Mindfulness Matters

“The very mission of our school is to focus on the emotional as well as the social and intellectual well-being of our students." — Lorenzo Krakowsky, US Director

Today’s high school students experience stress like never before. From schoolwork, college applications, peer pressure and parental expectations to the stress of 24/7 connectivity and digital information overload, it’s a lot for young brains to handle. Even Calhoun students are not immune. “We have a concern about how students negotiate the world,” says Upper School Director Lorenzo Krakowsky. “We want them to take the time to live their lives in the moment. This is consistent with our mission as an independent, progressive school.”

Alison Foster, Upper School Dean of Students, agrees that educators and parents need to find ways to help kids relax. “Kids are under a lot of pressure and have a lot of anxiety,” says Alison, who leads the school’s Peer Leadership program—a 30-year-old initiative that trains twelfth graders to mentor ninth graders in life skills and the transition to high school. Alison and Lorenzo note that external pressures—and those self-imposed—are impossible to totally avoid, so Calhoun makes an enormous effort to reduce stress for its students; one way is by introducing the concept of mindfulness into the classroom.

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is defined as a mental state achieved by focusing awareness on the present moment, acknowledging and accepting all feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations. What’s the difference between mindfulness and meditation? Both have been shown to have physical and mental health benefits, but many people get confused between the two. Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, a molecular biologist who helped to bring about the popularity of mindfulness meditation, says practicing mindfulness is actually a form of meditation, but mindfulness does not have to be practiced for 20 minutes at a time; a person can be mindful anywhere, anytime and with anyone.

There is a plethora of evidence to show that mindfulness has a positive effect on stress in both children and adults. Practicing mindfulness changes the brain in a positive way, affecting brain areas related to perception, body awareness, pain tolerance, emotion regulation, introspection, complex thinking and sense of self. A recent study at Yale found that mindfulness meditation decreased activity in the brain network responsible for mind wandering. When the mind does start wandering, meditators are better able to snap out of it, thanks to the new connections that have formed in the brain. Other studies show that meditators are better at self-regulating, resisting distractions and making correct answers more often than non-meditators. Researchers also found that just a few weeks of meditation training helped focus the memory in people taking the GRE (Graduate Record Examination), and that these meditators experienced a score increase equivalent to 16 percentage points. One public school district in San Francisco started a twice-daily meditation program in some of its high-risk schools and saw suspensions decrease and GPAs and attendance increase.

Mindfulness Practices at Calhoun

Lower School students practice yoga during their Theater & Movement class.“The very mission of the school is to focus on the emotional as well as the social and intellectual well-being of our students,” says Lorenzo. This mission is reflected in the collaborative rather than competitive culture of the school; in the emphasis on process rather than product; in the attention to nurturing each student’s growth and passion; in the supportive relationships between teachers and students; and in the value the community places on social justice and kindness. Still, there are many specific techniques that teachers employ to encourage mindfulness in and outside of the classroom.

Many Calhoun teachers, particularly in Lower School, take a moment at the beginning of classes to introduce a short breathing exercise, aimed at calming students down and easing the transition from one activity to another. Little Calhounders—as young as three—are introduced to yoga poses as part of their theater/movement classes; second, third and fourth graders begin theater classes with breathing exercises to help them find a calm focus, followed by discussion about and reflections on feelings.

In Middle School sixth graders talk about stress in their health class with teacher Alyssa Viglietta. They explore what causes stress, the physical and emotional responses to it, and positive ways to deal with it.

Mindfulness is also a major component in the eighth grade health curriculum taught by Sabrina Spiegel Zurkuhlen ’06, who is the Associate Director of Athletics and coaches both Varsity Volleyball and JV Girls’ Basketball. Sabrina began teaching mindfulness last year, after completing a certification course in that field of study. In addition to adding the topic to the eighth graders’ health unit on the brain, she began using some of the techniques she had learned with her athletes. It sparked enough interest that a few of the Varsity Volleyball athletes started a morning meditation group last year.

“Mindfulness is about training our brains to be present more . . . to combat a lot of the behavior we see as a product of phone use, technology and the fast-paced world we live in,” says Sabrina. “And it reinforces so many things we value here at Calhoun. In terms of academics, it helps train our kids to be engaged and present for learning, and it helps with stress reduction and management. Its relationship to the emotional intelligence component—to more deeply explore and understand yourself—is also something we value; it has huge implications for decision-making, the role of personal responsibility and choice.”

In the Upper School, Lorenzo started introducing a short mindfulness session at the beginning of each Town Hall meeting when he first came to Calhoun three years ago. But because stress is such a critical issue for young people, he decided this year to ramp it up by adding mindfulness classes and workshops to the Upper School’s program. He hired Calhoun alumna Adrienne Glasser ‘96, LCSW RDMT, founder of the Experience Wellness Group, to lead a number of mindfulness sessions at the beginning of the year—for peer leaders (twelfth graders), for the tenth grade’s orientation program and for teachers. Adrienne also came on as an instructor for the Upper School’s first mindfulness class, offered as an E-block elective [Upper School courses offered each mod on subjects of interest that lie outside the regular curricular program]. The curriculum uses the “active insight” technique—a meditation practice aimed at increasing serenity through improved self-observation. The goals, says Adrienne, are multifold, including:

  • Improved ability to observe the present moment
  • Decreased high-risk/compulsive behaviors
  • Awareness of different parts of the ego and the ability to differentiate it from the true self of the individual, a process that is very important for teens, as they first contemplate identity
  • Stress reduction by increasing the ability to calm the central nervous system
  • Increased concentration by strengthening focus on the present moment
  • Increased positive regard for oneself, others and the environment through the specific teachings of mindfulness training related to compassion and loving kindness

Adrienne integrates a variety of elements into her classes—such as movement, breathing, art, photography and the outside environment—with the hope that she can help each student discover a technique that might work for him or her.

