The "train wreck" moment during a test comes when student Frans Nicholas can't organize his thoughts, doubts what he knows he studied.
By the end of a recent SAT college entrance exam, the Central Bucks High School West junior says, he was "fried." "I need to calm down and focus," said Nicholas, 17.
For the Doylestown student, help has come by way of Kate Rosselli. The SAT prep teacher is training her class to exhale.
During a nine-week course, Rosselli is teaching mindfulness meditation - a series of breathing and focusing exercises - right alongside vocabulary and sentence structure. It is an effort to prevent students' SAT scores from being hijacked by anxiety and stress.
The program, part of a two-year grant in the Central Bucks School District, is putting the principles of mindfulness into teaching, test-taking, and student life.
Mindfulness is the practice "of paying attention to the present moment on purpose, in a particular way, and without judgment," said Todd Cantrell, a house principal at Central Bucks West, who organized the program.
The goal is to train students to recognize and control their emotions and reactions through a breathing meditation that helps them relax and stay on task.
The practice was popularized by Jon Kabat-Zinn of the University of Massachusetts Medical School. The technique - which is not a religious one - has been shown to help with pain, anxiety, and stress, Cantrell said.
In education, there is a growing movement to add contemplative practices to instructional settings, said Trish Broderick of the Pennsylvania State University Prevention Research Center and author of Learning to BREATHE: A Mindfulness Curriculum for Adolescents.
A recent study at the University of California, Santa Barbara, found that a group of students who participated in two weeks of mindfulness training were less distracted and had improved their average Graduate Record Exam verbal scores from 460 to 520.
At Central Bucks, mindfulness is taught by teachers in classes that include several AP courses, SAT prep, and Living Independently, in which students learn such skills as financial planning, doing laundry, and cooking.
Cantrell began developing the proposal several years ago when he was concerned about two students who seemed to be buckling under pressure.
Students "are never offstage," Cantrell said. "They are constantly connected. Any moment, somebody can swap a picture and wreck their life. And there's the perception that if you don't go to college, you're a failure, and if you don't go to the best college, you're a failure."
Student Allie Monahan feels the stress mostly at home. She is chin-deep in the responsibilities of 11th grade: AP courses, SATs, cheerleading, applying for college.
"I worry a lot about everything I have to do," said Monahan, 17, of Doylestown. "Sometimes, I get headaches when I'm stressed."
Monahan has started a short deep-breathing meditation before bed and before tests. She believes the practice has helped. "I'm not thinking about everything else going on in my life," Monahan said. "I can think about just the test."
The school partnered with the Mindfulness Institute of the Jefferson Health System to develop the program. Cantrell was awarded two $10,000 grants from the Foundations Community Partnership in Bucks County to start the effort.
Beth Howard, a teacher at Central Bucks High South, uses breathing exercises in her Living Independently course.
"When the kids get good [at meditation], you can see a difference," Howard said. "Their body demeanor changes from tight and flustered to more relaxed. Shoulders are down, jaws loose, and eyes in front instead of on the 15 things in their book bag."
In Rosselli's SAT prep course, the teacher begins with an exercise in which students stretch their hands toward the ceiling.
Rosselli, who also teaches English, dims the lights, and the students sit with feet flat, hands resting on their laps. They close their eyes. The teacher rings a bell.
Rosselli softly tells them to begin at the bottom and notice their feet - and breathe. The students take a two-minute mental inventory of the reactions throughout their bodies, from feet to head.
"Breathe in new energy and relaxation," Rosselli says. "Breathe out tightness, tension, and fatigue."
Then the lights slowly get brighter, the students open their eyes, and class work begins.
If You Want to Take a Class
The Mindfulness Institute at Jefferson University Hospitals and the Penn Program for Mindfulness at the University of Pennsylvania Health System offer instruction at sites around the region.
Both include stress management, introductory classes, workshops, and programs for teens. Fees vary, but can total several hundred dollars.
Next on the schedule:
Jefferson: An eight-week, Tuesday-evening stress- reduction course begins June 25 at Bryn Mawr Hospital, and June 27 at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.
Go to www.jeffersonhospital.org/mindfulness or call 215-955-1376.
Penn: A four-day retreat begins July 10 at Pendle Hill in Wallingford, and a four-week, Tuesda- evening program for teens starts July 23 in Radnor.
Go to www.pennmedicine.org/mindfulness or call 1-800-789-7366.EndText