The Gift of Presence in Richmond-Area Schools

A regular mindfulness practice is not just for New Age-types, celebrities or executives. Richmond-area teens can enjoy the benefits of a mindfulness practice through their school, yoga studio or practice group. Collegiate, Deep Run, Maggie Walker, Midlothian, Monacan, Trinity and other area high schools offer opportunities to learn and practice mindfulness through a variety of programs and classes.

As a methodical process for relaxing, tuning into the present moment and quieting the brain, mindfulness can help students deal with issues by using reason and not just emotion, which assists in dealing with the stress and anxiety of the teen years. Techniques include breath work, developing awareness of bodily sensations and learning to observe and assess a situation without judgment in order to make thoughtful, conscious choices.

A mindfulness practice can also enhance performance in sports and in the classroom. Local practice groups, yoga teachers and mental health and wellness experts have been helping kids with mindfulness for quite some time; now schools are adding more opportunities for students and teachers alike to learn and use these techniques to elevate the school and life experience of teens.  

Alex Peavey, upper school counselor and the head boys’ varsity basketball coach at Collegiate School, officially started their mindfulness program in 2007 with a two-week class as part of the health and wellness curriculum for ninth-graders. Based on Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, the class was so well received that Peavey sought additional MBSR training. He has since expanded the program to include classes for interested faculty, staff, coaches and parents. Peavey also added a one-semester Mindful Leadership elective as part of Collegiate’s senior seminar—more than half the seniors consistently list it as their first choice.

As a coach, Peavey uses mindfulness techniques tailored to enhance sports performance. During the varsity lacrosse team’s undefeated regular season in 2015, they incorporated three-to-five-minute mindfulness techniques during drills and ended practice with a body scan. “While the focus here is on mindfulness in sports and performance, my ultimate intention is that these coaches and players take these skills and apply it to their entire life and all the highs and lows that come with it,” says Peavey. “Sports are just another opportunity to practice it.”

Students from all Richmond-area schools can access the benefits of mindfulness during the 2016-17 school year though two free programs, Mindful Mondays and Minding Your Mind, offered by The Cameron K. Gallagher (CKG) Foundation, a group dedicated to erasing stigmas associated with teenage anxiety and depression.

Mindful Mondays, offered once per month October through May, is a group mindfulness practice led by Peavey at the CKG Foundation offices in the West End. Teens learn about mindfulness and how to use techniques to help them drop in to the present moment in order to reduce unnecessary stress. Facilitators observe the teen participants to be more relaxed and less anxious when the session is over.

Minding Your Mind is a new-to-Richmond, fully vetted and licensed, school-based, peer-to-peer solution model program to help with teenage anxiety and mental illness. It rolls out on-site and students participate voluntarily during non-academic time. A trained young adult speaker gives testimony about experiences with anxiety, depression and mental illness and shares tools that help. This is followed by eight, customizable skill-building units that include mindfulness as a stand-alone lesson within the curriculum, but aspects of a mindfulness practice show up in all of the units.

Jody Beland, programs director at CKG Foundation, says her favorite part of this particular program is the kids-helping-kids aspect. “When the kids share their stories during a session and I hear all the ‘Me too,’ responses, I can tell the healing is starting and the program is working,” says Beland.

School administrators agree. “Minding Your Mind has been positive for our school and the students that participated in the program. It has helped with these students’ personal self-esteem, awareness of others and acceptance of others. It has created a more positive atmosphere in our school,” says Lenny Pritchard, principal of Deep Run High School, one of the first schools to participate.  

Yoga offers many of the same benefits as a mindfulness practice. It is available in several area schools through special programs and as a component of regular physical education. Offering yoga to young children can help hone their mindfulness skills at an early age which can provide lifelong benefits. Local children’s yoga expert, teacher and author, Lydia “Nitya” Griffith, believes that in order to cultivate the practice of mindfulness, it needs to be a part of every school’s curriculum. She is starting her third year teaching yoga at Fox Elementary and is working with Binford Elementary on a school-wide program. Additionally, she developed and offers a unique, specialized yoga teacher training, Yoga with Nitya, that focuses on teaching yoga and mindfulness to children. Her goal is to see these trained yoga teachers in all area schools.

“Children who practice mindfulness meditation and yoga on a regular basis are able to manage their emotions more effectively, are less stressed and anxious, test better, manage peer situations with better results and have greater self-confidence,” observes Griffith. “The reason anxiety goes down is that they learn to trust that everything will happen in its own way without them stressing about all the whens, wheres and hows.” Her own experience and several studies, such as the Neural Function Before and After Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy in Anxious Adolescents at Risk for Developing Bipolar Disorder described in a 2016 issue of the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology support this.

After kids learn the basics of a regular mindfulness practice, they can continue to practice on their own or in a group, formally or informally. Chrysalis Institute, a local nonprofit organization dedicated to continuing education, personal development and spiritual exploration, offers a number of on-going practice groups, workshops and retreats that focus on mindfulness and meditation. Teens can also practice mindfulness on Sundays at the Ekoji Buddhist Sangha on Grove Avenue during a special teen session led by Erin Hawkins, a licensed clinical social worker.

It is exciting to see that more and more area schools and programs are emerging with mindfulness programs to encourage life success and emotional well-being for teens.

For more information, contact Alex Peavey at APeavey@Collegiate-VA.org; Jodi Beland at Jodi@CKGFoundation.org, Lydia “Nitya” Griffith at Nitya108@Verizon.net and The Chrysalis Institute at ChrysalisInstitute.org.

lauren west