Warwick Valley School District program helps students cope with stress, be ‘in the moment’ and focus on their studies

Warwick Valley School District program helps students cope with stress, be ‘in the moment’ and focus on their studies


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By Abby Wolf

— Teachers and staff from the Warwick Valley School. District reported their initial experience with the district’s Mindfulness program: a system that uses breathing techniques, guided imagery and yoga poses, among other tactics, to help students quiet their minds, relieve anxiety and tension, and help better prepare them to focus on their subjects, as well as to find their focus in athletic performance.

The program was initiated by Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instructional Services James Yap, and given the blessing of Dr. David Leach, Superintendent of Schools, as part of the social emotional component of learning (SEL) in the district.

‘Effectively prepare all young people to succeed’Staff members explained to the school board at a meeting earlier this month how Mindfulness techniques – which have been used in other school districts in the region and New Jersey – help kids calm themselves down in a world where heavy use of technology, the demands of school work, and even the physical and emotional changes of adolescence all frequently make for stressful feelings in young people.

According to the New York State Department of Education website:

“SEL ‘is the process through which children, youth, and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.

“SEL is essential to creating schools that effectively prepare all young people to succeed in school and in life. Extensive research indicates that effective mastery of social emotional competencies is associated with greater well-being and better school performance; whereas the lack of competency in these areas can lead to a variety of personal, social and academic difficulties.”

FacilitatorAllison Morgan, an occupational therapist and certified yoga teacher, and founder and CEO of Zensational Kids, facilitated the program. From the company’s website:

“Allison Morgan began integrating yoga and mindfulness into her therapy sessions with children in 2007. Discovering the multitude of physical, emotional, cognitive and behavioral benefits these practices offered her occupational therapy clients, and recognizing the need for more mental health programs in schools, Allison began writing curriculum and developing teacher training programs to help others share these practices.

She is the author of three separate curriculums for pre-k through high school-age students; Young Explorers: Yoga and Mindfulness in Early Childhood Education, EDUCATE 2B: Tools for engaged learning and living and EVERYDAY Mindfulness: Techniques for teens to develop compassion, calm, focus and resilience. …”

Morgan also has worked with school districts in Montvale, River Vale, Butler and East Orange, N.J.

Staff assessmentsStudents – and staff – begin the school day with breathing exercises, yoga-based movement and focused attention, or mindfulness. These three components help participants with stress relief and improved focus; decreasing impulsivity and boosting mood, improving fine- and gross-motor development; and improved concentration and attention, cultivating compassion for themselves and others, alleviating anxiety and depression, and supporting social and emotional learning, according to Morgan’s website.

Amanda Calabrese, school psychologist for Sanfordville and Park Avenue Schools, said that “(Mindful) breathing is very important,” for the young students, especially with regard to dealing with their anxieties. The exercises help “re-center their attention,” and “be more positive about themselves.” The shift in focus – kids are often “overly distracted with technology” – helps them with their learning.

Mindfulness is “a powerful tool” that helps kids stay on track while they’re in class.

Bill Menkens, guidance counselor at the middle school, found the program “extremely beneficial for us,” particularly as a de-escalation technique when emotions may be running high, or “when kids come in anxious.”

He added that guided imagery, breathing techniques, and meditation are helpful, particularly for students who have issues at home. Still, he added, because this is such a new experience, it “will take time for everyone to get used to this.”

Mindfulness helps sixth-graders to “settle down,” even before going to their lockers, according to Phil Szumalski, a PE teacher in the middle school. Seventh and eighth graders, he continued, do breathing exercises and yoga poses as part of the rotation before class starts.

“We try to attack it from an athletic standpoint:” mindfulness can help these students focus on the moment to “help them on the athletic field.”

All of the teachers and staff who addressed the school board said that, as the mindfulness program continues to roll out through the district, the students are more accepting, and finding it to be an overall positive experience.

Morgan praised the teachers and credited them with the students’ buy-in: “We’re in a lot of schools, and the shift in buy-in” depends on the teachers not giving up on the program or the process.

“We’re excited to see it in an athletic venue,” Leach said, but added that, more important, as mindfulness techniques translate to academics, the ability to use these techniques to address stress is “one of the tools in their (students’) toolbox.”

Leach added his appreciation for the teachers who attended the mindfulness training sessions “on their own time,” knowing that increases their work day.




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