A small group of sixth-graders filtered into socially distanced seats on a recent Wednesday in a classroom at Pleasant Hills Middle School — a room whose very design indicated that this would be a different sort of class.

Overhead, instead of the glare of fluorescent lights, muted colors were backlighting cutouts in the shape of clouds. Floor lamps and decorative lights created a calming effect. In opposite corners of the room, smaller arrangements of seats offered comfortable settings where students could drop in during the day, collect their thoughts and relax.

Various affirmations were posted: “In a world full of doing, doing, doing, it’s important to take a moment to just breathe.” And: “Wherever you go, there you are.”

For some of the students, this was their first in an occasional set of classes in the “Chill Room.” Instructor Shelly Meier calmly greeted them with a brief explanation.


“The main thing we teach down here is mindfulness,” she said.

So are a growing number of public schools around Allegheny County and the nation.

Proponents of mindfulness — which incorporates deep-breathing exercises and other relaxation techniques — say it helps students, teachers and others reduce anxiety and face their challenges with calm confidence.

It’s a skill that advocates of school-based mindfulness instruction say is needed more than ever amid the disruptions of the pandemic.

“There is a storm of stresses going on that have really concerned the medical community,” said William Davies, program supervisor for the “Chill Project by AHN” — the formal name for a collaboration between Allegheny Health Network and seven area schools, including Pleasant Hills Middle, and which includes mindfulness training and chill rooms.

The idea is to teach “preventive skills that we know are evidence-based (to help) students battle the stress of everyday life,” Mr. Davies said. “When they have that in their toolbox, what we’re hoping to see is students not having to utilize as many high levels of care.”

But if students do need counseling or other forms of more intensive behavioral-health care, the project is also designed to help with that. It helps to destigmatize mental-health issues, Mr. Davies said, and students can seek out help on their own or receive a teacher referral.

At Baldwin High School, posters about the program are posted in bathrooms and other places where students can discretely scan a QR code and get an appointment to speak to a Chill Project staff person.

“We try to normalize discussions of, ‘How are you doing?’” Mr. Davies said. Those needing more significant therapy can have it arranged on-site at the school.

The project is “not only a program within the school,” said Principal Dan Como of Pleasant Hills Middle. “They’re our colleagues. I call them to brainstorm.”

Being in ‘the right now’

During her lesson, Ms. Meier gives the basics of what the project is about.

“Mindfulness is all about learning how to be in the right-now,” Ms. Meier told the students in her class. “You just want to be in the present,” not stewing over past mistakes or upcoming tests.

She then guided them through a basic exercise of breathing deeply, from the abdomen, noting that people often take shallow breaths from the top of their lungs when they’re nervous — which only makes things worse.

“The greatest thing about deep breathing is, you can do it anytime, anywhere, and nobody really has to know you’re doing it,” Ms. Meier told them. “It might be able to help us slow our mind down if it’s racing. It might be able slow our emotions down if they’re getting a little too tense.”

The class included a lesson in mindful eating, as each student slowly unwrapped a Hershey’s Kiss, listening to the crinkling of the wrapping, smelling the chocolate, and tasting it on the tongue before eating it, rather than scarfing it down without a second thought.

The Chill Project, initially started in the 2019-20 school year at Pleasant Hills Middle and Baldwin High, expanded this year to five more schools: Thomas Jefferson High, Jefferson Hills Intermediate, Carnegie Elementary, South Park Middle and the Steel Center for Career and Technical Education. Costs have been borne by AHN, the districts and foundations.

“Just to be able to teach kids some skills now that can help them take care of themselves, it’s a great thing to be able to do,” Ms. Meier said.

And it’s one of several examples of schools teaching mindfulness locally and nationally. The past few years have seen the trend take root in multiple Allegheny County-area schools.

The activities might involve any combination of training, guided mindfulness sessions and designated spaces — a meditation room, even a quiet corner of a classroom. The aim has been to help students respond to mounting stressors, from test anxiety to social-media drama, that were bad enough even before COVID-19 came along.

Fewer class disruptions

In Pittsburgh Public Schools, teacher Kathy Flynn-Somerville began a special assignment in recent years focusing on social and emotional learning, with an emphasis on mindfulness. Since the pandemic began, she has adapted with offerings such as the Mindful Cafe, an online setting for talks and guided mindfulness sessions.

“If you don’t have things in check, then you’re not engaged in learning,” she said.

Ms. Flynn-Somerville said she has been practicing mindfulness herself for decades, and that as a special education teacher she noticed the impact of starting her classes with calming exercises.

“The kids and I were noticing how their performance was improving, and how fewer disruptions there were in class because of that concentration and focus, and also the self-regulation that some of the kids were experiencing,” she said.

