Jai Luster, Joy Luster, Jori Griffith, Yirser Elvrid Lawrence Luster Learning Institute, Highland Park

A calm classroom equals a productive one.

Jai and Joy Luster believed in that idea enough to launch a nonprofit foundation in 2007 to develop a curriculum—The Calm Classroom—that leads students through breathing, stretching and concentration exercises during transitions in the school day.

“Classroom management is the biggest problem most teachers face,” says Jai, talking about under-performing schools that are struggling to raise test scores. “These are 30-second to three-minute exercises that give the teacher more learning-ready time.”

Data from Samuel Gompers Middle School, a Chicago Public School where 99 percent of the students come from low-income families, showed that in one year of The Calm Classroom at work suspensions declined by 93 percent, code of conduct violations declined by 46 percent and standardized testing scores increased by 21 percent.

Yirser Lawrence, a social worker who teaches schools how to use The Calm Classroom, isn’t surprised. “I’ve seen children who were considered to have behavior problems and we trained them to teach other children,” he says. “They expressed their natural leadership skills, and they became less disruptive.”

The Luster team credits the transformations to the physiological effect that comes with calming the nervous system and let the brain focus.

“It’s not yoga,” says Joy, although both she and Jai have taught yoga for many years. The program is based on research conducted by Dr. Herbert Benson of the Mind/Body Institute at Harvard Medical School, which shows a link between relaxation and improved academic performance.

And it’s not only kids who benefit. When a school starts The Calm Classroom, everyone—parents, teachers, administrators and students—receive training. “It’s empowerment for teachers,” says Yirser. “And for students, it’s self-management.” And, as Joy notes, well-funded suburban schools benefit just as much as inner city schools.

Currently, the curriculum is in 70 public schools, but the goal is to increase the reach to 100 Chicago schools and an additional 10 to 20 New York schools in the next year.

Jori observes that the major obstacle is a lack of funding. “The neediest schools have the smallest budgets,” she says. Jai’s experience as a corporate financial manager is helpful.

As Yirser adds, “It’s most impressive when you see a kid who was out of control, now able to control himself.”

To try some of the exercises from The Calm Classroom, go to lusterlearning.org

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