Centennial High becoming 'mindful' of the benefits of meditation

After-hours class aimed at relieving stress for students

  • Stan Eisenstein teaches physics at Centennial, but is also teaching, for the first time a free, after class, 10-week class in meditation to help students control stress over test anxiety, homework, social or family difficulties, etc.
Stan Eisenstein teaches physics at Centennial, but is also… (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun )
January 18, 2014|By Janene Holzberg, For The Baltimore Sun

At their teacher's suggestion, some Centennial High School students are closing their eyes in class and taking their minds off academic subjects.

They are relaxing instead of sitting tensely on the edge of their chairs.

And they are thinking positive thoughts instead of stressing over a coming test, a lower-than-expected grade, or a social or emotional challenge they may be facing in one of Howard County's many top-performing schools.

To help them feel grounded, they are focusing on their breathing and their feet. Just as importantly, they are learning to just "be."

It's a scene taking place after school in the physics classroom of Stan Eisenstein, who is imparting coping strategies based on meditation and mindfulness to 30 teens who, in his words, "happen to be in a school with a fair amount of people who are fairly driven."

Eisenstein's course in meditation is attracting enough interest from Centennial staff and students that the pros and cons of offering mindfulness as an elective are being weighed.

Another Howard County school, Ellicott Mills Middle, also is considering a pilot program on mindfulness for sixth-graders that could be offered during the school day as early as next month.

"Mindfulness" is defined as a particular way of paying attention. By bringing awareness to one's sensory experience, thoughts and emotions, impulsive reactions can be reshaped into thoughtful responses, experts say. Eisenstein, who graduated from the Meditation Teacher Training Institute, said the 10-week course at Centennial came about quickly.

"A teacher said in November that she'd been seeing a lot of test anxiety and asked if I could teach mindfulness and meditation to students," said Eisenstein, whose secular course is largely based on Buddhist teachings. "[The administration] advertised it for a couple weeks, and we started in December."

He kicked off the course, which is designed to benefit students with social or emotional anxiety, by teaching students to pay attention to their bodily sensations and their thoughts and emotions. He called that set of skills "a first-aid kit for what to do when you're feeling stressed."

A person's sympathetic nervous system spurs a "fight-flight-freeze reaction" to stress, which mindfulness can fend off by inspiring "creative, conscious problem-solving and an openness to new solutions," said Eisenstein, who has practiced meditation for 25 years.

"You observe your reactions to your environment, and that provides insight into how you relate to the world, which changes over time," he said. "That prevents you from repeating the same patterns."

First in the county

Centennial is the first county school to offer mindfulness instruction, according to Assistant Principal Joelle Miller, who said the school's administration wants to actively promote health and well-being.

Principal Claire Hafets "met with the senior class during the first and second weeks of school to do a 'temperature check' to see how they were feeling," said Miller. Ratings forms were distributed to all 358 seniors. "The majority were already circling 9's and 10's for stress," 10 being the highest.

The school had already held stress-relief activities during exam weeks, but it was prompted by those results to provide other opportunities, she said.

Eisenstein also teaches mindfulness mediation in a drop-in class for adults held at Centennial on Tuesday evenings. And through meetup.com, he runs Columbia Insight Meditation Group, which lists 438 meditators and is affiliated with the Insight Meditation Community of Washington.

Because of his repertoire of skills, "which have already had a huge, huge impact," Miller said, Eisenstein might be asked to instruct teachers as well as students.

"Our current problem is deciding whether Stan should hold another 10-week after-school session for students, or should we let our teachers have a turn?" she said, adding it could prove a tough decision since both groups are asking to participate.

Potential scheduling problems also loom, she said.

"Should we decide to offer mindfulness instruction during the school day? Then how would we go about that?" she said. "Stan's AP physics classes are always full, so do we pull him away from that curriculum to lead mindfulness classes? These are questions we need to explore.

"Clearly, there's a need for this, and as an elective, [mindfulness] would be awesome. If it were to become an approved class — which would require going through the proper channels within the county school system, just like any other class — then any school can offer it," Miller said.

Ellicott Mills pilot

Ellicott Mills Middle School is contemplating incorporating mindfulness instruction into the school day in a proposed pilot program for two sixth-grade classes, said Principal Michael Goins.

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