How this Middle School Principal Prioritizes Mental Health in Education
Shell Bank Junior High School 14
When I was nine years old, my mother told me I was coming to the United States from Haiti to visit her in Brooklyn for the summer. She did not tell me or my grandmother that this would be a permanent move. Had she done so, I would have opted out of this summer visit. You see, my friends, cousins, and grandmother — the woman who raised me and taught me to be me — were in Haiti. I was completely distraught when my mother walked me into Ebenezer Baptist School in Brooklyn, New York and informed me it would be my new school.
I cannot express in words how devastated and broken I felt when I walked into that building. Thank goodness, Mrs. Johnson, a very serious six grade teacher, tried to keep me safe from the taunts and name-calling by keeping me in her classroom during lunch and after school. I was teased that I was “fresh off the boat” and “smelled like onions.” The following year, my mother could not pay the tuition of the private school, so she sent me to Shell Bank Junior High School 14 where I started loathing school…I didn’t feel connected to my peers who constantly called me names, such as “piss color.” One day, I heard that a girl named Karen wanted to beat me up. I was the quiet one, and I thought she was my friend. What did she want to fight me for? Little did she know that I had anger stored inside of me from my separation from my family in Haiti and my new life in America; when she approached me and hit me in my face, I blacked out. When I came to, all I remember was being pulled off of her and the broken cafeteria tables that I threw her on. I remember asking the adults if she was okay and if she was badly hurt. They told me that she had to be brought to the hospital. I could not stop crying. I vowed that day never to put my hands on anyone again.
Midwood High School
My high school experience was no better. I hated high school, so I graduated in three years. I don’t remember any of the teachers names except for Ms. Fernandez, my Spanish teacher who always greeted me with the biggest smile, saying, “Hola, Johana. Como esta?” Ms. Fernandez doesn’t know it, but she was part of the reason that I survived my years at Midwood High School. Maybe there were other adults in the school who tried to connect with me without me realizing it…I don’t remember as it was all a blur. I remember the books I read but not the teacher’s name who taught me…but I remember Ms. Fernandez. I don’t blame anyone for my experience because I was the forgettable kid: not in honors, not in special education, okay-to-good grades, enough not to be flagged, and hardly spoke. I was practically invisible.
How many of our students feel disconnected from school today? How many of our students are walking around angry about their life circumstances as I did in middle school? What would happen if we asked our students to check in with their feelings on a daily basis? How about asking over 1,000 middle school adolescents to take several deep breaths for eight minutes every morning?
Entering a middle school during arrival time is often like getting on the New York City subway during rush hour. People rushing to their destination trying not to accidentally bump into a passerby; others may not be so lucky and have short, curt exchanges because of the inevitable body collisions that happen with the extra baggage that is often required to get school work done. Some may be lucky to find a friend to get to their destination with. Whatever the students’ experience is during morning arrival doesn’t even compare to the traumatic environment they just walked from or walked through on their way to school. One student shared that she had to walk with her friends on the main roads, even though it took longer, because she and her friends have been followed to school and do not want to experience that ever again. Another student, whom shall be named, Joy, for her privacy, consumed a bottle of unidentifiable pills in her medicine cabinet because she did not want to live anymore. What about Andrew, who found out that his girlfriend’s parents forbade them to communicate, decided the best way to deal with his emotional pain was to cut his wrists, his arms and thighs? These three students meet the other thousand students during the morning to tackle high expectations of the rigorous common core standards and high stakes testing, so they walk into their first period classes with their brains over stimulated by their jam-packed mornings. It is on to learning the Pythagorean theorem in mathematics, questioning the text and providing textual evidence in English, or analyzing the sexual reproduction system in science.
On that fateful morning that Joy decided to take 20 pills to end her life, she came into school not knowing what would happen to her. After the morning breathing, she went to class to tell her trusted Yes! teacher what she had done. She immediately received medical attention by our nurse and EMT who escorted her to the hospital for medical treatment. She was visited by her Yes! teacher and other staff members. During the visit, she thanked Ms. G., the Yes! teacher, for being there for her. Joy spent two weeks in the hospital in her seventh grade year to address the emotional turmoil that had caused her to want to end her life. Joy is now in grade 10, and she shares that things are so much better now than before. She says, “I’m a different person. I have peace of mind and can remain focused. People around me say I have changed, and I have.”
The morning breathing is part of the Youth Empowerment Seminar (Yes!), a bio-social emotional learning approach to managing emotions and behaviors. This approach taps into students’ physiological abilities to self-regulate through the use of their breath. By consciously using the breathing in different patterns, one engages the parasympathetic nervous to counter our flight-or-fight response to daily stresses from our sympathetic nervous system. This mind-body science is coupled with various teaching points that help students manage their stress, develop greater well-being, and achieve higher academic success in school.Something different had to be done to prepare students for of all this learning. We wanted to press the pause button for them to catch their breath and be able to trade old experiences for new ones. The morning breathing does just that. It empowers students to press a restart button.
During these turbulent times, we have to repurpose our schools to serve humanity and the greater good. We can no longer treat the bleeding hearts of America’s children by solely implementing systemic changes such as standardized testing, teacher evaluations, and eliminating fun in schools.
The primary subject in all of our schools should be love because love is the only thing powerful enough to touch the human heart and transform the human mind. The true purpose of schools is to cultivate the brain while activating the heart. It is not either or. As a matter of fact, our experience at John W. Dodd Middle School has proven that working with both the brain and the heart in schools is not just a good idea, it is a necessity if we want to survive as a society.
