The concept of “neuroplasticity” has been revolutionary for education. Our brains are always being rewired and forming new neural pathways, and for teachers, the implications couldn’t be greater. How we show up in our classrooms—our attitudes, habits, learning strategies, classroom designs, beliefs, everything—matters and affects the learner. The discovery of neuroplasticity has also revealed that the teacher-student relationship is interdependent. Teachers and students share the responsibility of learning. The magic is in the interaction. Teachers’ perceptions and subsequent actions matter, then, in a way that almost touches the sacred, given the awesome power of our position.
Yet, the famous neuroscientist, Robert Sapolsky, in his seminal work, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, argues that humans tend to assign “aptitude and impulse to biology and effort and resisting impulse to free will,” which suggests that though we recognize the concept of neuroplasticity, we do not always put it into practice. We know too much about our brains and biology to still believe in a traditional notion of free will. Our students, for example, are not choosing their effort levels or their self-control. That’s an oversimplification that supports an antiquated teacher-student duality. Students’ interactions with the environment are shaping their decisions; they are being influenced, consciously or unconsciously, all of the time. We cannot explain student behavior without explaining the behavior of their environment. This is a profound realization, and we are just beginning to uncover its implications for learning.
What we began to wonder is how this concept of plasticity applies to student wellness.
All living organisms behave in a way to return to homeostasis—a state of internal balance, of optimal functioning. The increase in student wellness issues, therefore, suggests an imbalance that is being influenced by students’ interactions with their environment. If there is a “plasticity of wellness,” as Cortland Dahl of the Center for Healthy Minds, among others, has suggested, then there are intentional pathways teachers and school leaders can take to improve wellness, to assist students in their (sometimes long) journey back to homeostasis.
As an American culture, however, we have an injurious pattern of pathologizing a lack of wellness, of suggesting that individuals can or should easily avoid states of stress, anxiety, and depression as if avoidance were an option we can freely choose. We also mistakenly treat these states as traits; we make the temporary permanent. This is, again, anti-neuroplasticity, or anti-plasticity of wellness.
Shaping a Pathway to Wellness
Stress in schools is at an all-time high. Even with social media and technology at their fingertips, the effects of the pandemic have left young people feeling more disconnected than ever before. Data from the Child Mind Institute found that 70% of both children and adults reported mental discomfort, resulting in loneliness, irritability, or fidgetiness as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and that 55% of children felt more “sad, depressed, or unhappy,” versus 25% of adults. As mental health crises are becoming more prevalent across the collective, schools are searching for tangible ways to integrate wellness practices into their culture and curriculum, including introducing practices for stress regulation that nurture and develop physical, mental, and emotional health.
Students at University High School of Indiana have the option to take an elective course called Advanced Physical Education: Yoga & Mindfulness (Y/M) and after its ninth semester, data suggests that integrating yoga and mindfulness programs in schools can be a possible solution to taking advantage of the plasticity of wellness. In partnership with Butler University, a collection of survey instruments was used to measure the impact of yoga and mindfulness programs in schools and found that regular practice during the school day has significant impacts on student ratings of stress, anxiety, energy, readiness to learn, empowerment to face challenges, and other variables.
For students who enrolled in Y/M, there was a significant reduction in stress about the future (ASQ) and Symptoms of Stress (SoS) from the beginning to the end of the semester. Trends also suggested decreases in perceived stress (PSS) and anxiety (GAD-7) and an increase in coping (BRCS) for students in Y/M, whereas for students in the control group, there were no significant differences detected. The most statistically significant data came from administering a daily survey immediately before and after each yoga and mindfulness practice. After yoga, students self-reported feeling more relaxed, focused and connected, less anxious and tired, and more empowered to face the day’s challenges.
In “The Plasticity of Well-being,” Dahl et al. call for “intentional mental training” while admitting a lack of framework with clear and tangible practices to get there, which is where Y/M in schools can come in. In considering the four core dimensions of well-being—awareness, connection, insight, and purpose—we can draw parallels between mindfulness topics and regulation practices that can be implemented within the curriculum, bringing the concept of wellness plasticity to the forefront of school culture.
The first core dimension Dahl asks us to consider in creating a framework for cultivating well-being is awareness, or a “heightened and flexible attentiveness to one’s environment and internal cues, such as bodily sensations, thoughts and emotions.” On the first day of Y/M, students are asked to share their interpretations of “mindfulness” or the practice of paying attention on purpose to the present moment without judgment and to consider how they can become more mindful as they navigate their days. Many practices have helped students at University High School deepen their level of awareness, including meditation; breathing techniques; body scans to improve interoception or the perception of sensations from inside the body; group check-ins; setting intentions; and teaching students to understand the impacts of stress and trauma on their anatomy, all while discovering regulation practices that promote equanimity and balance.
