Mindfulness at the Middle School

The bell rings and kids begin to enter the music room.

"Let's de-stress," says Cameron with smile. He takes a seat at a table and unpacks his bagged lunch. Behind him there are two projected images: a worried-looking kitten and a sleeping kitten. Cameron looks up from his lunch and chuckles at the semi-ironic message. In some ways, he's too old for kitten pictures, but he likes the message. It's why he's here at "Mindful Lunch."

The room quickly fills with over 30 chattering kids.

Stefanie Haug, LICSW, Middle School Counselor greets them all. "Whatever brings you here, you are always welcome." More kids trickle in.

Haug asks for their attention. "Today I'll do a little bit of talking, then we will bring something around." The 'we' refers to Joanna Yandle, the Middle School Nurse, who helps run the Mindful Lunch program. "Drop in, come once or every time, for any reason. We recognize that sometimes things get too busy, or sometimes things may feel like a lot to handle and you need a bit of relaxation. Or maybe lunch in the Big Room is just too busy."

"Nurse Joanna is going to come around to each of you to give you a bit of a fun test. These so-called Biodots will go on your dominant hand." As Yandle puts the stickers on each student's hand, the Biodots begin to change color in response to the change in temperature. The kids don't yet know what the colors signify. "Wow! Mine is tingling," Ava says as she turns to Kate. "What is it? Changing color?"

Haug offers the first part of her explanation, the rest to be completed at the end of the session. "Just notice what color your dot is. We're going to explore what stress is today. Did you know that sometimes stress is a perfect response? If you ever have found yourself in the mouth of saber-toothed tiger, please be stressed. We go into what's called the flight-fight response. That stress is what gives us the zip to run away." Haug then offers details of the physiological response to stress: heart rate, body temperature, brain chemistry, appetite, etc.

She then changes tack. "But our brains are kind of dumb. They can't always tell the difference between helpful and unhelpful stress and see everything as a saber-toothed tiger. Any examples today? How about last night trick or treating? Or do we need to run away from tests?"

"Did you know there are ways we can flip the switch in our bodies and brains from stress mode to calm mode? One way is to intentionally help our bodies relax so that our minds relax. When that happens, we shift to rest-and-digest mode. You know, that zen spot when we're relaxed and chill."

Haug changes the kitten images to a video clip of a kitten being tickled and then of a tropical waterfall. "So, let's experiment together. Please enjoy these videos while you eat your lunch. If you sort of daydream, that's fine. Is this a calming scene for you?"

Luc has been a regular participant in Mindful Lunch, and he feels the benefits. "We get to do cool and interesting things. Ms. Stefanie teaches us about stress and how to calm ourselves down, the causes of stress and things we can do to overcome it. Ms. Stefanie's taught me cool things about breathing and how important it is to sleep enough. When we feel academic pressure, it is important to take breaks and not be too hard on yourself. Plus, Mindful Lunch is a great way to get to know other people. I look forward to going every Tuesday."

After a bit, Haug returns to the initial exercise with the Biodots. "So now, we're curious, what color is your dot? As we mentioned, there are lots of ways to measure stress. Sometimes when we get stressed our hands can turn cold." Haug projects a visual chart of the Biodots colors and what they signify. "The dot measures body temperature. The darker color may indicate stress, and a shift to lighter color may indicate that your body is warmer. And if that's the case, maybe your mind is calmer too. What's going on for you? What did we do together that may have shifted your Biodot color? What can you make a choice to do for yourself? Next week we'll experiment some more with that whole stress and body-mind wackiness. We hope you'll come check it out."

 

Interview with Middle School Counselor, Stefanie Haug

 

What is the history of Mindful Lunch at the Middle School?

Mindful Lunch evolved about 5 years ago out of realization that kids were expressing an interest and also a need for more ways to "de-stress."