In terms of the environment, Adrienne had students go to Riverside Park, where they practiced walking meditation—some while taking photographs. For a unit on compassion, Adrienne combined discussion, guided movement and art. The students began by talking about the meaning of compassion, things that get in the way of being compassionate, and why it’s important to be mindful of one’s own feelings. Guided movement exercises involved “feeling” your feet on the floor, concentrating on your breathing, and taking the “temperature of your mind” (e.g., what in your life makes you feel love, compassion, joy?). During the art exercises, students drew representations of a feeling or a part of their bodies that they were “curious about.”

Talley, a junior, admits she took the mindfulness elective class specifically to deal with her stress (particularly in the ramp-up to college application season), and says she appreciated that Adrienne made it a point to introduce various practices so each student could find what works best. “I didn’t really vibe with the walking practice, but I really liked just sitting and practicing my breathing,” she says. In fact, Talley reports that “the breathing lessons I learned have become kind of habitual, before assignments and tests as well as on the basketball court.” She adds, “When you’re stressed, you’re just kind of sidetracked; breathing helps re-center your focus.”

On the other hand, Talley's classmate, Brenda, preferred the walking exercise, which she says helped put her “in the zone.” She also connected to the drawing exercises. “They were just so calming and relaxing. . . . You’re focused on just this one thing. In the moment, it was amazing.” Sadly, Brenda feels she doesn’t have the time to practice the techniques she learned—which is probably why Adrienne believes that teaching mindfulness to students is so pressing. “Many kids feel the pressure to succeed and go to a good college,” she observes. “It’s important to connect them back to what matters; to help them connect to the environment; let them pause and take in what’s happening; and take them back to a place where they [were] kids and able to be happy.”

Not for Kids Only

Besides offering the mindfulness class for students, Lorenzo began the year with professional development workshops for teachers and staff that included mindfulness work. Several meditation sessions were offered this past fall, and faculty and staff were also invited to attend the first Mindful Village Workshop, led by Calhoun parents Joe Loizzo, director of the Nalanda Institute for Contemplative Science, and Geri Loizzo, director of programming and of the Mindful Families Program at the Nalanda Institute.

Workshop attendees learned how skills like mindfulness and compassion, imagery, movement and deep breathing can build the vital muscles of self-regulation, empathy and creativity. “The brain is plastic and can be reshaped by repeated practice,” note the Loizzos, who led the participants in a number of mindfulness techniques they could use for themselves as well as their students.

How Can Parents Help?

In addition to the study and adoption of mindfulness techniques in classrooms at Calhoun, there is discussion about a possible evening forum for Calhoun parents, hosted by the Parents Association.

“The more parents are open to looking into ways to de-stress themselves through mindfulness skills and activities, the more likely it is that their kids will listen when they offer advice about it,” says Adrienne. “There are many resources for children and families to learn about mindfulness and meditation. With education, parents can offer to do mindfulness activities with their kids, or to show them how to do them on their own. Kids can then learn how to just take a few moments to accept whatever they notice, and focus on the breath during stressful times.”

In a culture that honors speed, Adrienne notes that “parents can be role models to their children—to slow down during busy times to create a pause that will allow for even more effectiveness.”


Effects of Chronic Stress

Chronic stress actually triggers changes in the structure and function of the brain and causes the body to release the stress hormone cortisol. When it is chronically elevated, cortisol can have adverse effects on weight, immune function and chronic-disease risk. What’s more, stress may impact one’s mental and emotional health; stressed students may be more prone to anxiety, mood disorders and learning difficulties. They may turn to alcohol or abuse other substances in an effort to self-medicate.

Studies have shown that when young people are exposed to chronic stress, it can actually interfere with their academic success. In a recent NYU study published in Frontiers in Psychology, nearly half of the high school students reported feeling a great deal of stress on a daily basis, and another third reported moderate stress. Girls reported significantly higher levels of stress than boys. Grades, homework and preparing for college were the greatest sources of stress for both genders. Researchers found that students in the study used a variety of coping strategies, ranging from the healthy (sports, exercise, music, meditation) to the less healthy (substance abuse).

Mindfulness in the Mainstream

Mindfulness has its roots in Buddhist meditation, but over the past 35 years it has entered the secular mainstream in this country.

Meditation and mindfulness were even adopted at the latest World Economic Forum in Davos. “This is a very unusual event at the World Economic Forum, and it’s diagnostic of something much larger that is happening,” says Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, a molecular biologist who helped popularize mindfulness and meditation. “What was once considered a radical, lunatic fringe thing has been incorporated into medicine, science, academics and more.”

In the educational world, mindfulness has become a major focus at numerous professional conferences. This year’s NAIS (National Association of Independent Schools) conference offered a mindfulness session, and the Mindfulness in Education Network (MiEN), a 15-year-old organization, continues to host annual conferences for educators, parents, students and others interested in promoting contemplative practice (mindfulness) in educational settings.