the coming years.

“We are at the cutting edge,” DGraffenried said.

Some students take Brain Train more seriously than others, DGraffenried’s said. She credited the whole lot for making great progress and working very well together.

“These students have really embraced what mindfulness is. It lets them know they’re part of a whole and they’re all are good leaders,” DGraffenried’s said.

Each student has a chance to led mindfulness exercises, taking turns throughout sessions. One student, Kaleb, wasn’t so sure about Brain Train in the beginning. Now, he swears by it.

“What we do here can carry on and should be practiced by everyone,” Kaleb said.

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