Mindfulness in Schools Can Provide a Lifeline for Teens

How one mother's vision to help her daughter and daughter's friends with anxiety turned into a mindfulness program that's been taught to 15,000 kids in eight school districts.

Stress, anxiety, drugs, murder, suicide—and teens. It’s the stuff of front-page news, viral YouTube videos, and TV dramas. Yet for Fiona Jensen in Cotuit, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod, it hit way too close to home.

“What’s going on with these teenagers? They’re constantly in crisis mode—reacting, not responding.”

Jensen certainly didn’t need to read the latest study about the impact of stress on teens: her daughter and her friends were a living, breathing testament to it. It was December 2008, and Jensen and her 16-year-old daughter had just returned from the funeral of a high-school friend who had been murdered during an alleged drug-related incident. Of the group seated in Jensen’s kitchen after the funeral, one of the teens was addicted to oxycodone, one was so anxious she vomited every morning before school, and another was on medication for depression. Describing her own daughter at the time, Jensen says she was “a time bomb of anger and sadness.” “I thought to myself, ‘What’s going on with these teenagers?’” says Jensen. “They’re constantly in crisis mode, living on an adrenaline rush the whole time—reacting, not responding.”

Her observations dovetailed with statistics being reported around the same time in a 2009 national survey conducted by the American Psychological Association: 28% of teens and 14% of tweens said they “worried a lot” or “a great deal”—and far more than their parents were aware of. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists suicide as the third leading cause of death for youth between the ages of 10 and 24. That translates into approximately 4,600 young lives lost each year in the US. Jensen was seeing more and more of it playing out in her community. Six months after that first funeral, there were two more: both teen suicides.

“At that moment, I thought, Okay that’s it—I have to do something,” says Jensen. “Having a mindfulness practice of my own, I felt that part of the issue is that these kids have absolutely no ability to pause.”

Jensen knew that any kind of solution had to be part of the school day, since a stress-reduction program held at the end of the day likely wouldn’t attract many teenagers. Without knowing anything about approaching school boards, creating educational programs, or fundraising—Jensen is an occupational therapist by trade—she forged ahead. By January 2010, she had organized the first pilot program to teach mindful breathing, meditation, and other stress-reduction techniques. Sixty-five students took part in this program. In June of that year, Calmer Choice received non-profit status. The following school year, the program reached 800 kids; the year after that, 1,500.

“Having a mindfulness practice of my own, I felt that part of the issue is that these kids have absolutely no ability to pause.”

Eight years later, in 2017, the Calmer Choice program has now reached more than 15,000 students. And it’s not just for teens—kids from kindergarten to twelfth grade, in eight different school districts on Cape Cod, now have access to the program.

“We’ve had kids tell us they use mindfulness practices to fall asleep at night,” says Jensen. “They use them before a football game or a wrestling match. Instead of punching a hole in the wall when they’re frustrated, they sit down and practice their mindful breathing.”

Jensen says mindfulness is about teaching kids inner resilience—teaching them from the inside out. To do that, the program explores how stress affects the brain and how mindfulness can help anyone regain control—knowledge that prompts self-regulation.

Calmer Choice has partnered with Tufts University in Boston to study and measure the effect of mindfulness on those kids who participate, and studies continue with Yale, MIT, and Harvard School of Education.

Calmer Choice has become a full-time job for Jensen, leaving the Visiting Nurse Association of Cape Cod three years ago. But she has no intention of scaling back. “My vision,” Jensen says, “is that in school you learn math, you learn science, you learn history, you learn mindfulness.

“Imagine that by the time you graduate you have this thing called mindfulness in your toolbox. Then, when you get to college and you feel like jumping out of your dorm window—because you just broke up with your boyfriend and failed your German test and life is too overwhelming—you think, wait a minute, what was that thing I learned in school?”

Best Practices for Mindfulness in Schools

And most mindfulness experts concede that they can imagine situations where there might be some problems with respect to how some mindfulness programs are being introduced into public schools. But as a general rule, all agree that bringing a properly constructed mindfulness program to a public school is a good idea.

“One of the things that everybody has to understand is that this is a very new field,” says Greenland. “And because of all of the positive research and clear results, the field has galloped so quickly that there are aspects of it that need to catch up with itself.” Coming up with a set of best practices is one of the things that needs to be done.

“Mindfulness in education not only supports teacher’s well-being and resilience, as well as their ability to handle the challenges in a classroom, it also improves the quality of their classroom relations and helps students become more productive.”

At the Curry School of Education in the University of Virginia, you’ll find Dr. Patricia (Tish) Jennings, one of the leaders in bringing mindfulness into the classroom to benefit students and teachers. She is about to publish a paper saying that mindfulness in education not only supports teachers’ well-being and resilience, as well as their ability to handle the challenges in a classroom, it also improves the quality of their classroom relations and helps students become more productive.

In December 2015 Jennings published a paper in the journal Mindfulness, titled: “Mindfulness-Based Programs and the American Public School System: Recommendations for Best Practices to Ensure Secularity.” In it, she outlines the argument for why having mindfulness programs in public schools doesn’t violate the separation of church and state. And she describes some steps that mindfulness programs can take to make sure they are not straying from the secularity of mindfulness:

  1. Build on the science: Programs should design their curriculums based on evidence from scientific studies showing the cognitive, neurological, social and behavioral benefits of mindfulness.
  2. Err on the side of secularity: To avoid misunderstandings, avoid using any language, artifacts, or beliefs that are associated with practices in religious contexts—none of these should be brought into a public school. That means no Tibetan bowls or cymbals. These things may give the impression that the practice has religious significance, when the intention is purely secular.
  3. Describe areas of focus in secular ways: Introducing names, words, or sounds that come from a religious tradition to focus attention during practice is unsuitable for public schools. While you might want to focus attention on the center of the chest or the center of gravity in the body, teaching the associations these areas of the body have in a religious context is unnecessary and inappropriate.
  4. Leave energy where it belongs: Take care not to give the impression that mindfulness involves the transmission of any sort of spiritual or metaphysical energy. Loving-kindness practice, for example, is not meant to transmit something to someone else, but to simply generate positive and caring feelings within oneself for oneself and others.

These steps aren’t meant to conceal associations with religious traditions, says Jennings. They are meant to help educators to ensure that the programs they’re introducing are indeed completely secular and science-based—that the reason you want a mindfulness practice in your school is based on science, rather than belief.