With greater numbers of young people exhibiting anxiety and stress, educators are tasked with greater responsibility to find solutions. Parents are asking that schools help educate students on dealing with stressors—whether with mindfulness lessons, more counselors, or social-emotional learning (SEL). Since there is plenty of research illustrating that students cannot thrive academically unless they are socially and emotionally healthy, schools are adopting programs to better support students.

At Concord Middle School (CMS), a public school in Concord, MA, we collect data on our students to determine what they need to be successful and to help drive our decisions on how best to support them. Then we take it a step further. We consciously employ complementary efforts to improve the SEL on our campus.

To gauge how CMS students are faring emotionally, we annually screen our sixth and eighth graders using the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This free survey asks students about factors including their physical safety, body image, sleep habits, schoolwork, and screen time. CMS also administers a student screening that is part of the SOS Signs of Suicide Prevention Program. It assesses for depression and suicide risk and flags students who need professional help.

Based on the findings, the data indicates that students at CMS and across the country are struggling with anxiety, stress, homework, and simply making it to school. Anxiety prevents students from being able to fully focus on curriculum, and the 11 to 14 age group is where intervention is needed.

Mindfulness for Mental Health

Three years ago, CMS introduced the practice of mindfulness to all 735 students to help them cope with the pressures of school and teenage life. “The level of anxiety and stress that students have expressed over the years has increased with the advent of more technology,” says CMS social studies teacher Dan Murphy. “With 24/7 access to the curriculum, worksheets, and homework, there’s a pull to check grades constantly, keep going, and do more. We’re losing a lot when it comes to our mental and psychological well-being.”

Mindfulness is the practice of living in the present and taking notice when the mind is in the past, where regret typically lives; or the future, where worry and anxiety reside. A longtime practitioner of mindfulness, Murphy and a group of teachers formed a committee to encourage students to be mindful by simply being where they are—reading, sitting in the cafeteria, or doing math. “We’re overwhelmed, so our brains are constantly in overdrive,” Murphy says. “We make ourselves less good at things when we try to do multiple things at once.”

According to Mindful Schools, a San Francisco Bay Area-based organization working to integrate mindfulness into K–12 classrooms, 83 percent of educators who taught mindfulness to their students reported seeing improved focus; 89 percent saw better emotion regulation; 76 percent saw more compassion; and 79 percent saw improved engagement. All of these improvements often contribute to academic achievement.

Currently, 10 teachers at CMS practice mindfulness with their students. Three days a week, Murphy starts class with an exercise that can last anywhere from 30 seconds to five minutes. He offers breathing strategies, counting exercises, or body scans. Some parents have said that their children are practicing mindfulness at home before homework and before bedtime to help them sleep.

Creating Character Education

CMS has also introduced a character education program called ThinkGive to sixth and seventh graders. ThinkGive is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to inspire young people to use kindness to engage with their world. The importance of practicing kindness cannot be overstated. Studies show a clear correlation not only between kindness and increased well-being, but kindness is also linked with academic success.

ThinkGive provides teachers with a vehicle through which to teach and develop students’ social skills, including empathy, compassion, kindness, and gratitude. They learn to look outward, to lead with kindness, and to understand their potential impact in the world. “The magic of ThinkGive lies in how it empowers young people,” says Penny Austen, ThinkGive’s co-founder and president. “They decide what to give. They see the impact their gifts have on others. And they discover how it feels to make a difference. They learn that they can be agents of change—not sometime in the future, but today and every day going forward. That’s powerful learning.”

Students emerge from the program feeling empowered. In data collected after the program, 97 percent of students understood that simple acts of kindness can make a big difference—both to themselves and others—93 percent believed they would be kinder, 81 percent had a greater awareness of others, and 85 percent felt they could make a positive impact on their world.

Over the course of ThinkGive, teachers direct students to “give” acts of kindness according to specific themes that move them, from giving to those within their comfort zone (friends and family) to those in their courage zone (acquaintances, community, etc.). After each prompt is delivered in class, students give of themselves in the form of time, presence, or conversations. They choose what to give. These acts and the thoughts that go into them build on the mindfulness lessons.

The final aspect of the program is reflection and collaboration. Students use the ThinkGive website to record and reflect on their gifts and comment on their classmates’ gifts. This social networking component enables young people to engage with and learn from their peers in a secure and teacher-monitored environment. One of our students reflected, “ThinkGive allowed me to look for opportunities to help others. I learned that even the smallest act of kindness can make someone’s day.”

CMS English teachers Alyssa Bigay and Laura Regis first took notice of the ThinkGive curriculum because of how well the program tied into their literature studies. “The two wed beautifully, illuminating how the human condition continually asks us to cultivate awareness of ourselves and our relationships within, with others, with our communities, and with the larger world,” says Regis, who teaches seventh-grade English.

