School can be stressful for many students. There are assignments to complete, tests to study for, and grade point averages to maintain.
Although adding another class to students’ schedules might not seem like an effective solution, Willard Alternative High School and Paxson Elementary School are addressing students’ stress with the addition of mindfulness classes.
The idea is that the practice of mindfulness, or developing an awareness for the present moment through various exercises, can help students slow down and focus on the task at hand.
Last week, a class of second-graders from Paxson boarded a bus to visit Willard, where they joined high schoolers for a morning mindfulness exercise.
The students arranged themselves on yoga mats on the floor while Gail Chandler, a Willard teacher who leads a mindfulness course, guided them through a brief meditation.
“Imagine you’re in your favorite place in the whole world,” Chandler said. “It might be on a swingset, it might be in your bedroom, it might be on a raft somewhere in the river.
“Take a nice deep breath in and let it out slow,” Chandler said. “Now return to the room and open your eyes.”
The Paxson students and their teacher, Jane Doherty, already had some experience with meditation.
Doherty leads similar lessons at Paxson to help students unwind and learn to manage their emotions. Friday's visit was so the Paxson students could get to know the high schoolers and learn from each others’ practices.
This is the second year Doherty has taught mindfulness at Paxson, after she previously ran an outside practice. Doherty, who earned a teaching certification through Mindful Schools — an organization that says it trains educators and others how to integrate mindfulness into learning — met Chandler in the fall and decided to collaborate.
Throughout the year, the students have practiced various techniques including mindful walking, mindful eating, meditation and “body scanning,” another form of meditation focused on tuning in to one’s body and identifying the source of various feelings.
The classes also visited each other earlier in the year, with Willard students leading Paxson through a meditation at their school and vice versa.
On Friday, the two classes got together for the last follow-up visit, where Willard students Apollo Moura and Keeana Hodges led the second-graders through an exercise known as “bunny breathing.”
Chandler passed out stuffed animals to each student while Moura and Hodges instructed them to lie on their backs.
“Today, what we’re doing is taking a second to sit and breathe and really focus on your breath,” Hodges said.
The students were instructed to place the stuffed animals on their stomachs as a physical reminder to focus on their breath.
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“This makes it a little easier because there’s a stuffed animal, so you basically see it rise and fall with your breath so you can really pay attention to when you’re breathing,” Hodges said.
Hodges instructed the students to focus on their breath by inhaling three short breaths and exhaling slowly.
At the end of the exercise, the students shared how they used mindfulness in their daily lives.
“I like to do mindful walking,” said Eliot Humphrey, a second-grader.
Titus Gilder, another second-grader, said that he liked to practice “kindfulness” and that the practice helps him calm down when he’s feeling sad or angry.
Many mindfulness techniques, such as those the students mentioned, are associated with reduced stress and anxiety. It may also help students regulate their emotions.
The federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) even recommends mindfulness exercises to reduce stress and anxiety in teens and adults.
Chandler said that five years ago, nine teachers at Willard taught mindfulness lessons in their classes to about 90 students and conducted their own study, using the remaining students who didn’t take the lessons as a control group.
Prior to creating the lessons, the teachers gave students a survey.
“We collected information like ‘In the last month, how often have you been upset because of something that happened unexpectedly?’ Or ‘In the last month, how often have you felt nervous or stressed?’” Chandler said.
After a nine-week lesson, the teachers conducted another survey.
“The students that received mindfulness instruction had a decrease in their levels of stress,” Chandler said.
Chandler said she’s heard more teachers express interest in bringing mindfulness to the classroom and hopes the practice continues to spread.
Doherty said it’s easy to incorporate mindfulness into daily lessons by instructing students to take a minute or two to check in with themselves silently, and then share with the ways they’ve been practicing mindfulness with the class.
“I think it’s really great for the younger children to recognize that what we’re learning is the same thing the older kids are learning and they benefit in the same way and they can make it a lifelong practice,” Doherty said.