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Mindfulness Meditation Combats BIHS Stress Levels

Photograph by Nina Morasky

Berkeley International High School (BIHS), one of the five small learning communities in Berkeley High School (BHS), has a preceding reputation as being an academically challenging small school with many mandatory classes and difficult requirements. The goal of a stereotypical BIHS student is to take high level classes, earn straight As, and graduate with an IB diploma, the qualification for international acceptance into high level universities around the world.

That said, BIHS students often feel excessive pressure to constantly perform their best amongst fellow classmates. This reality and stress takes a great toll on BIHS students. The academic demand of BIHS classes combined with constant testing and competition often makes these students fall into a cycle of chaotic stress typically starting in their junior year, the year when students are eligible to take classes that count for their diploma. Luckily, there is a peculiar saving grace for these overworked and overwhelmed students: mindfulness meditation.

Mindfulness meditation is the unique practice of bringing one’s attention solely to the occurrences happening in the present moment. Mindfulness is an umbrella term for many practices and exercises allowing practitioners to breathe through their stress. Karl Kaku is an English teacher for BIHS juniors, teaching IB HL Language and Literature. Kaku and other teachers have noticed the detrimental weight academic pressures have on their students’ well being. “The amount of testing that my students carry on their shoulders worried me,” said Kaku. “To see how anxiety changed them and their behavior and really take its toll on them is heartbreaking.”

In response to his students’ stress, Kaku has followed the lead of another BIHS English teacher, Amanda Moreno, and started developing a daily mindfulness program for his students. Kaku uses the help of several apps and a book to lead his class in varied mindfulness activities at the start of every class period. “We do a listening meditation where we listen to the singing bowl … we get comfortable, we turn the lights off and we listen to the bowl, it takes maybe a minute,” explained Kaku.

Kaku has also noticed the importance of gratitude, as it opens up the ability to enjoy the present and reflect. He also utilizes the mindful time to think about loved ones and relationships that may need mending. “People who we know are going through difficulties, we’ll send them love and kindness, as well as people who we may have conflict with,” Kaku shared.

BIHS students have been responding positively to the new mindfulness programs Kaku and other BIHS teachers have been integrating into their classrooms. Tia Böttger is a junior in BIHS, and she is currently experiencing the multitudes of work that the small learning community provides. The work itself is stressful, but she feels that the learning environment has contributed greatly to anxiety. “A lot of my stress comes from the learning environment being unnecessarily competitive,” Böttger explained. She is grateful that her teachers have noticed the heavy anxiety in the classroom and provided a solution. “Mindfulness can be an important tool,” Böttger noticed, “Just being able to take a breath and ground yourself … it’s helpful to remember that life is more than whatever is stressing you out in a particular moment and to think about something else for a second,” Böttger said.

Not only do these mindful activities lower student stress levels, but they have also proved to develop and strengthen the community within BIHS classrooms. Kaku has realized that these exercises “bring everyone together, there is this collective energy that we share and everybody seems to be on the same page.” Kira Galbraith, another BIHS junior, agrees with Kaku. Galbraith said that mindfulness “creates more of a community in the classroom and makes us more comfortable and less worried about things going on outside of the classroom.”

BIHS’s high academic demand and competitive environment has overwhelmed and stressed its students relentlessly. However, students should not be afraid of this small school because of its reputation. “[BIHS] does live up to its stereotype, but I think everyone can benefit from BIHS and what it teaches,” Galbraith said.

BIHS students are now provided with tools to help them internalize what really matters. Kaku plans to continue utilizing meditation throughout the year.