Mindfulness Makes a Difference in Schools

Every morning, principals in the West Bridgewater School District in Massachusetts get on the PA system to lead students through a few minutes of mindful breathing exercises. Administrators introduced relaxation techniques in 2015 after identifying an issue afflicting districts across the country: a troubling rise in student anxiety. “We’re seeing anxiety in preschool through 12th grade—we’re seeing it in elementary grades more than we’ve ever seen it before,” says Patty Oakley, superintendent of the four-school district, which is an hour south of Boston.

“Students can’t concentrate, they can’t do their work, they have attendance problems and they’re being hospitalized.” What’s the cause? Oakley suspects several factors, in and outside school, including the pressures of standardized testing and a “fear of missing out” fueled by students constantly tracking the activities of friends and classmates on social media.

There’s also an “embarrassment of riches” effect at work, in that today’s students have so many choices to make, from extracurricular programs to technology, that the glut of decisions causes stress, Oakley says.

So, the district trained its teachers to lead students through breathing and other relaxation techniques, such as simple movements, throughout the day and particularly before tests. Kindergarteners, for example, now stop and breathe before leaving the cafeteria to go back to class. Other students lay on the floor and close their eyes for a few minutes. Sometimes students relax on couches, rocking chairs and yoga balls that have been placed in their classrooms.