According to a report by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, in 2013, one of every 6 victims of violence, 16% of the U.S. population, was younger than 18 years old. Of youth victims of violence, more than 54% were victimized at home. About 1 in 6 were victimized at school. Each year, approximately 157,000 youth between the ages of 10 to 24 are treated at Emergency departments across the U.S. for self-inflicted injuries. This is only the number of our youth who survived. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for youth in ages 10 to 24. 16% of high school students reported creating a plan and 8% reported trying to take their own lives.
So, I ask you, “Is violence the inevitable experience for our kids?” “Are we willing to put our egos aside to reactivate the heart of American Education?”
It is often said, there are two things that show people that we care: our time and our money. How much time and money have we dedicated to activating the hearts of our children? A school day normally consists of 7 hours and at least 6 hours of teaching and learning which equal to about 360 minutes per day. How much of that time do we use to help students connect with themselves…to see and recognize their own beating hearts…the value of their own breath of life?
Due to the support of our progressive and mindful educational leader and superintendent, Dr. Kishore Kuncham, we have been able to put both our money and our time where our mouths once were. We have put the well-being of our students first by including eight minutes of mindfulness at the beginning of each day during which our whole school building becomes aware of its own presence through a variety of breathing exercises.
Our students and staff alike have expressed how this devoted time in the morning helps them press the reset button to achieve academic excellence and make better decisions throughout the day. One student who comes to mind for me is a student named Nick. He was one of the students whom we identified as needing additional support. He had low grades, several disciplinary referrals, and was just in a bad place at the beginning of this school year. One of the interventions put in place for Nick was to participate in morning breathing daily in my office with me or my secretary. During one of those mornings, Nick was asked by a visitor how he felt about the breathing, and he said, “It changed the way that I look at myself and the way that I look at life.” I was moved to tears by the candor of his words and the genuine sincerity in his eyes. This was a moment that could not be rated by a numeric score or an evaluative rubric. This was one of the precious moments that America’s educators are afraid to celebrate in public because it doesn’t show a test score. However, this is a moment we have to work hard to replicate for each American child – a moment of self-recognition. Isn’t that the purpose of our schools? Don’t we want our students to access and work from their unlimited power and potential?
YES! Youth Empowerment Seminar has been able to allow kids to recognize and access their divine power with three core elements:
- Daily practice of mindful breathing.
- The teaching and use of the language of emotions through emotional intelligent practices and social emotional learning curriculum in Health class.
- The presence and support of two full-time YES! teachers who provide one-to-one coaching for students and staff on how to use their breath to manage their emotions.
As we like to say at Dodd, YES! is not just a program, it is our way of life. The work takes time because we recognize our students can change their attitudes and mindsets while also shifting the very circumstances of their lives with their presence.
Over the summer, we conduct a breathing workshop for parents. Parents of students have returned to tell us how their home environments changed for the better because their children not only used their breath as a practical tool to respond to difficult situations, but their children taught their parents and siblings to use their breath to manage their emotions and better handle life’s challenges.
One of our school secretaries, Lori Hagemann, describes her observations: “I have seen a definite shift in the energy in the building since the daily breathing practices have been set in place, from an overall high energy and sometimes frenetic setting to a general calm and balanced setting. There is so much stress in the world today; this should be a mandatory practice for all students, who could then continue their breathing practices into adulthood,” she says. “I used to be so stressed,” says Sherill Spruill, a Dodd chorus teacher. “When I started breathing, it gave me a peace in my mind. It cleared my head. As I kept doing it, it became part of my personality. So, the way I responded to people changed. I realized that it doesn’t have too much to do with them; it has a lot to do with me.”
Maha Ghosananda, a Nobel Peace Prize Nominee, once stated, “Great compassion makes a peaceful heart. A peaceful heart makes a peaceful person. A peaceful person makes a peaceful family. A peaceful family makes a peaceful community. A peaceful community makes a peaceful nation. A peaceful nation makes a peaceful world.” This represents a paradigm shift in our thinking when we consider how to cultivate a culture of peace in our schools. Peace is often discussed as a separate entity that occupies our schools rather than a vital characteristic of its occupants. Peace is not an external state of affairs but the internal condition of each student, teacher, administrator, and parent. This awareness cultivates peace in the self with the potential of creating a culture of peace in our families, schools, communities, nation, and world.
My greatest reward as a principal has been watching my own transformation as well as the transformation of countless students, staff, and even parents through the use of targeted breathing practices. Students have shared the strategies they have learned with their parents, siblings, and other family members. Parents have expressed the positive changes they have seen in their children and in themselves after using stress management techniques learned from the workshops offered during PTA meetings.
Engaging in this daily practice has enabled me to maintain perspective and balance throughout the day. I know as I juggle multiple tasks and tackle the inevitable, unpredictable nature of leading a middle school, I always have the use of this personal and practical tool to bring me back to center. Staff has become more aware of the impact of decisions on others and has grown more compassionate toward students and colleagues alike. Decisions are made from a place of peace, clarity, and intentionality. The breath is the direct pathway to our internal peace. When we are peaceful, everyone we encounter feels that peace. I have seen first-hand the power of this breathing practice in myself, my students, and in my staff, and I know it can bring peace, joy, and creativity to America’s students!
The work that we do is to build humanity. We teach love — self-love and love for humanity. There’s no greater act than one of love