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North Hills Monthly

North Allegheny School District Introducing Mindfulness Program

Oct 01, 2017 11:10AM ● By Shelly Tower Rushe

Joni Sturgill

Between staying focused on lessons, balancing classwork and extracurricular activities, and maintaining peer relationships, school can be stressful. While the pressure can be severe, recent studies have shown that students aren’t properly managing that stress. 

According to the American Psychological Association, the number of college students seeking counseling for anxiety climbed sharply between 2009 and 2014 from 35 percent to almost 46 percent. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America found in a 2015 study that 85 percent of college students reported feeling overwhelmed. 

After surveying 300 students in fourth through twelfth grade and holding a focus group with students and their parents, the North Allegheny School District (NASD) found that students and parents reported that many students felt under significant stress and did not feel well-equipped to deal with it. “We know that as a high-performing school district, student stress is going to occur,” said David Christopher, assistant superintendent for K-12 education at North Allegheny School District. 

So how do we teach kids to positively manage their stress? NASD, in partnership with Joni Sturgill of Healthy Body, Peaceful Soul, LLC, are working with district teachers and students to introduce Plugged into Mindfulness, a program designed to give students the tools they need to improve attention skills, self-manage emotions and build resiliency. 

Sturgill has a strong background in personal development, corporate yoga and mindfulness training and had an especially significant reason to develop her school-focused program: she has her own children in seventh and ninth grades at NASD. She had always been active at her sons’ schools, but when she attended an eighth-grade Career Day, she made an undeniable impact. 

“I thought instead of going in and just talking to them about what I do, I’m going to show them,” said Sturgill. She led the students in mindfulness practices, and they began relaying their positive experiences to the school counselor. The school’s principal asked if she could come in for a teacher in-service day to demonstrate the practices to educators, and from there, the idea for a districtwide program took off.

The program begins with educators. NASD has a core group of 30 teachers and school counselors who are participating in the eight-session program. “We realized that we would need to have teachers who understood how to manage stress and had skills and techniques they could use to work with students,” explained Christopher. 

The core group will train their peers in the program, sharing techniques to help train students in the same practices. Sturgill describes the exercises as “grounded in science and research” which have no spiritual or religious focus. The district’s goal is to implement the program in the classroom in the spring of 2018.

So, what exactly does the Plugged into Mindfulness Program teach? While Sturgill can’t easily summarize the entire program, she can give an example. “One of the techniques is breathing diaphragmatically,” she said, adding that the practice has been shown to help reduce stress and to increase focus. “It’s something we’re born knowing how to do, but as we grow up and experience stress, the abdominal muscles tighten and impede diaphragm usage. I reteach natural rebreathing and calm, focused, regulated breathing.”

The program is about more than just breathing, though. Sturgill hopes to give students tools that are not necessarily taught at home or in school but are crucial life skills, as mindfulness helps individuals have greater social awareness, flexibility in challenging circumstances, and better decision-making skills. 

“Our goal is to help develop our students into resilient, focused, empathetic adults who are prepared and able to lead impactful lives,” added Christopher. 

Sturgill is working with other school districts in the area who are interested in her program and also works with a partner to offer mindfulness and positive psychology programs to executives. For more information, visit