Social Emotional Learning Brings Calm to Students

Christopher Willard, a psychotherapist, teaches mindfulness meditation to help families and individuals reduce stress and improve relationships. (Courtesy photo)

The Hockaday School is teaming up with the Dallas Yoga Center to enrich learning experiences and help students cope with everyday stress.

Hockaday’s mindfulness initiative, called a social emotional learning (SEL) program, integrates mindfulness practice into the school day to help bring lasting inner calm, Dallas Yoga Center director Daniel Sunshine said.

“Notably, schools are beginning to integrate mindfulness as a response to the ever-growing stressors, from extreme performance pressure to the challenges of growing up in poverty,” he said.

Mindfulness practice can involve a variety of breathing and meditation techniques. The Hockaday program does not integrate yoga but does include “mindful movement.”

Hockaday’s lower school has been integrating aspects of social-emotional learning, mostly through school counselor Susie Hawthorne.

She demonstrated breathing exercises and other SEL tools in mid-September during a four-day mindfulness conference at the school with author, Harvard lecturer, and mindfulness expert Christopher Willard.

“Since the program was launched, there has been tremendous interest across the community to extend a mindfulness and SEL program into both [the] middle and upper school[s],” Randal Rhodus, head of the lower school, said. “We are currently walking down that path and navigating next steps.”

So far, the response has been positive.

Hockaday is introducing mindfulness practices to help students concentrate and cope with school pressures. (Courtesy photo)

“Challenges with concentration and ADHD are both growing issues,” Rhodus said. “It seems evident that our contemporary culture is filled with reasons to be distracted.”

With even the youngest facing constant stimulus from media, communications, and other sources, “it makes sense that finding attention and focus would be more challenging than before,” Rhodus said.

Sunshine said mindfulness benefits brain health. “In a school setting, mindfulness has been shown to not only promote better focus and concentration, but also decrease stress and anxiety, increase empathy for others and improve self-management and self-awareness,” he said.

The yoga center has worked with several area schools to bring this approach to the learning environment. Rhodus said Hockaday students have reported finding more inner calm and the ability to focus better.

“Parents have also shown great support for the program and are regularly the ones that are reaching out to Dallas Yoga Center to bring it into new schools,” he said. “When it comes to students, it seems that the pressure cooker can be a factor whether you’re in an underserved school or in the most esteemed independent schools.

The reasons for these stressors range widely from food insecurity and highly challenging family situations to performance pressure and heavy time demands.”

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