Mindfulness Practices in High Schools

Jenny Kim

Special Education Teacher at Pioneer High School in San Jose, CA.

"I think it's important that we build a 'culture of pause,' where we do reflect every once and a while and consistently. We get in this pattern of hustle and bustle where we forget to, and I think that's what builds stress and anxiety." - Jenny Kim

There is no age limit when it comes to overall health. Kids and teenagers have to take care of their own state of well-being just as much as adults do, but they need our help. Thanks to my boyfriend's sister, a teacher's aid at Pioneer High School, I was able to connect with one of the teachers who is pioneering (pun intended) mindfulness practices in her own classroom. Mindfulness practices — guided meditations, breathing exercises, and reflections — could benefit the students by helping them find mental and emotional balance, which in turn may result in positive behaviors like concentrating better in school, releasing anger and tension, and treating other students and teachers with more respect.

Interview with Jenny Kim

KC: What do you teach and what grade level? What is your background in teaching?

Ms. Kim: I'm a high school teacher at Pioneer High School San Jose and teach specifically special ed for a group that's called Resource. It's a group of high school students with learning disabilities that are more mild, so we work with students who struggle with attention disorders, processing, or anxiety. Anxiety is a common issue. We provide services so that these students can get access to curriculum in their classrooms, and they take a class with me that helps them provide skills for their other classes.

As for my background, I actually switched careers about 6 years ago, so this is my 6th year of teaching. I joined a group called Teach for America, and they put me in special ed. I had to learn a lot, but the cool thing was I got to see what the needs were and really got to see the needs for anxiety. These kids have been growing up struggling with learning. They have learning disabilities, are dyslexic, can't focus, etc. By the time we get them in high school, their self-esteem is just broken down because they can't learn as fast as their peers, and they're totally aware of that. So there's a lot of anxiety that builds because of this, in addition to a lot of what they're already going through as teenagers like social media.

KC: What motivated you for wanting to implement a mindfulness program in your school?

Ms. Kim: I've been trying to implement more mindfulness curriculum in the last month or two as a response to the recent school shootings. It hit home especially when there came about the debate on whether teachers should have guns. I thought, "Wow, I don't know if that's the solution." I believe I read an article in New York Times that said gun violence has gone down but mass shootings have gone up. There's a huge mental health piece missing here, and I know it, but it's a result of people not talking about it.

Jenny Kim, Special Ed Teacher at Pioneer High School

KC: What is the type of mindfulness program you're trying to implement in school?

Ms. Kim: The process for me has been with starting small in my class. We do daily mindfulness activities at the start of the period. As soon as the students walk in, we're doing a breathing exercise, meditation activity, or reflection. Examples of a reflection asks what the students experienced in the last hour and what were their emotions to check in. I've noticed that when kids are having a lot of emotional issues outside of the classroom, they come in and can't focus. So there's a lot of behavior issues associated with that.

When we come back from Spring Break next week, I'll actually be implementing a mindfulness workbook in the curriculum. It really breaks down why we have anxiety, what are the coping strategies, and some practices like meditation. I also hope to incorporate healthy eating, because it's all related to the body. That's the goal for my class. I've also been working with a few teachers, including our psychologist, to potentially pilot a program here for the rest of the school. Because school districts want to to see data and the impact, we're starting small. Our goal is to implement everything by next school year though.

KC: That's so awesome! This program seriously sounds great. I'm glad that things are underway for you, and I'm really hoping that it gets implemented fully. What have you noticed in your class already? What changes are you seeing among students?

Ms. Kim: First, I see more trust with me. I was very strict and structured before, which I still think kids do need in order learn. But one of the kids came up to me and said, "Hey, Ms. Kim, you really do care about our health too." So it helped build a lot of trust, and I do see them working harder. I would say that 30% of the class wasn't finishing projects or attempting tests, because they [project and tests] would just break them. But recently this week all of them had a big project, and they all finished on time and without any complaining. This was huge! I definitely see improvement in work ethic and perseverance. Of course, I don't think we can solve learning issues quickly, but it's a good start.

KC: What is your vision for this program?

Ms. Kim: Response to intervention is kind of a structure that a lot of schools follow in academics. It's like a pyramid. Everybody is receiving some level of support. Think of the bottom of the pyramid as all students. Everybody will get some kind of course. We're thinking that maybe this could be in P.E. class, since mental health is part of health. They can have a support group to talk about experiences with anxiety. It's more preventative than reactive. The 2nd tier is identifying the students that need more of a counseling group. Our counselors would get involved and meet with the students in a consistent basis and work through specific issues. From the 2nd tier, there's a 3rd tier of students in need of more intensive one-on-one support. We would bring in a partner outside of school to provide additional support for mental health. That's the big vision.

Response to Intervention

The small vision of what the program will be like in the class room is walking in, starting something that calms you down, and then learning and practicing coping skills through role playing and reflection. What we're trying to figure out is that once you learn these skills, how do you apply it? We can't really measure that outside the classroom, so we're thinking of changing the culture and language of the school, which is important too. Teachers also need to be doing this, like taking training, taking care of their own mental health needs, and including mindfulness practices whenever they can. This way it's a constant reminder and not just one class.

KC: Has it been challenging to implement in this school?

Ms. Kim: I think people understand that there's a need but no one really knows how to do it. There's this hesitation... like is it going to cost money? It is a relatively new thing, but I know schools are trying to implement this. Luckily we have great administrative support who believe in positive mental health, so they've been really optimistic in adopting this in a wider scale. I just don't know how we would get there, and we would need funding. We would also have to get the curriculum approved by the district office.

KC: OK so there are certain things that you can or can't do within the classroom at this time.

Ms. Kim: Doing a lot of reflections here and there are fine. But to implement actual classes that teach coping skills or health skills... that would be a policy question for the school.

KC: Right, because everything has to meet academic standards.

Ms. Kim: Yes, exactly. So we'll see. On a micro scale we've been really lucky. There are really easy ways to build in mindfulness without changing an entire curriculum though. We are aware of some schools in the district that play spa music through the loud speaker after lunch during the transition between lunch and class. The students are hyperactive after lunch, so this helps calm them down.

KC: How has the reaction been with parents?

Ms. Kim: Parents are definitely a stakeholder in this too. We definitely want to include them into this and want to know from them if their kids changed or have been impacted in any way. The students are here most of the day, but they go home to their families. Hopefully the families can also become involved in mindfulness practices at home. If the kids can have consistent, healthy lifestyles outside of school that would be great too.

Jenny Kim, Special Ed Teacher at Pioneer High School

KC: Thank you so much for meeting with me and telling me all about your role in implementing mindfulness in school. I'm all for it, and I really hope that others see how this program can positively impact the students especially with their mental health. Please keep me posted on the progress you make! Any last thoughts?

Ms. Kim: I just think we need to talk about it more and not just at schools. I'm sure you see it. We live in the Silicon Valley. There's a lot of stress, so I think mindfulness practices need to be implemented everywhere. What's interesting is that it's always a choice. Like, "Hey you want to come to this mental health training?" I'm not saying it should be enforced, but it probably should be something people are required to do because it's good for them. Creating awareness is super important. I think it's important that we build a "culture of pause," where we do reflect every once and a while and consistently. We get in this pattern of hustle and bustle where we forget to, and I think that's what builds stress and anxiety.

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