Why mindfulness continues to be important for students, staff

The CHILL Project at Baldwin-Whitehall School District provides a blueprint for implementing successful stress-reduction practices for all, in school—and out
By: | May 12, 2020
(Photo by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash)(Photo by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash)
Randal A. Lutz is superintendent of the Baldwin-Whitehall School District in Pittsburgh.

Randal A. Lutz is superintendent of the Baldwin-Whitehall School District in Pittsburgh.

With high stress levels becoming an ongoing healthcare concern for adults and children alike, proactive school districts have been looking for ways to help alleviate stress for their students and staff—long before the pandemic. One solution that is growing in popularity is mindfulness, or the conscious practice of acknowledging and managing one’s emotions in a nonjudgmental way before they lead to stress and distraction.

A new mindfulness-informed program created in partnership between the Baldwin-Whitehall School District and the Allegheny Health Network—the first of its kind in the Pittsburgh region—provides a possible blueprint that other districts can follow for developing and implementing successful schoolwide stress-reduction practices—during school closures and when buildings reopen.

Read: 270 free K-12 resources during coronavirus pandemic

Reducing stress

The CHILL Project, an initiative designed by the Allegheny Health Network’s Dr. William Davies, uses a wide range of evidenced-based skills, including mindfulness techniques, to help students and teachers better manage their day-to-day stress.

By adopting these skills, young people and adults can enhance their ability to focus, strengthen their mental and emotional resilience, and improve their overall mental health and well-being. In turn, these techniques can help reduce incidents of negative behavior, including disruptions and absences, which improves the education experience for everyone.

Traditionally, these types of school services have only been accessed by students with identified challenges. This creates something of a paradox: Why should stress-reduction techniques only be available to people who are already overstressed? At Baldwin High School, we are asking a different question: How helpful would it be if we made these same resources available to the entire school community, as both a therapeutic and a preventative measure that can reduce stress before it escalates?

By enabling teachers to help mitigate escalating stress level through mindfulness practice, you’ll ensure that stress reduction is a tool that your teachers and students can access in the moment, no matter where they are.

To help these practices take root at Baldwin High School, the school district partnered with Davies to convert Room 322 into the new CHILL Mindfulness Center. The room was painted a calming blue hue and student artists painted a serene forest wall mural; meditative lighting and comfortable seating were added, and a 3D tree sculpted by Lilliput Play Homes, which includes a seating sanctuary within its open trunk, was installed in the space. But availability is just part of the solution, since the Mindfulness Center is only truly useful if students actually use it.

Boosting awareness

To help clarify that the center is open to all of Baldwin High School’s nearly 1,500 students, QR codes were posted throughout the building, even on the back of bathroom stall doors, to make it easy to discreetly book a private appointment with one of the center’s therapists. By scanning the QR code, students can book an appointment suited to their schedules, even on the same day.

In addition, to boost student awareness, freshman English and sophomore social studies classes have visited the center during monthly schoolwide Mindfulness Weeks. Students and teachers together learned and practiced various evidenced-based behavioral health skills, including calming exercises such as breathing techniques, which gave them an opportunity to discuss the experience with their friends in other classes.

Read: 6 ways to curb student anxiety during school closures

Supporting students, teachers

Since opening at the start of the 2019 school year, the Mindfulness Center had welcomed more than 5,000 encounters. This included more than 300 walk-in appointments from students who seek support for a variety of concerns, including anxiety, conflicts with peers, or apprehension about upcoming exams. Students were able to access the center five days per week during regular school hours, and could also schedule private appointments.

The Mindfulness Center’s impact has extended beyond Baldwin’s students. As Davies explained about the CHILL program: “We want to support teachers in the important work they are doing, increase their professional quality of life, and reduce burnout and turnover.”

To this end, the Chill program has also provided support groups and professional development opportunities for teachers, and has trained them to implement mindfulness techniques and other skills in their classrooms to help students de-escalate emotions and be present in the moment. Students were able to practice these skills in the Mindfulness Center and throughout the day.

Making the shift online

The CHILL Project has shifted services to a virtual format now, continuing to provide the opportunity for students and faculty to engage through the utilization of the Virtual CHILL Room, professional development sessions, twice weekly mindful moments for faculty, and a Friday morning faculty group for de-stressing.

At the end of May, the CHILL Project will be hosting a virtual grand rounds forum for faculty in which a select panel of district faculty, administration and CHILL Project clinicians will discuss two students, process through their demonstration of classroom behaviors, and develop learning outcomes for faculty to help shift the approach to educating students with a wide range of needs.

Looking forward to school buildings reopening, the CHILL Mindfulness Center will also include programming for professional staff, student breakfast and lunch clubs, and workshops for district families, which will help our larger school community benefit from increased mindfulness and reduced stress.

Read: What social-emotional needs will students return with?

6 strategies for program implementation success

Other schools or districts that would like to implement a similar mindfulness program should consider these six factors that have helped Baldwin’s CHILL Project succeed:

  1. Partner with regional health care experts. Baldwin is grateful for the opportunity to work with Davies and his fellow therapists. Combining their health care expertise with the lived experience of our students and staff has helped us provide targeted programming that addresses the specific mindfulness needs at Baldwin.
  2. Make your services available to the entire school community. Stress reduction and self-care are increasingly popular among young people, but some students or staff may still be averse to accessing mental health services for fear that those services are only for individuals with diagnosed medical needs. But stress reduction benefits everyone, so by making these services available to your entire student body and/or staff, you help remove the stigma that often prevents people from seeking the help they need.
  3. Involve your students from the start. When students have an active hand in developing new services, they’re more likely to talk about them with their friends and help build anticipation for them. Consider ways that the artists, athletes, journalists, musicians, performers and other student groups in your school can be part of the design and implementation of your mindfulness programs.
  4. Make sure credentialed staff are available to help students on a flexible schedule. We’re fortunate to have therapists from Allegheny Health Network. Offering a discreet option for scheduling an appointment, such as via QR code, text or email, can help students feel more comfortable seeking private help for their specific concerns.
  5. Build awareness. There’s a fine line between making a service available and making people use it. The former may not be enough by itself, while the latter will almost certainly backfire. Why make stress reduction more stressful? To maximize awareness of your school’s mindfulness resources, consider scheduling “tour time” for interested students or individual classes, when students and teachers can be introduced to these resources and invited to return whenever they’d like.
  6. Provide teacher training on mindfulness practices for classroom use. To ensure that mindfulness isn’t seen as something that only takes place in a specific context, offer professional training and in-class resources for teachers who want to incorporate stress-reduction techniques as a regular part of their class time. After all, teachers can often recognize escalating stress levels even before the students themselves can articulate an increase. By enabling teachers to help mitigate these situations through mindfulness practice, you’ll ensure that stress reduction is a tool that your teachers and students can access in the moment, no matter where they are.

Randal A. Lutz is superintendent of the Baldwin-Whitehall School District in Pittsburgh.

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