Faced with outsized stresses, these Baltimore students learn to take a deep breath

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JUDY WOODRUFF: But first; Baltimore, Maryland, has high unemployment and a violent crime rate of nearly twice the national average. Educators say that factors like these add significant stress to children and cause emotional and behavioral problems.

Several area public schools are working to reduce that stress with programs that teach mindfulness and meditation.

Our Hari Sreenivasan has the story.

It for our weekly series Making the Grade.

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CHRIS BOWMAN, Student, Patterson High School: And exhale, pushing out all the things that make you stressed out.

HARI SREENIVASAN: This isn’t your local yoga studio. It’s the Mindful Moments Room at Patterson High School in East Baltimore. It’s a place students go when they act up, get stressed out, or just need a break.

CHRIS BOWMAN: Stay in your happiness.

LATONYA LEE, Student, Patterson High School: My day is so stressful. As soon as I walk in the door — I don’t even have to do exercises. There’s just a big smile on my face because I’m in here. If they didn’t have mindful moments in Patterson, I wouldn’t be here at all.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Why?

LATONYA LEE: Because it’s too stressful. And for — to not have a place to relieve stress is like putting you in a oven.

HARI SREENIVASAN: These students are participant ambassadors for mindfulness meditation programs run by the nonprofit Holistic Life Foundation at Patterson High.

It’s a school that has struggled with higher rates of dropouts, absenteeism, and has more students on free or reduced lunches than the national average.

Nineteen-year-old Chris Bowman not only practices mindfulness meditation at school, but he starts his day with it, and yoga, which he’s used to deal with his demons. At a previous school, he says he used to fight with kids who picked on him for being black.

Then his father died when he was 13.

CHRIS BOWMAN: Growing up without a father and stuff like that, I struggled with a lot of depression, a lot of grief, and a lot of just really bad — really bad zones of like suicidal thoughts.

But I had to find a way to get out of that. A mindful moment is when you — you just take a deep breath in a moment of conflict and just — maybe you just look at that and just like, I can do this in a different way. I don’t have to fight this person. I don’t have to look violence as the answer.

HARI SREENIVASAN: When you get really angry at somebody else, and they want to fight you, and you’re close to losing it, what do you do?

TADREAL KING, Student, Patterson High School: I just stress rest. And I will go to the back of the room and sit by myself and due stress rest to relieve, so I won’t…

HARI SREENIVASAN: But isn’t that person going to say, oh, well, look at that, she lost, she doesn’t want to fight me, she’s too scared?

TADREAL KING: See, at that point, I don’t care. I’m just thinking of the positives, instead of fighting, because…

HARI SREENIVASAN: Good.

Kirk Philips manages mindful moment programs for the Holistic Life Foundation.

Given all the stresses that they’re living with, how does taking a few breaths help?

KIRK PHILIPS, Program Manager, Holistic Life Foundation: There’s the drama, there’s violence, there’s all kinds of issues. And they need it more than most kids who don’t have that sort of trauma in their everyday lives. Those are the kids that really do need to step outside of that cycle of violence.

Patterson principal Vance Benton agrees.

VANCE BENTON, Principal, Patterson High School: When they’re under situations outside the school building, sometimes difficult situations, hopefully, they will be able to take a breath, reconsider, and possibly walk away from death. And when I say walk away from death, that means either death themselves or them killing someone based on a situation that exploded.

HARI SREENIVASAN: A survey at Patterson High four years ago showed most students experienced the death of a relative or neighbor. The founders of Holistic Life approached the principal soon thereafter with an idea. Principal Benton is so convinced, he now meditates every day.

VANCE BENTON: Lift your head up with your outward breath.

The feel in here since we have had the mindful moment is calmer. Children are a lot calmer. I don’t believe in jinx, so I will say this, that although there are altercations that happen during the course of a school day, during the course of a school year, our male students, particularly our black male students, they don’t fight each other in this building.

HARI SREENIVASAN: There’s research that shows the effectiveness of mindfulness and meditation, but whether or not it is effective in the classroom will take some more research.

Studies in peer-reviewed journals have shown mindfulness meditation that focuses on breathing has positive impacts on important parts of the brain. The amygdala, stimulated from strong emotions such as fear, shows less activity through meditation. The hippocampus, which regulates the amygdala and is key to learning and memory, becomes more active following mindfulness. And the prefrontal cortex, associated with maturity and making wise decisions, also becomes more active.

Erica Sibinga of Johns Hopkins University has published studies on mindfulness practice and children.

ERICA SIBINGA, Johns Hopkins University: Our qualitative data, our interview data from youth do suggest that they use these techniques to help them settle themselves before they take tests, to help them have better sleep patterns and sleep hygiene. And we believe that those outcomes will also have downstream effects on academic performance.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Education administrators often look at measurable results, like test scores and graduation rates. But how can you measure the effectiveness of mindfulness?

MARIAH WOODS, Student, Coleman Elementary School: Inhale in deep and bring the goodness in. And slowly get up. I want you to lay down, close your eyes, and you relax and you — that’s the time, that’s the time for you just to relax and make sure you think of the good things in your mind.

When you have all the love in your heart, and you just want to send it to somebody, not even calling on the phone, all you got to do is inhale and send all of it out, and they’re going to get it.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Third and fourth graders at Coleman Elementary practice yoga and meditation during after-school programs often without anyone to lead them.

Their principal, Carlillian Thompson, has noticed a major change in behavior in the last three years.

CARLILLIAN THOMPSON, Principal, Coleman Elementary School: Since it’s been in effect, office referrals, the number has gone to almost zero. We have zero suspensions. The children are now able to embrace it and realize that: I don’t have to be angry. I don’t have to fight. I don’t have to show off. All I need to do is breathe.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Mindfulness breathing programs are now in more than a dozen Baltimore schools. Similar programs are in schools in at least 15 states across the country.

I’m Hari Sreenivasan for the PBS NewsHour in Baltimore.

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