Every morning, principals in the West Bridgewater School District in Massachusetts get on the PA system to lead students through a few minutes of mindful breathing exercises.
Administrators introduced relaxation techniques in 2015 after identifying an issue afflicting districts across the country: a troubling rise in student anxiety.
“We’re seeing anxiety in preschool through 12th grade—we’re seeing it in elementary grades more than we’ve ever seen it before” says Patty Oakley, superintendent of the four-school district, which is an hour south of Boston.
“Students can’t concentrate, they can’t do their work, they have attendance problems and they’re being hospitalized.”
What’s the cause? Oakley suspects several factors, in and outside school, including the pressures of standardized testing and a “fear of missing out” fueled by students constantly tracking the activities of friends and classmates on social media.
There’s also an “embarrassment of riches” effect at work, in that today’s students have so many choices to make, from extracurricular programs to technology, that the glut of decisions causes stress, Oakley says.
So, the district trained its teachers to lead students through breathing and other relaxation techniques, such as simple movements, throughout the day and particularly before tests. Kindergarteners, for example, now stop and breathe before leaving the cafeteria to go back to class.
Other students lay on the floor and close their eyes for a few minutes. Sometimes students relax on couches, rocking chairs and yoga balls that have been placed in their classrooms.
And it’s working—a district survey measuring students’ social-emotional well-being at the beginning and at the end of the 2015-16 school year shows mindfulness has led to a sharp decrease in behavioral problems.
Reports of depression and anxiety have also dropped, says Hope Hanscom, the assistant superintendent for student services at the West Bridgewater district.
“We decided to respond to our students’ anxiety, rather than have to deal with the behavioral challenges” Hanscom says.
Accessing the wise owl
So, what exactly is mindfulness?
“It’s paying attention to the here and now, doing our best not to be in the past or the future” says Dr. Amy Saltzman, director of the Association for Mindfulness in Education. “With kindness and curiosity, we can choose our behavior.”
Districts that succeed in making mindfulness a regular part of the school day—and an impactful part of students’ lives—start by training the adults in their buildings to become competent practitioners, says Saltzman, whose Menlo Park, California-based mindfulness practice operates training programs in schools.
“If you just play a CD or read or a script, the teachers can’t respond when a kid says, ‘How do I deal with my dad being sent to jail,'” she says. “If the teachers can’t respond, they’ve lost the kid.”
And a little time spent on mindfulness at the beginning of class can pay off. “A teacher may think, I can’t add another thing to my day” Saltzman says. “But what teachers find is, if they start class with five minutes of mindfulness—movement, breathing, journaling—most teachers will report ending up with more teachable time.”
Saltzman recommends that administrators seek out a local high-quality practitioner (including online providers) who can teach their staff about the philosophy and techniques that constitute mindfulness. Fiona Jensen runs such a program, a nonprofit called Calmer Choice based in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
She and her team often work with a school or district for two to three years before educators run the programs on their own.
In the first year, instructors guide teachers and their classes through an eight-week program of 20-minute sessions. In the second year, the instructors will observe teachers leading the mindfulness activities.
Mindfulness meshes with social-emotional learning programs and positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS) because it shows students how to recognize when they are beginning to lose control of thoughts, and how to calm themselves down.
Students, for example, can go sit in a quiet room and practice breathing exercises, or write a “gratitude list” of things they are happy about, Jensen says.
“A lot of what we teach is brain-science” she says. “What happens to the brain when it’s stressed, like during a test, is the body interprets it as a threat, and you don’t have access to memory and the ‘wise owl’ part of your brain.”
Intervention teacher Stacey Achterhoff realized the yoga techniques she practiced could ease the trauma that the K5 homeless students she has been working with for the past eight years in Duluth Public Schools in Minnesota have endured.
Domestic violence and hunger, among other ordeals, have been a part of their lives. “There were just so many layers of yuck to get through before we could get to academics” Achterhoff says. “If we don’t address the trauma, then the kids are going to become stunted in academic growth.”
Achterhoff’s role is to help students catch up to grade level in reading and math. She began leading the students through breathing exercises, sometimes just one-on-one. About five years ago, she added full classroom yoga movements to help them relax.
Achterhoff now visits other classrooms in her home school, Myers-Wilkins Elementary, to provide yoga instruction.
She encourages teachers to participate because it builds a bond with the class and leads to students practicing the techniques on their own.
“When I go into the classroom, I see that quiet magic of kids being able to settle into their own bodies” she says. “They see there’s power in being able to control what they can, when there are so many other things out of their control.”
Mindfulness provides life skills
About two hours to the south, Elk River Area Schools in the outer suburbs of Minneapolis first introduced mindfulness as a social-emotional learning component for its special education classes.
Mary T. Schmitz, the district’s mindful education specialist, keeps track of behavioral incidents, particularly those that lead to a student having to be pulled out of a classroom.
She discovered that, over time, fewer special education students had to be removed from class because they had calmed themselves with breathing exercises or meditation.
When other teachers heard about the results, they asked Schmitz to train them to bring mindfulness to their own classes. Mindfulness is now practiced districtwide. These programs, which began with grant funding, are now built into the district budget.
Schmitz also works with the school speech team and the baseball team, among other extracurricular groups. In the 2016-17 school year, Elk River also launched a “Yoga Calm” class as a P.E. elective.
“These are life skills” Schmitz says. “Our students are so sleep-deprived, as are staff. If we don’t answer that need, we’re going to continue to see mental health issues.”
Write down what makes you happy
Mindfulness now anchors a new in-school suspension program at East Leyden High School in the Chicago suburbs.
“The main objective is to get students to use mindfulness in order to respond instead of react to things” says Karen Ritter, the assistant principal for teaching and learning. “That’s what is getting kids into trouble—reacting impulsively.”
The 1,800-student school, part of the Leyden High School District, has introduced an extensive social-emotional curriculum that incorporates elements of mindfulness. In one English class, the teacher has assigned students to write three things that make them happy each day in a gratitude journal.
“Mindfulness, gratitude and happiness—they’re all linked together,” she says. “Research has found that when people are in the present, that’s when they’re happiest. They’re not ruminating about the past or anxious about the future.”
The school now has a mindfulness club, and the relaxation techniques have become a part of the summer advanced placement program, after-school tutoring and ninth-grade mentoring.
In December 2016, the school focused on mindfulness during three days before final exams. Students were guided through a “body scan”—a meditation session in which they focus on specific parts of their body and exhale to release any tension they are feeling.
Helping educators relax
At Erie Public Schools in Pennsylvania, mindfulness arrived a few years ago as an initiative to reduce teacher and staff stress during a time of financial uncertainty, says Pamela Wiley, the district’s health and physical education facilitator.
The school system has about 800 employees and 13,500 students, 80 percent of whom are economically disadvantaged. Erie now holds free, after-school employee yoga classes that rotate among its 18 buildings.
Participants learn, among other practices, to make mindful choices—such as making sure they get enough sleep and drink enough water, and move regularly throughout the day.
Teachers who use the techniques report improvements in behavior, and that students often ask to take short yoga or breathing breaks so they can refocus on instruction. “We’re seeing that employees recognize that the district cares about them and wants them to take care of themselves,” she adds, “so we, together, can help the students who have all these economic concerns and other challenges.”
Matt Zalaznick is senior associate editor.