As we have discovered from Mind, Brain, and Education (MBE) research, the brain’s ability to multitask is a neuromyth, and being constantly distracted means our brains work less efficiently. In Y/M, students become more aware of the anatomy of their brains and the impact that the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, and amygdala play in their learning. Helpful visuals like Dr. Seigel’s “hand brain” model are an easy way to introduce students to the basic structure of their brains and to set the foundation to better understand how stress impacts these regions of their brains, therefore impeding their ability to learn and create new neural pathways. Knowing that sleep is critical to long-term memory consolidation, classes like Y/M introduce techniques that can help students rest and reset more effectively. Stress can also be reframed as an opportunity for growth as small amounts in the right conditions help increase the brain’s ability to recall information more quickly. The physical aspect of yoga teaches students to mindfully move toward their “edge” in each posture and to breathe through their discomfort while observing how over time, their edge, just like their brains, can change.
One of the most vital needs for healthy development is connection, especially during adolescence as students are discovering their identities and navigating the second largest brain development period of their lives. The COVID-19 pandemic severed many important connections for school-aged children, cutting off resources to even the most basic needs like food and safety, to critical services like mentorship, learning and behavioral support, social clubs, and other support groups. Connection, the second core dimension of well-being, looks to “gratitude, appreciation, and respect” as launching pads for practices that can be developed in a school setting. Take, for instance, an assignment in Y/M where students were asked to write a letter of gratitude to someone, read the letter aloud to that person, and then reflect on the experience. A practice in gratitude, connection, and vulnerability has lasting impacts on relationships.
When structuring a class like Y/M, it can be helpful to first check in with students and to let feedback guide instruction. Facilitating experiences for students to describe how they are feeling physically, mentally, emotionally, energetically, and spiritually can be another opportunity to introduce mindfulness topics and prompts that offer insight and build connection within the class. Creating a ritual of checking in can provide valuable information for teachers on how to proceed with the lesson plan and practice for each day. Adapting to meet the needs of the class models to students that they can do the same by checking in with themselves regularly and adjusting accordingly:
“I enjoy how Lade accounts for the general mood of the group before the start of each practice and adjusts the routine to match the energy. It makes the class more relaxing and soothing.” – Y/M student
“I enjoy doing the check-ins at the beginning of class because it is kinda nice to voice how I’m feeling every day and it allows me to reflect more on how I am doing at that moment.” – Y/M student
Tony Wagner discusses in his book “The Global Achievement Gap,” that schools tend to hyperfocus on psychometric learning when the workforce calls for more creative and social skills like collaboration, adaptability, communication, curiosity, and imagination, amongst others. In Y/M, students are introduced to the function of mirror neurons and discover that our brains are naturally soft-wired for empathy. Activities to support conscious communication help students build empathy by teaching them to listen intently without thinking of what to say next and in their own words repeating back what they heard to their partner. Both the person who shares and the listener reflect on how vulnerability and deep listening foster a sense of belonging and in turn help shift the brain and nervous system into a state of ease.
Like teaching, yoga is both a science and an art. The science of yoga teaches students about the connection between the mind and body while the art of the practice encourages expression and creativity in the postures; modifying and adapting based on what is needed in each particular moment. As emphasized in Neuroteach: Brain Science and the Future of Education, it is essential to teach students to become aware of the impact of stress, fear, and fatigue on their brains. Introducing students to Y/M can help build new neural connections and as we learn more about the impact of one’s environment on brain development, sustained efforts could potentially impact gene expression patterns over time. This MBE approach to teaching and learning and giving students autonomy in their learning creates buy-in, develops meta-awareness, and enhances engagement and intrinsic motivation.
The third core dimension of insight refers to self-knowledge and a “deeper awareness of how internal and external conditions help shape perception and one’s sense of self.” This concept of insight fits in nicely with the yogic philosophy of svydyaya or “self-study.” As students are introduced to the history and ancient philosophies of yoga, they are asked to examine how practices like kindness, truthfulness, non-attachment, moderation, and generosity show up in their lives and interactions, and by doing so, begin to deepen their awareness of themselves and the world around them.
The Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning identifies several intersections between MBE and Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI), and Y/M can serve as a gateway for developing a curriculum that can “aid in identity development and validation.” Teaching students about the impact of stress and trauma on their minds and bodies is a crucial element in developing a stronger sense of self and building empathy and understanding. Consider the impact of COVID-19, particularly for marginalized groups. Research from The Child Mind Institute found that women, racial minorities, people with preexisting mental health problems, and parents of young children reported higher levels of stress and symptoms of mental health disorders like anxiety and depression regardless of their environment.
