For much of last Thursday morning, Caroline Maher’s head was filled with anxiety – about the long essay due in her English class, the work for her two advanced placement classes, her after-school practice to prepare for an upcoming dance-team performance. In school and after school – with homework, youth-group meetings and a weekend job – nearly every minute of the 16-year-old’s time is scheduled.
But for 20 minutes each day at Roosevelt High in Seattle – part of a break the school instituted for all students this fall – she has time to breathe. With her feet on the floor and hands in her lap shortly after her U.S. history class ended, she took three deep breaths and a long slow exhale out.
One last deep breath in, U.S. history teacher Karen Grace said, as the 20 minutes got under way. “Now let’s learn something new.”
Started by teachers who’d grown alarmed at the rising stress level among their students, this daily break – known as “Rider Time,” after the school’s Roughrider mascot – is aimed at helping students slow down, at least for a few minutes.
Last year, teachers said, the stress and anxiety at the school had reached a crisis level.
Roosevelt has always been an academically competitive school, with many students planning on going to four-year colleges. But last year, the stress had hit a new high.
Grace said she personally walked more panicked students to the teen health center than in any of her previous 15 years as a teacher. The number of students with attention-deficit disorder continued to rise. And in two years, two students committed suicide, which hit the school community hard.
Student anxiety was so thick, it seemed to drip from the walls, said Michael Magidman, a Roosevelt social studies teacher. The school’s staff, he said, felt compelled to do something.
“There were events that pushed enough people over the edge to say ‘we need to shake ourselves out of the apathy of routine, we need to do something here,’ because our students are too overloaded and stressed out,” he said.
So a team of teachers, counselors and school nurses met to figure out what. They quickly settled on carving out a 20-minute period in the school day – accomplished by shortening each class to 50 minutes instead of 55. And because they now make any announcements during Rider Time (and don’t hold Rider Time on assembly days), they say the amount of instructional time isn’t reduced by much, if at all.
“We find ourselves always functioning on this low-level panic, and I think we are seeing that more and more,” Grace said. “Life continues to speed up, and kids don’t have the life experience and tools to figure out what to do with that.”
Erin Bailey, one of the school’s academic intervention specialists, said students face tougher academics than in the past, and take more advanced classes in their effort to get into college.
“There’s just a lack of free time to be themselves,” she said. “And with the internet, you always feel like you have to be connected to something. You’re always missing something.”
Most days of the week, students can use the 20 minutes of Rider Time as they choose – to relax on their own, check on grades or catch up on school work. But on Thursdays, teachers in every class lead a lesson on mindfulness, a practice loosely defined as being present and aware of one’s thoughts, feelings and sensations – and the impact each has.
Other Seattle-area schools also are incorporating mindfulness and stress management into the school day, part of a push to focus on students’ emotional well-being, rather than just academic success.
At Seattle’s Thurgood Marshall Elementary, for example, first-grade students do mindfulness exercises twice a week. Tillicum Middle School in Bellevue, Washington, added mindfulness lessons to its health classes. Also in Seattle, Ballard High offers drop-in sessions, and students at Nathan Hale High formed a stress-management club, where students can hang out in a dimly lighted room with classical music playing in the background. They can nap or even color, which helps them take their minds off schoolwork, said senior Stella Ramos, who started the club.
“Everyone de-stresses in different ways,” said Ramos, 17.
But Roosevelt is the first school in Seattle to pilot a yearlong program with weekly mindfulness lessons built into the daily schedule, said Ann Hollar, a mindfulness instructor who wrote the curriculum.
National statistics back up teachers’ and students’ concerns about stress. Suicide, for example, is the second-leading cause of death among people aged 15-34, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A CDC report released last month showed that children ages 10-14 were more likely to die by suicide than in a car accident.
Hollar also attributes the interest in mindfulness as a response to the era of high-stakes testing. After a period that focused so much on test scores, she said, more schools are realizing they can’t neglect students’ emotional health.
“If you’re not present, then you’re not open to learning,” she said.
The mindfulness lessons aren’t in any way religious, said Richard Berger, a professor emeritus in the University of Washington Medical School who has taught mindfulness courses in several Seattle and Edmonds schools.
“It’s not worship in any sense of the word,” he said. “It’s really just kids getting to know themselves better, including how their brain works.”
At Roosevelt, teachers Grace and Magidman use mindfulness exercises regularly, not just during Rider Time. Before a test, for example, Grace has students write what they are worried about, and then crumble up the paper and put it in a trash can. That helps the students visualize their worries in a different way, she said.
Last Thursday during Rider Time, Maher and her classmates in Grace’s Advanced Placement U.S. History class put away their textbooks and copies of the Emancipation Proclamation, then opened their mindfulness journals. The week before, the lesson focused on kindness, so Grace asked if anyone had done any random acts of kindness. One student said she’d sent a letter to a friend, another called her grandmother to ask about family history.
One student took out his phone and kept his eyes open during the breathing exercises, but most of the class participated fully.
They ended with a moment of silence, with their feet on the floor, hands in laps, eyes closed. One student, her backpack packed with binders and books, counted her breaths in a whisper.
Already, teachers and students say, Roosevelt is calmer. Teachers report seeing fewer students speed-walking down the halls with frantic looks on their faces. Students say the overall pace feels slower. And after Rider Time, Maher and a few other students had time to linger in Grace’s classroom rather than rush off to their next course.
Next year, the school’s schedule may be changing, so teachers aren’t sure whether Rider Time can continue. But they hope the focus on emotional health will stay.
“I think it’s changed the tone of how we get through the day,” Grace said. “It’s still fast-paced, but it’s sane and reasonable.”
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