Ramier Jones admits it: High school is hard.
Between an ambitious schedule of classes at George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science, extracurricular activities, sports, and finding time for friends and family, the pressure often builds uncomfortably, said Jones, a 10th grader.
But when things get particularly stressful, Jones and his friends have a strategy: mindfulness. That is — breathing deeply, training their minds to be present in the moment, without judgment.
“There’s a lot going on,” Jones said. “Meditation is a way to be able to handle things better.”
Schools around the world are teaching students mindfulness as a way to bolster youth mental health, focus and emotional regulation. Carver, a Philadelphia School District magnet, is making a mindfulness push this year, partnering with the Inner Strength Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to equip Philadelphia teens with tools for self-reflection and perspective that help them manage challenges and prepare for successful futures.
Ted Domers doesn’t have the resources for a full-time social worker, but the Carver principal was able to secure $35,000 in grant funding to hire the Inner Strength Foundation, which has done mindfulness training in 13 Philadelphia schools in recent years.
All Carver freshmen engaged in mindfulness workshops at a suburban retreat center; all sophomores have mindfulness lessons at the school once a week for 12 weeks, and in the spring, seniors — many of whom will be first-generation college students — will work with mindfulness instructors to talk about handling the postgraduation transition.
“It’s not easy to be a teenager, and we have to find the space to help students identify the triggers and to respond appropriately. Some of our students are at higher risk to have more stressors in their lives,” said Domers.
At a Carver “Happy From the Inside” workshop held this fall, 70 ninth graders shuffled into an airy room at Pendle Hill, a Wallingford study center in a pastoral setting. They weren’t sure what to make of Amy Edelstein, the author and mindfulness educator who founded the Inner Strength Foundation.
“Can you imagine walking into your hardest class, taking a pop quiz in something you haven’t studied for, and feeling totally relaxed?” Edelstein asked them. “When we practice mindfulness, we have some strategies, some tools. When we practice this kind of mindful breathing, it’s like vitamins for your brain.”
When Edelstein softly struck a set of silver chimes to walk them through a short meditation, it felt strange to many of them. By the time they boarded buses to head back to North Philadelphia, after a group lunch and a walk through the woods, some could see the utility.
“The projects and the work — I get stressed,” said Cameron Roberts, 14. “This can calm me down for a big event. I can use mindfulness to take a chill pill and relax.”
Kristin Jones, a Carver teacher who accompanied the students to their workshop, said she’s seen a recent rise in students’ stress levels and a drop in their ability to relax.
“They’re extremely overwhelmed,” said Jones. “Technology is super overwhelming.”
Inside Paul Wagenhoffer’s fourth period chemistry class at Carver, Julie Coopersmith, an Inner Strength educator, greeted the students warmly this month. At first, the sophomores whispered and fidgeted, glancing at phones.
But as Coopersmith drew them into a three-minute meditation, the room settled into calm.
“Make your breath deep so your energy is deep and calm,” Coopersmith said. “Mindfulness is not judging ourselves; that does no good. We’re just noticing, moment to moment.”
Educating the teenagers about their brain development — the way their limbic systems, which control emotion, are more developed; and their prefrontal cortex, the brain’s center for reason and rational thinking, is not fully formed — helps students understand why they may feel impulsive and subject to social pressures.
“Practicing this way supports your prefrontal cortex, the part that develops focus and attention and calm,” Coopersmith reminded the teens. “When something really matters to you guys and you need to pay attention, you’ll be successful. That’s what you’re building right now.”
That line of thinking helps Jones keep cool in situations that might have felt overwhelming in the past. When he and his friends feel overwhelmed, they help each other with a phrase that harks back to their training: “Think back to chem class.”
You might think Alex Leed, another Carver chemistry teacher, would mind giving up one period a week for 14 weeks to Coopersmith’s mindfulness training. The opposite is true.
“Mindfulness has just helped make a better vibe where students are able to share their opinions and be more emotionally vulnerable,” Leed said. “I’d say that minute per minute, even when Julie’s not there, the students are much easier to get on task and stay on task.”
Research bears that out. And frankly, Leed and Domers said, they feel like schools owe stressed-out kids ways to decompress. Domers has deliberately insisted on building study hall into students’ schedules so they don’t overload on difficult courses, and both say mindfulness is a piece of the relaxation puzzle, too.
“I’m always trying to maintain the line between setting and maintaining high academic standards and at the same time, being flexible with the kids and helping them through their struggles,” said Leed.
Mindfulness feels particularly important in Philadelphia schools, where students often deal with trauma from their neighborhoods as well as school pressure. Carver lost a student to gun violence this year, and students who had mindfulness training found it helpful in coping with their loss.
“When you have those structures and routines in place, when, God forbid, the unspeakable happens, you can respond,” Domers said.