Furthermore, children who lived in financially unstable households or who experienced food instability during the pandemic experienced worse mental health outcomes than their more financially secure peers. Author, trauma specialist, and anti-racist educator, Resma Manekem, explains in his book, My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies, that complex social issues like racism and systemic oppression cannot just be solved cognitively but must also be processed somatically, as we carry our emotional experiences in our bodies. Introducing students to practices like restorative and yin yoga helps facilitate experiences to create space and flexibility in both their bodies and their minds, and can help create the internal conditions for compassion and insight.
The fourth core dimension for the plasticity of wellbeing framework, and perhaps the most important, is purpose. Purpose can be a loaded idea for young people to explore, for instance, as they navigate the pressures and expectations around college and career planning. Purpose, defined as “meaningful aims and values that can be applied in daily life,” can be broken down into smaller, more attainable goals and intrinsic values, therefore becoming less daunting for students to ponder, identify, and incorporate into their own lives. For instance, an assignment in Y/M asks students to list three categories of pleasure, purpose, and pride, as outlined in Buettner’s “Blue Zones of Happiness” and to think about ways in which their mindset and wellbeing are impacted by the amount of time and attention dedicated to the “3 P’s.”
Another important element for finding purpose is learning to persevere in the face of challenges and reframing obstacles as opportunities for growth. In Y/M, students learn to define trauma as “a response to an event that overwhelms the body’s systems without the proper tools to integrate” and are asked to consider measurable ways in which growth has occurred following a traumatic experience, a concept defined as “post-traumatic growth” (PTG). The American Psychological Association presents PTG as an opportunity to think back on stressful experiences and evaluate positive changes across the following measures: appreciation of life, relationships with others, new possibilities in life, personal strength, and spiritual change. In Y/M, students are asked to reflect on a time that was particularly challenging or stressful and to consider any tools and resources that supported them through this challenge that ultimately inspired growth.
Another practice that can help students connect to purpose is the practice of forgiveness. Students in Y/M learn about forgiveness rituals from across the world and consider the implications of forgiveness on self and others. Students participate in forgiveness meditations and are encouraged to write a forgiveness letter to themselves or to someone who has caused harm to them:
I forgive you for making fun of your weight and for slicing your skin so many years ago. I forgive you for refusing to take care of yourself; it’s so difficult to do so when you feel you don’t deserve it. I know everything you’ve done and said in your eighteen years of life hasn’t always been kind or empathetic, but you have stayed strong, whether you realized it or not. This forgiveness is the next step to augmenting your strength. The future is all yours, with all that baggage gone. All you have to do is keep showing up.” – Y/M student
Partnership and the In(ter)dependent School
While using the four core dimensions for well-being as a framework for cultivating human flourishing, Dahl et. al. admittedly states there is little known about the most effective way to implement multidimensional interventions, which is where yoga & mindfulness programming come in. Although these practices and philosophies are as old as civilization itself, educators are certainly trailblazers at the forefront of efforts to create a culture of wellbeing in their school communities, and from what we can tell so far, yoga and mindfulness could play a key role.
Part of being a healthy school is collaborating with others, and with the freedom and flexibility that is afforded in independent schools, important partnerships can be forged to determine what works best for our population of students and educators in supporting the plasticity of well-being, which is why Park Tudor has joined University High School in this work of building a Y/M framework for middle and high school students. These types of partnerships are rare in the independent-school world, but this is a necessary step forward to address some of the most pressing issues we face today (e.g. mental health and wellness, equity and inclusion, access to independent-school education, etc.). Though we maintain our independence, we must begin to recognize the value and reality of our interdependence.
However positioned in the educational market, every independent school is designed in relationship with every other mission, educational philosophy, or set of values in public and private schools. We do not exist in a vacuum, and the recognition of our interdependence with the world—especially other independent schools in our area—is long overdue. In “Why Do Independent Schools Exist?,” John Gulla answered that “[i]t is [the] opportunity for a school to create and pursue its unique mission, to become a school that by design is not intended to be a school for the average child—there are no average children—but to be a school that will broadcast its mission to attract those who want what that school offers, whatever that may be.” And that “uniqueness” is shaped by its relationship to every other school, by the environment where it exists, and by its history and present.
The way forward for independent schools is to embrace this interdependence, and perhaps the best and easiest place to start is with student wellness. Our relationship with this ecosystem is potentially in crisis given the challenges we face, whether it’s at the individual, local, national, or global level; what will be a failure in leadership is backsliding into independence, into disconnection. To get back to homeostasis will require a (re)commitment to the in(ter)dependent school model.
Lade Akande is the Director of College Counseling at University High School (IN).