Teaching ThinkGive bridges academics and SEL by creating an opportunity for teachers to discuss kindness, empathy, bravery, compassion, and gratitude on a personal level. As Regis and Bigay discuss themes in the texts such as tolerance, kindness, and acceptance, they are able to extend the conversation to the students’ lives to consider how they treat one another and experience each other as individuals with differences. One theme asks students to remove a label and learn about someone. Regis and Bigay might explore how students make judgments about others and consider how empathy is necessary for removing labels.

“ThinkGive brings awareness and reflection to students’ lives by having them stop, pause, and pay attention to themselves, their thoughts, and needs—something that’s critical at a time when they are bombarded with so much externally,” Regis says. “The first theme is to give to yourself, so it’s an opportunity for us to instruct students to start with their center because they can’t give to anyone else if they can’t take care of themselves.”

Striving for Empathy

There is a great deal of research supporting the importance of teaching empathy—not only because empathy enables ethical action, decision making, and problem-solving, but because it is critical to social and relational intelligence. According to the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, “an abundance of research has demonstrated associations between empathy and a variety of desirable outcomes, including positive peer relationships, better communication skills, and fewer interpersonal conflicts.”

In data collected after running ThinkGive in 2018–19, 85 percent of CMS students stated that they would be a force of good, using kindness and empathy to engage with others; 77 percent felt they were better able to see things from someone else’s point of view; and 77 percent were more willing to stand up for what’s right. “My takeaway is that giving and receiving a bit of kindness can make somebody and yourself really happy—and just a moment of happiness, a reason to continue hoping, can come from a little bit of consideration of others,” writes a CMS student.

Replacing Homeroom With HomeBASE

This year, CMS upped its investment in reducing student stress by partnering with Challenge Success, an organization that works with schools to identify problems through surveys, then helps implement practices as they relate to curriculum, assessment, homework, school schedule, and a healthy school climate. The goal of Challenge Success is to challenge the current definition of success that overemphasizes grades, test scores, and rote answers—resulting in stress and high levels of pressure for students. Although some staff and parents are afraid that redefining success might compromise the school’s academic rigor, Challenge Success aims to look at different components of a successful life in order to foster learners who are healthy and motivated.

According to the CMS Challenge Success survey, student stress was elevated, engagement was low, and students didn’t feel they had a strong relationship with staff. As a result of the findings and the CDC’s YRBS—and because research shows that relationships between staff and students are a predictor of student success—CMS replaced their school’s homeroom period with a “homeBASE” advisory program to build community and foster connection. BASE stands for Bullyproofing challenges, Academic advising, Social and emotional development, and Entertainment. Each homeBASE group comprises 10 to 12 students and one teacher or administrator. They meet four times a week for about 10 minutes, and students can ask questions about academics and extracurriculars. Every two weeks, the groups meet for an extended 30-minute session and engage in SEL activities, antibullying efforts, and fun group events.

As part of homeBASE, Bigay is piloting a movement in collective empathy called Open Session. The idea for Open Session comes from the Institute for Social and Emotional Learning. HomeBASE students from different grades come together during Open Session to anonymously share a worry, concern, decision, or joy on index cards. Since empathy is about trying to understand and share one’s feelings, there’s no pressure for anyone to offer advice. Students can give encouragement or wonder aloud in order to clarify details about what is shared or offer their own story as a way to empathize and validate. “We have to first address where kids are in their social and emotional learning before we can expect them to grow academically and be traditionally successful,” says Bigay. “Sometimes it’s simply enough to bring a worry or concern and voice it. All it takes is being heard and seen.”

To further improve teacher-student relationships and to encourage teachers to have a better understanding of how taxing a student’s day can be from the first bell to the last, CMS also piloted a Student Shadow Day during which 10 teachers were paired with 10 students for the entire school day. The teachers interviewed the students about their day prior to arriving at school and after leaving school.

All of these CMS programs are intentional, well-thought-out, and interconnected. “Every time a child can make connections to other parts of their lives, and every time they can see themselves in a character or in each other, they feel less self-conscious, more supported, and less alone,” says Bigay. “If they see others sharing similar concerns in Open Session, or a character in a book question his or her identity, or receive a ‘gift’ of compassion or understanding through ThinkGive, then we have started to effect the kind of holistic and pervasive change we are after.”

Justin Cameron is principal of Concord Middle School in Concord, MA, and the 2016 Massachusetts NASSP Principal of the Year.

Sidebar: Building Ranks™ Connections

Dimension: Student-Centeredness

A student-centered culture uses the lens of “what is best for students” to drive every decision and guide daily behavior. Student voice is valued, and faculty and staff members feel deeply committed to understanding and addressing each individual student’s needs and perspectives. As a school leader, you can create a student-centered school by employing the following strategies:

  • Committing to—and ensuring your staff members are committed to—meeting the needs of each student
  • Targeting supports for each student—academically, socially, emotionally, and physically
  • Intentionally providing opportunities for student voice and leadership
  • Celebrating and recognizing students’ achievements, and reinforcing positive behavior

Student-centeredness is part of the Building Culture domain of Building Ranks.