“School Wellness Programs” = Well-Being For All

As we continue to work with schools across the country, there is a growing awareness of the importance a student’s overall health and well-being plays in learning. For many schools, they begin exploring wellness through the lens of nutrition and exercise. Both are extremely important. What we eat directly effects how our body and brain function. Since we cannot control what children eat at home, schools have the ability to support a student’s vitamin and energy intake through the food options they provide. As the epidemic of obesity continues to rise in our country, providing increased physical education and exercise opportunities for students has demonstrated improvements in learning. 

While these 2 areas are the most commonly implemented wellness programs, they only scratch the surface of addressing well-being. This is not to diminish their importance in any way. These are both great places to start, but there is more to be explored and introduced within a school environment.

To fully understand well-being, I was interested in what the research and science has to say about this area. I recently watched a video of the Founder and Director of the Center for Healthy Minds, Richard Davidson, PhD, at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He is also the co-author of a new book, “Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes your Mind, Brain and Body.”

Dr. Davidson states that there are 4 constituents of well-being: Awareness, Connection, Insight and Purpose.

Awareness is the ability to acknowledge your thoughts, sensations and emotions in the present moment.

Connection is your ability to form harmonious, interpersonal relationships, which requires awareness (that word again) of your emotional state and the skill of regulating those emotions.

Insight is having awareness (that word must be important. Here it is again) of your internal story. This is the story of your life that you either keep telling yourself, or you keep listening to from your chatty (often not so kind) mind, or from others around you.

Purpose is the ability to identify your core purpose in life. This particular constituent is the single most predictor of longevity.

So I began to wonder, how do these constituents of well-being apply to schools and how can we foster them.

Awareness is the key ingredient for sustained attention. If you are unaware of where your mind is focusing, you cannot ignore the distracting material that is always present and allow your mind to zoom in and attend to what is relevant and important in the moment.

All learning happens through connection. Students must “connect” to their teachers before they can learn from you. Connection is an emotional skill that builds authentic relationships. Connections, which help a child to feel safe, heard, seen and acknowledged are those that support learning as well as healing. As we continue to see a rise in mental health challenges and trauma in our classrooms, connection becomes a necessity, not a luxury.  When teachers are continually feeling overwhelmed, frustrated, anxious and stressed, their internal states are felt by their students. While these feelings are not conducive to building connection, they are also hard to hide (nor should they be hidden).

To me, insight requires the ability to reflect and to listen. Both take time. Time is so constricted in school that it is mostly used to feed information in rather than allow for letting what was learned to sit, stew, percolate and be processed. Insight also requires the ability to hear those thrashing thoughts that often occupy the prime real estate of our minds. So often, those thoughts are negative destructive and simply put, they are lies. The thoughts may tell us we are not worthy, not ready, not good enough, thin enough, pretty enough, strong enough,….. All lies. Most of our students (and the adults that care for them) were falsely led to believe that since these thoughts exists, they must be true. They are not. Thoughts are just thoughts, which come and go. We are not our thoughts. We are the observer of our thoughts. Once we learn this concept (and truth) we have the ability to choose which thoughts stay and which can go. Unfortunately, these thoughts often create the story of our lives that we begin to believe. When we bring awareness to this story, we get to choose and rewrite it to be what we truly want for ourselves.

I remember walking into a very old, pre-war school building a few years ago. Above the entrance, carved in stone were 2 words, “Know Thyself.” As I read these words, I stopped in my tracks. Obviously the forefathers of this institution knew the essence of education to be helping students to truly embrace and acknowledge who they are as learners and as human beings.  This is how we begin to teach them about purpose. You cannot be open to fulfilling or acknowledging your purpose, if you have never explored knowing thyself. When I ask educators if this is part of their curriculum or practice in their classrooms, I am usually met with silence.

Having a sense of purpose is also extremely important for our educators. I think that for many of them, they have lost this, along with their passion and joy of the work. This saddens me greatly for they are our students’ most important models.

Each of these core aspects of well-being are developed through mindfulness. Of course, it is not only the students who benefit, but their teachers as well. If you would like to learn more about how mindfulness can be implemented in your school/district, I would be happy to connect with you. A short call can increase your awareness of what these practices are and how we have been helping schools for the past decade. I would love to hear your insights as well. We love working with administrators who have found their purpose in creating harmonious, inspiring and productive environments for their students to thrive.