We've found that mindfulness is a useful framework for helping kids figure out that out: how to become aware of their emotional states and responses (a.k.a. stress) and then ways to navigate those experiences. Our working definition of "mindfulness" is to "pay attention here and now with kindness and curiosity so that we can choose our next steps." [adapted from Amy Saltzman's book Still Quiet Place] It's both a skillful practice as well as a way to approach what comes up in our lives. There's the potential for powerful reassurance and resourcefulness and hopefulness when we grow in self-awareness and can subsequently manage ourselves more.

Pragmatically, the Nurse and I launched Mindful Lunch out of a desire to find a creative way to interact with students other than just in immediate-crisis-response situations. Also, we wanted to give students a way to check us out in a different way, too. For myself, I strive to make myself accessible around the school by being where the kids are—visiting classes, participating in school events—and inviting them to be with me by having my office be a hang-out space where kids regularly stop by, have lunch, do work, and chat with me or with their peers. Mindful Lunch is yet another way to "lower the bar" for kids to get a sense of who a Counselor is and how a Counselor could potentially be another safe and caring adult in their school lives.

What are your goals in creating a space for Mindful Lunch? Whom does the program reach?

I love this question because it prompts me to ponder. Would I like kids to learn about the connections and potential of their minds? Sure. Do I think every person would benefit? Absolutely.

That said, we deliberately offer this as drop-in lunch with no expectation of commitment or goal. If there's any strain to attend, we're defeating the purpose of what we're offering.

I accept that I have no idea what the goal would even look like if/whenever it's achieved. I can guarantee no one will leave Mindful Lunch with the ability to fly. But can I really guarantee anything else? I do feel I can guarantee that when we "pay attention with intention," things shift. We can't force self-awareness (nor would we want to, truly). So, I offer kids a chance to explore that mind-body connection in a light and fun way.

Also, I'm very aware that it is no small feat for students to come to this lunch. There are so many factors at play such as the sense of not having time or simply wanting to socialize with friends. So, I trust because this lunch is regularly and openly offered, that students come when and as they feel a need. I am perpetually curious and delighted by the students who connect with this lunch. One year the group was all 8th grade boys and one 7th grade girl. Another year, predominantly girls and in past years, equal parts 7th and 8th graders. Likewise, some weeks there are 5 students and sometimes 15—or in the case of this week, over 30! I love when students come regularly and I'm open to working with whatever evolves week by week.

How does Mindful Lunch fit into your larger goals for a more healthful experience for students at the Middle School?

Two commonly experienced outcomes of mindfulness are self-awareness and self-management. I strongly believe that self-awareness and self-management are the alpha and omega of many forms of personal, academic, and community growth that BB&N works to foster.

I believe this premise underlies a lot of what the school stands for and offers. Here are several examples of how I'm involved in that process:

  • The Middle School is unique many ways, one of which is its Advisory Program. One branch of that is our Co-Curriculum. The Co-Curriculum refers to programming that Advisors explore weekly with students on a range of topics that all hang on the framework of social-and-emotional learning core competencies (SEL). Not surprisingly, self-awareness and self-management run through many of the lessons we ask our students to explore. I facilitate weekly meetings of the Co-Curriculum planning team with Mary Dolbear (Middle School Director), the 7th Grade Team Leader, 8th Grade Team Leader, and our Assistant Director.
  • Jamie Wallace, our Learning Specialist, and I frequently reflect on the intersectionality of learning styles/skills and social-emotional well-being. In order to be open to learning, you need to be open to knowing and managing yourself and vice versa. In order to learn, it's important to "pay attention with intention."
  • Henri Andre, the Director of Wellness, and Athletics Department faculty have incorporated mindfulness approaches for decades. For example, Middle Schoolers taking Health & Fitness classes weekly explore yoga (mindfulness of the body) and relaxation through the lens of strengthening athletic performance and overall well-being.
  • Both the school's Cultural Proficiency and Global Competency initiatives interconnect with self-awareness and self-regulation as a cornerstone skill to authentically broaden from "me" to "we."

What other initiatives have you undertaken to help students understand the "mind-body connection" and the importance of stress management?

