The BHS Mindfulness Initiative - Helping Students Address Stress
Brookline High School is now in the third year of its Mindfulness and Stress Resilience Initiative. This effort, led by faculty and supported by grants from the BHS Innovation Fund (link to http://bhsinnovationfund.org/current-programs/), is bringing formal training in mindfulness to BHS faculty and students with the goal of helping them develop strategies for managing stress in school and beyond.
A wide range of educators form the core group of faculty leading the initiative and includes teachers of English, world language, social studies, math, health & fitness, science as well as school nurses, guidance counselors and social workers. These staff leaders have worked with experts from Mindful Schools and the Benson-Henry Mind Body Institute at Mass General Hospital to learn how to work with students and faculty on identifying and managing stress. The initiative has three prongs - 1) Developing and teaching a mindfulness curriculum to 10th and 11th graders during advisory; 2) Working with faculty to integrate mindfulness techniques into classroom practice; and 3) Teaching mindfulness techniques to staff to help them respond to stress in healthier ways.
During advisory 10th and 11th grade students are learning about the difference between healthy stress and toxic stress, and strategies including breathing exercise and chair yoga that help them elicit a “relaxation response” in their bodies that can lower their heart rate and blood pressure, reduce muscle tension, and improve focus. They also learn about neuroplasticity and the science behind the human brain’s ability to develop new thinking and behavior patterns through repetition and practice. Learning about the brain also includes showing students how they can change negative or anxiety producing thinking patterns into more positive and calming ones. The goal of these lessons is to help students better understand the impact of stress on their lives, be able to cope with anxiety better, and develop some tools and understandings that will help them address stress and anxiety that they likely will face in high school and as adults. Two students recently commented on the work they are doing in Advisory,
Taking time to relax and breathe helped me find ways to cope with stress. I’m glad we’re learning mindfulness and need to do more about it.
The thing that I will really take away from this is focusing on the positives. A lot of the time I just think about the stress in my life when I could be focusing on how lucky I am.
Teachers have also been learning how to integrate short mindfulness activities (called “minis or “pauses”) into the daily routine of their classes. It’s not unusual now for teachers to take a moment during class to lead students through a short exercise that helps the entire class quickly relax and improve their focus. One teacher describes her class’s practice, “For my two sections of seniors/juniors, we start class with a simple 30 seconds of silence. I've found these pauses create community, compassion, and empower us to take better care of ourselves and show up as best we can for the work we do in class.” Or when working with her freshman class, one teacher said, “My freshman class has benefitted from our pauses. They started out a little wacky like 9th graders often do, but they are much more focused and calm now. It’s been a learning curve, but it really seems to be bearing fruit. They’ve really worked to create a positive tone in the class because of our pauses. All my classes ask for our pauses every day now. It’s transformed my teaching.”
Through the work in the Mindfulness Initiative, teachers are also learning how being more mindful outside of class can help them in class. When they use exercises that help them be more calm, teachers are seeing that it helps them lead a calmer, less frenetic class. The emotional tone of the room is less harried which allows students to be more fully engaged and focused during class.
According to results from a program run by the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education “teachers who regularly use stress-reducing strategies increase their abilities to cope with the demands of the career and are positioned to do a better job educating students.” source: https://news.virginia.edu/content/curry-study-reducing-teachers-stress-leads-higher-quality-classrooms
The initiative started in fall of 2015 because of the high school’s growing awareness of the anxiety BHS students and high school students across the nation face these days. Brookline’s 2015 Youth Risk Behavior Survey documented that 82% of Brookline High School students reported feeling overwhelming stress or anxiety occasionally or frequently during the 12 months prior to the survey, an increase from the 2013 result of 75% of students. http://www.brooklinema.gov/ArchiveCenter/ViewFile/Item/1460
Tremendous credit goes to BHS World Language teacher Liz Gorman for her vision, tireless spirit and leadership in spearheading the entire Mindfulness Initiative.
In addition to helping students learn lifelong strategies for coping with stress, teachers are seeing immediate benefits for students including improved attention and learning, better self regulation, and the ability to respond thoughtfully to a stressful situations rather than simply reacting.
See below for additional resources about the Mindfulness Initiative and their supporting partners.
- Benson-Henry Mind Body Institute at Mass General Hospital
- Mindful Schools Benson-Henry Mind Body Institute at Mass General Hospital
- Mindfulness for Teachers
- Mindfulness in Schools for Students