Pittsburgh schools hoping to reduce student stress and anxiety with lessons in mindfulness

Social and emotional learning is a priority for many local school districts, and part of that is teaching mindfulness to the students, as well as parents and teachers.  The goal is to reduce stress and anxiety which have been on the rise in young people.

For high school students, it might be a yoga class. Yoga is known to be calming for the body and mind, and at the brand new Thomas Jefferson High School in Jefferson Hills, it’s an important part of the curriculum.

But mindfulness isn’t just for older kids.  Even the kindergarteners are learning breathing techniques to calm themselves down.  Kindergarten teacher, Melissa Wahl, and other teachers were trained by experts at the Himalayan Institute to teach kids how to be mindful.  She leads her class of about fifteen 5-year-olds in an exercise where they hold their hand up and trace their fingers with their other hand, breathing in on the way up and out on the way down.  Some of the kids close their eyes are visibly breathing deeply.

“We talk about how our fingers feel when we’re finished and how our brain calmed down and how we’re not really thinking about what made you feel silly or wound up before we started,” Wahl says.

At Pleasant Hills Middle School, there’s a whole new program called the “CHILL project” with a new room called the “CHILL room”.  Eighth-grader Samukh Desabhotla said about the CHILL room, “I find it to be relaxing and very calming.  I think it helps if you’re getting stressed and you want to come to a place where you can calm down and relax.”

The mindfulness room has dim lights, comfy chairs, and relaxing music and is staffed by two professional counselors who are always there to talk with a student or teacher who needs help or just a listening ear.  Eighth-grader Marina Sestito says of the counselors, “They really make you feel homey and welcome when you’re having a bad day.  She’s really nice to come down here when you’re stressed.  If you have anxiety, they’re very helpful.”

Allegheny Health Network created the “CHILL project” to get kids to help where they are and to prevent more serious mental health problems and treatment.

Dr. William Davies, the supervisor of the CHILL project for AHN, says, the goal is to help students, families, and faculty with prevention and early intervention.  “It’s reducing levels of anxiety and depression and helping kids with creating more coping skills so they can stay in school and not have to utilize outside services.”

Jade Fiore is the special education supervisor at West Jefferson School District and oversees the program for the district.  She really sees a need for this.  “There’s a lot of students with mental health that maybe don’t display it on a daily basis, but they may display it at home; they may display it around their friends, and they truly need the help and support at school because we are here the majority of our lives.”

The “CHILL project” is also new at Baldwin High School this year.  In addition to the room and counseling, the counselors will give regular, monthly workshops for students and teachers about mindfulness and coping techniques.