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North Hills Monthly

School Districts Putting More Emphasis on Mindfulness to Help Kids, Community

Sep 24, 2019 10:24PM ● By Kathleen Ganster

A Mindfulness Center, part of the CHILL project

It’s difficult being a child these days. In addition to the regular stress of studies, activities and everyday life, there are the additional worries of school safety, societal issues and for some, even where their next meal will come from.

And with new challenges, old remedies to assist children don’t work anymore.

Dr. William Davies, program supervisor for the CHILL project, Allegheny Health Network, was working with school administrators at a local school whose community had faced several shootings. “As I looked at their faces, it dawned on me that traditional school-based services were outdated, and we could be doing a lot more,” he said.

In light of this realization, coupled with his experience in both education and clinical settings, Dr. Davies created a mindfulness program that focuses on the whole community—not just the children. 

“We can’t just focus on one part of the environment, just as we can’t treat a family issue without focusing on the entire family,” he said. “We can’t serve a school or help the children without serving the entire community, so we set up a program that serves the entire community,” he said.

Last spring, Dr. Davies began designing a mindfulness program appropriately entitled CHILL that the health network planned to launch in the fall of 2020. But the schools he was partnering with for the pilot project didn’t want to wait.

“They said, ‘No, we need it now,’ so we are launching it this fall,” he said. 

The pilot project programs are housed at Baldwin High School in the Baldwin-Whitehall School District, and at Pleasant Hills Middle School in the West Jefferson Hills School District. As part of the project, a Mindfulness Center was created in each school along with professional staff to lead mindfulness exercises and programs not only for students, but for faculty and staff, families and community members.

The concept behind mindfulness, according to Dr. Davies, is focusing on the present moment, nonjudgmentally, with patience, trust in oneself and acceptance. 

“Research shows that 47 percent of people are either living constantly in the future or the past. You can’t enjoy or participate in the present if you can’t focus on the present,” he said. 

Through mindfulness, it is hoped that students and others will develop skills to help them become more present and nonjudgmental of themselves. Activities include skill-building, guided imagery, mindfulness meditation, and increased focus on breathing. 

“By having them understand what they are doing and how that affects the brain, we can develop new neuropathways for future behavior and decision-making,” Dr. Davies said. 

The entire student body of both schools will rotate through the centers, plus there will be push-in programs in the classrooms. Additionally, staff and faculty will receive services and there will be voluntary family seminars along with availability to other community members. CHILL will also expand to afterschool clubs and programs, and community events at local libraries. 

“We are creating a level of preventive care which we hope will increase academic success and lessen stress for everyone,” Dr. Davies said, adding that he hopes to expand the CHILL project to other schools in the region. “This is something that everyone can benefit from, and we want to bring it to as many people as we can.” 

The Seneca Valley School District is also developing a districtwide mindfulness program, building from exercises some individual classroom teachers have been doing for a couple of years, according to Jeff Roberts, supervisor of Gifted Education & Student Services. The program will run under the umbrella of LEAD (Learn, Explore, Act & Develop), an initiative that looks at the students’ lives as a whole.

“In education, we’ve seen many new mandates and many new programs trying to solve new problems. With new situations and problems, we can’t isolate education,” Roberts said. 

He gives the example of children finding it hard to focus if they didn’t eat dinner the night before or if there is uneasiness at home. The district is working with its faculty to help children develop mindfulness practices, focusing on the here and now to better learn.

“If you are worried about what happened the night before, it is hard to focus on the math worksheet in front of you,” he said.

Elementary schools in the district have also created “Calm Corners” where children can go to settle their minds and calm down when necessary. They have also formed “Worry Warriors” to help students focus on taming worries rather than focusing on them.

As the district moves forward in the school year, they plan to incorporate more mindfulness programming including professional development for faculty and staff. Seneca kicked off the school year with a workshop on its professional development day and will host more throughout the year.

“We hope to build mindfulness teams and work with our students to develop core skills. It is just like soccer skills—the more you practice them, the better you become,” Roberts said.