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Centennial High becoming 'mindful' of the benefits of meditation

At their teacher's suggestion, some Centennial High School students are closing their eyes in class and taking their minds off academic subjects.

They are relaxing instead of sitting tensely on the edge of their chairs.

And they are thinking positive thoughts instead of stressing over a coming test, a lower-than-expected grade, or a social or emotional challenge they may be facing in one of Howard County's many top-performing schools.

To help them feel grounded, they are focusing on their breathing and their feet. Just as importantly, they are learning to just "be."

It's a scene taking place after school in the physics classroom of Stan Eisenstein, who is imparting coping strategies based on meditation and mindfulness to 30 teens who, in his words, "happen to be in a school with a fair amount of people who are fairly driven."

Eisenstein's course in meditation is attracting enough interest from Centennial staff and students that the pros and cons of offering mindfulness as an elective are being weighed.

Another Howard County school, Ellicott Mills Middle, also is considering a pilot program on mindfulness for sixth-graders that could be offered during the school day as early as next month.

"Mindfulness" is defined as a particular way of paying attention. By bringing awareness to one's sensory experience, thoughts and emotions, impulsive reactions can be reshaped into thoughtful responses, experts say. Eisenstein, who graduated from the Meditation Teacher Training Institute, said the 10-week course at Centennial came about quickly.

"A teacher said in November that she'd been seeing a lot of test anxiety and asked if I could teach mindfulness and meditation to students," said Eisenstein, whose secular course is largely based on Buddhist teachings. "[The administration] advertised it for a couple weeks, and we started in December."

He kicked off the course, which is designed to benefit students with social or emotional anxiety, by teaching students to pay attention to their bodily sensations and their thoughts and emotions. He called that set of skills "a first-aid kit for what to do when you're feeling stressed."

A person's sympathetic nervous system spurs a "fight-flight-freeze reaction" to stress, which mindfulness can fend off by inspiring "creative, conscious problem-solving and an openness to new solutions," said Eisenstein, who has practiced meditation for 25 years.

"You observe your reactions to your environment, and that provides insight into how you relate to the world, which changes over time," he said. "That prevents you from repeating the same patterns."

First in the county

Centennial is the first county school to offer mindfulness instruction, according to Assistant Principal Joelle Miller, who said the school's administration wants to actively promote health and well-being.

Principal Claire Hafets "met with the senior class during the first and second weeks of school to do a 'temperature check' to see how they were feeling," said Miller. Ratings forms were distributed to all 358 seniors. "The majority were already circling 9's and 10's for stress," 10 being the highest.

The school had already held stress-relief activities during exam weeks, but it was prompted by those results to provide other opportunities, she said.

Eisenstein also teaches mindfulness mediation in a drop-in class for adults held at Centennial on Tuesday evenings. And through meetup.com, he runs Columbia Insight Meditation Group, which lists 438 meditators and is affiliated with the Insight Meditation Community of Washington.

Because of his repertoire of skills, "which have already had a huge, huge impact," Miller said, Eisenstein might be asked to instruct teachers as well as students.

"Our current problem is deciding whether Stan should hold another 10-week after-school session for students, or should we let our teachers have a turn?" she said, adding it could prove a tough decision since both groups are asking to participate.

Potential scheduling problems also loom, she said.

"Should we decide to offer mindfulness instruction during the school day? Then how would we go about that?" she said. "Stan's AP physics classes are always full, so do we pull him away from that curriculum to lead mindfulness classes? These are questions we need to explore.

"Clearly, there's a need for this, and as an elective, [mindfulness] would be awesome. If it were to become an approved class — which would require going through the proper channels within the county school system, just like any other class — then any school can offer it," Miller said.

Ellicott Mills pilot

Ellicott Mills Middle School is contemplating incorporating mindfulness instruction into the school day in a proposed pilot program for two sixth-grade classes, said Principal Michael Goins.

"The goal is to help students to be free of judgment and fully attentive to what's present in this moment," he said, noting the program will be a topic for discussion at the next PTA meeting and could launch in February.

The pilot sessions would be taught by a volunteer instructor with Minds Incorporated, a Washington-based nonprofit founded in November. The plan under consideration calls for 15-minute sessions to be held twice a week over an eight-week period.

"Mindfulness helps with emotional regulation, paying attention and staying focused, and with cultivating compassion for one another," said Goins, who has practiced meditation for 10 years.

He said he taught a class in mindfulness for Ellicott Mills teachers last fall, believing that arming them with stress-relief strategies "can't help but benefit our students."

Dave Trachtenberg, program manager at Minds Incorporated, said mindfulness programs in schools have been popping up in major metropolitan areas across the country over the past five or six years. There's also been a marked spike in interest in the mindfulness movement since 2011, he noted.

Minds Incorporated is partnering with Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda to offer 30 minutes of weekly instruction for six weeks during English classes, reaching 750 students in all grades.

"Our belief is that social and emotional learning should be offered in schools as a subject," Trachtenberg said, "because there's a huge lack in treating the student as a whole child.

"Mindfulness prepares the brain to be ready for learning, and not in some fluffy way. Neuroscience studies have proved it aids in multitasking and leads to better test scores and study habits," he said. And it also gives the mind a rest.

"Mindfulness is like turning a knob and letting stress slip away," he said.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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