What grade were you in the first time your teacher led a mindfulness exercise or suggested a few minutes of silence to start class? Some Berkeley High School (BHS) students have been meditating since third grade, some have never tried it, and many doubt that it helps at all.
The promotion of mindfulness in classes at BHS and neighboring schools is just one sign that teachers and school administrators see increasing stress levels among students, and that they are exploring ways to address the problem.
Besides mindfulness, approaches to stress reduction at BHS include: several forms of counseling — the Health Center, Student Support Center, On Campus Intervention, and academic counselors — visits from therapy dogs during lunch, and tutoring in the College and Career Center and classrooms. BHS Dean of Attendance Aman Watson sees sports as another valuable outlet. She explained that sports “really help balance and regulate the stress hormones so that your body and your mind can feel like they’re working together and it’s not just all cerebral.” But how much do these various efforts help, and what else could BHS be doing to reduce student stress levels?
Some of these approaches are geared to the long-term, and some work more as momentary releases or distractions from stress. Both counseling and mindfulness can help build lifelong resources for dealing with stress, while also helping in the moment. Neva Zamil, a sophomore in Academic Choice (AC), believes that the therapy dog visits, although helpful, can only do so much. She said, “I don’t think [therapy dogs] are any type of lasting relief. I just went and petted some dogs and it made me happy, but I’m still going to be stressed out in two hours.”
The advice BHS students most often hear about stress management is to go to the Health Center for counseling, and the school is rightfully proud of the quality of the counselors who work there. While it is true that many students are helped by one-on-one therapy sessions, others feel that beginning the process of consulting someone at the Health Center is more difficult than it needs to be.
One student, who prefers to remain anonymous, said that she went to the Health Center to look into some counseling and the first time she walked in she walked straight back out because she felt so alienated and out of place. This student suggested that even so much as a single period devoted to taking students to the Health Center early in freshman year could help students feel more comfortable asking for help.
In a similar way, mindfulness only makes a difference if students actually do it. Berkeley International High School (BIHS) teacher Sharif Musaji integrates mindfulness into his classroom as part of a BIHS-wide initiative. He said it can be “really valuable, but it has to be regular and students have to also want to do it.” If students do not put in effort to participate, mindfulness becomes nothing more than a bit of empty time during class.
All of these initiatives have had some positive impacts, but student stress remains a huge issue. To solve the problem, it is necessary to understand what is causing these high stress levels. The pressure around college admissions and grades are two obvious, linked causes. Watson thinks it stems from “juggling all the things that are going on for [teenagers] academically … and developmentally.”
Musaji thinks that the school day itself may be part of the problem. He suggested that “students are essentially expected to interact with six different personalities, plus they’re changing classrooms … in a chaotic six-minute passing period … that’s a big emotional and mental toll.” Musaji hopes for a student-led movement to change the schedule of the school day because “six classes every day for a semester is possibly not conducive to learning.”
By being aware of these issues, real systemic change can occur to prevent stress rather than alleviate it once it already exists. Instituting meditation in classrooms is a great start, but more can be done. Solutions like changing the school day, adding free periods, limiting how much homework teachers can give, or even changing the college admissions system could help students become less stressed.