At Mt. Lebanon High School, students in 2019 designed a MinDen (pronounced “mind den”), where students could go to meditate and relax. Although it is not in use during the pandemic, Superintendent Timothy Steinhauer led some “Mindful Moment” videos from the room toward the end of the last academic year, complete with puppet props.

“To the extent that we can bring kids back to the present moment, instead of time-traveling to future things or things that happened that morning … is something that we’re really striving for,” he said.

Elementary classrooms in the Mt. Lebanon district have things like quiet corners, where kids can practice deep breathing, or just naming things that they’re thankful for.

Currently the district schools operate on a hybrid in-person/online model.

“Just like we know we need to do academic recovery once we get everyone back, we’re going to need to do mental health recovery,” Mr. Steinhauer said.

Shaun Tomaszewski, principal of Baldwin High School, said that when the opportunity to participate in the Chill Project arose, he was already supportive of it.

He didn’t used to be.

“I thought all this stuff was useless, things that get in the way of teaching and learning,” he said.

But when working in another district, he was astonished to see the quick turnaround in behavior after a teacher introduced mindfulness practices in a class that had been unruly.

“It was like a totally different group of kids,” Mr. Tomaszewski said. “I was sold.”

At Baldwin High, he said, the impact of mindfulness instruction has been strong.

“At the beginning of the year, you can imagine, especially the boys, they thought it was stupid,” he said. “But I was surprised at the acceleration of the progression. The kids started taking it seriously by October.”

Religious roots

Mindfulness increasingly has been practiced around the nation in recent decades, boosted by pioneering programs such as one at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, applying mindfulness to help patients cope with chronic pain and illness. It has since been used in helping military veterans and others cope with post-traumatic stress.

Pioneers in the movement, such as author Jon Kabat-Zinn from the UMass program, drew on training they received in Buddhist meditation, but have emphasized the physical, mental and emotional benefits of the practice rather than their religious roots.

In the Chill Project, AHN’s Mr. Davies said educators are careful to avoid the practices associated with some religious meditation traditions, such as certain physical postures or terms like “namaste.”

“None of what we do in the schools comes from a religious perspective,” he said.

“We come at it from delivering coping skills that we know from the research work to decrease stress, anxiety and depression,” he said. Ancient religions “were just on to it before the science was.”

Ms. Flynn-Somerville, the Pittsburgh Public Schools teacher, said that sometimes, after a quiet mindfulness exercises, a student might say, “It feels like church.” She briefly acknowledges such comments, “and then I let it go,” she said. “Because everybody has their own beliefs or non-beliefs.”

Krishna Pendyala, of Hampton, president of the Mindful Nation Foundation, has helped advise school districts locally and around the country. The foundation focuses on promoting mindfulness among populations ranging from military veterans to students — and those who teach them.

“I realized that (teachers) were in bad shape themselves,” he said. “Unless we can take care of teachers, there is no space to take care of others.”

He worked with schools in Wichita, Kan., where he said educators looked at the entire system surrounding students.

“If the child lands in the school all stressed-out, what are the chances of them listening to the teacher?” he said.

That led to the involvement in mindfulness training of the first adults to greet many students each day — the school bus drivers.

At Pleasant Hills Middle, students can visit the Chill Room on their own, making use of things such as a small area in the shape of a hollowed-out tree, with a few seats where students can find a quiet retreat.

Others visit on their lunch hour and play games with the staff — games that embed their own mindfulness lessons.

In one, sixth grader Sarah Greenblatt said, students have five seconds to name something such as three Disney princesses.

Even with a simple question, “in that moment, your brain goes blank,” she said. Using mindfulness “helps you concentrate,” and develop a skill that’s useful for other pressure situations.

“I come out much calmer” after visiting the room, she said.

Laney Scarantino, a seventh grader, echoed the thought, saying, “It helps you relax.”

Her mother, Jennifer Cato, added: “I’m glad there’s something there the kids can count on to go to when they have the need.”

The mindfulness programs are not just for students. Many teachers have taken part.

AHN’s Mr. Davies said that especially with the pandemic, “I have never seen faculty this stressed before.”

And it helps when teachers and students share the same coping skills.

Pleasant Hills Middle’s Ms. Meier recalled how one teacher last year brought an agitated student to the Chill Room.

“The teacher stayed, and we all sat down together and worked through what was going on,” Ms. Meier said. “And before we got up to leave, it was actually the teacher that said, ‘Hey, before we leave, let’s do some deep breathing.’”

Pittsburgh Public Schools’ Ms. Flynn-Somerville said she doesn’t worry if some students dismiss the mindfulness lessons.

“These are tools that you might turn to another time,” she said. “If you’re not doing it now, you might tap into it in 10 years. You might even practice it and not acknowledge it. That’s OK. And it’s right here within.”

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