Mindful Lunch is just one entree in a large menu of options that I'm regularly exploring in support of the Middle School community both directly and indirectly. I do this through means that are student-focused as well as parent/caretaker-focused, and I'm grateful for team support.

Some examples of initiatives directed toward students:

  • Monthly drop-in crafts at the Maker Space around the theme of mindfulness and well-being. Recently kids decorated stones and some decorate our campus with 'kindness messages' such as "You rock!" (See photo below.)
  • Soon I will begin our second year of a "Mindful Minute" at the beginning of weekly assemblies. Mary Dolbear and I developed this as a small mini-intervention to demonstrate how the school values relaxation and emotional wellness as much as activity and academic achievement.
  • Some teachers invite me to guide a relaxation exercise with their students. These invitations make my day.
  • Mindfulness-based practices get woven into the Co-Curriculum topics in different ways. Svetlana Grinshpan, our Tech Specialist, and I created a lesson framework whereby 7th graders explored how digital devices might distract them from desired outcomes (e.g., finish homework) and got them to consider whether they were aware of the distraction and then what they could do to distract themselves from that distraction!
  • Each year I arrange for the Wellness Collaborative to come spend one week with each grade. The program's entry point is to reflect on the use of substances but the mindfulness and wellness lens gets the kids to consider how stress might lead people to use substances and alternatives they could consider when they might feel overwhelmed by stressful situations.

Initiatives directed toward parents/caregivers:

It's recognized that child development is a long process (extending beyond MS) and that Middle Schoolers do not control their external environment. So, for kids to internalize intrapersonal skills in any deeper, lasting way, it's important that parents/caregivers be supported to, in turn, be supportive of that development. That is why we always look for holistic approaches that reach beyond the school environment to reach the home one. Here are a few examples of what I do in my role around mindfulness:

  • I host bi-monthly "Caretaker Coffees" to provide a space for parents/caregivers to come together and discuss various topics. Often, one topic is mindfulness and how to practice for themselves and with their families.
  • I'm frequently contacted by adults for referrals for resources how to learn more on their own or "bring it home."
  • When we bring presenters to speak to the students, we make a concerted effort to have them speak to caregivers as well. Again, we want conversations and explorations to carry over to students' larger and wider lives outside of school.

Have you seen the Middle School embrace as a priority a more holistic approach to our work with students?

I've seen an emergence of a holistic approach, particularly with how the school supports faculty and staff to explore these issues for themselves personally and professionally. I absolutely include faculty and staff as part of that 'holistic' approach to students well-being. It's a 'trifecta' of a) students, b) faculty/staff, and c) their parent/caregivers. At the Middle School I know of several faculty in different disciplines who do this already as a way of either setting the tone for the beginning of their instruction time or as a way to take a mid-class break.

I also see support coming top-down. Mary Dolbear's support of the whole-child lens comes through in her support of student initiatives and faculty training. All the initiatives and ideas listed previously have evolved in discussion with and direct support from her.

All-campus wide, Human Resources regularly offers faculty/staff free workshops in meditation, yoga, nutrition, etc., and recently offered several free, daylong workshops with the Benson Henry Institute, one of the pioneers in mind-body health.

In fact, Human Resources asked me to offer "Mindfulness Mini's" on each campus as a way for any faculty/staff interested in how mindfulness might benefit them personally. These mini's have been highly experiential and discussion-based and have included faculty/staff from every campus.

Mindfulness work is holistic, whole-person work. Also, we are relational beings and interconnection is how we survive and also thrive. So, it stands to reason any positive growth/work we do on ourselves will benefit everything and everyone else.

Stefanie Haug: LICSW is BB&N's Middle School counselor and long-time meditation practitioner, with a shout-out to her psychotherapist parents. She continues to explore meditation through her daily practice, weekly meditation group, silent retreats and trainings with meditation leaders at various institutions. She has completed various certifications/programs in mindfulness/meditation and currently is pursuing training to become a certified MBSR Teacher. She works with adults and children on mindfulness/meditation approaches in the United States and also abroad.