CMS Students Tackle Stress in WWP
According to Niche.com, Inc., a website that runs rankings and reviews, the WW-P Regional School District is the third best school district in New Jersey. With a plethora of high-performing students cramming their schedules with activities, it’s no surprise that stress is a hallmark of student life. Regardless, the fact that 120 students in WWPRSD were sent for outside mental health evaluations and 40 were hospitalized in 2015-2016 remains shocking to students and parents through the district. To tackle this issue, students at Community Middle School took it upon themselves to de-stress their peers.
On Friday, January 20th from 7-9 p.m. at Community Middle School, the NüYü student group hosted their second annual Wellness Fair, an event where students, parents, and teachers were invited to de-stress themselves by participating in mindfulness—the state of being aware—activities. Over 240 attended and learned about the power and importance of alleviating stress.
NüYü was created last year by Dr. McLelland-Crawley, a faculty member at CMS, as a subgroup of the Community Problem Solving (CmPS) program and in response to the high levels of stress witnessed amongst students. At a meeting for PRISM (Performance Revealing Individual Students’ Magic), McLelland-Crawley had asked students to write down one thing they wish they could tell their teachers. “The majority of the anonymous student responses centered on stress and social-emotional needs. After we reviewed the responses collectively over several days, a group of 7th grade PRISM students asked if they could switch from being members of the Future Problem Solving option of Global Issues Problem Solving Team into CmPS to target the issue of student stress,” McLelland-Crawley said
The name is derived from the goal of the group, as 8th grader and NüYü member Vivek Panchagnola explained. “After the mindfulness sessions (and activities), you’ll feel like a new you!”
Students initially joined the group because of both their and their peers’ experiences with stress. “I've seen people break down because they received a 92% on an assessment, and get frustrated when others weren't pulling their weight in group projects. Stress can break relationships, fray tempers, and makes life less enjoyable in general. Moreover, stress can lead to depression, as well as indulging in unhealthy coping strategies such as substance abuse, isolation, etc,” member Maya Mau said.
After organizing a school-wide survey later last year, the NüYü group realized the extent of the problem and used the results to motivate their work. “Our group discovered last year through a survey that (...) more than 80% of students were some to all of the time stressed, and most actually used unhealthy coping strategies to try and cope with their stress. This is why our group is aiming to teach people healthy coping strategies to our community - specifically mindfulness. We know that, the longer people stay on autopilot and not in the present moment, the more stressed out people are,” Mau explained.
The group now consists of 18 student-organizers, all 8th graders, that help run activities throughout the year to help their fellow students tackle their stress. Along with the Wellness Fair, NüYü members also run the Panther “PAUSE” Challenge, which consists of twice-weekly meetings discussing ways to practice mindfulness and strategies to alleviate stress.
Through these meetings, the students explored the physical and mental ramifications of stress. “When you’re stressed out, your body releases cortisol and adrenaline, which takes away blood from things like your immune and digestive system. Chronic stress can lead to problems like malfunctioning immune system, low-power digestive systems, and a whole slue of other problems. And mentally, relieving your stress can help you get a hold of yourself. It helps you think calmer and clearer,” Panchagnola said.
Using resources such as “The Mindful Teen” by Dzung Vo, videos, and personal experience, NüYü members found creative ways to destress. One such method is using the glitter jar, a container full with water and some glitter. “You’re supposed to shake the glitter jar up so that the glitter is everywhere, and then meditate. You have to look at it and assume that each of the glitter (pieces) is your thoughts and they’re settling down. You’re going to feel much better afterwards.” Panchagnola said.
Member Panishree Akshinthala explained the usefulness of this method. “The glitter jar will not tell me the answers on a math test. But going into that test completely confused, completely stressed out, just raises the probability of you not doing well. But if you walk in calm, you have a little more confidence, and sometimes that confidence is all that you need to feel better about yourself. It has been scientifically proven that being calm will help you do better, so even these simple practices, no matter how simple they are, doing it will give a positive impact, no matter how small it is.”
Akshintala believes the quick nature of these activities makes them more accessible and effective. “If you’re able to spare those 30 or 45 seconds, that time can be the difference between what kind of day you’re having. Being able to have that power for yourself, and not having to rely on other people, is a great thing for yourself. If I’m able to destress myself in those 30 seconds, that means my productivity is so much better than before, which means we have a lot more productive adults.”
After their first year, NüYü members began to understand their work’s importance in the context of their school district. “There’s a lack of coping strategies for stress. We can never remove stress. I mean stress is something that’s always going to be there, even when you’re an adult. So removing stress is just going to be harmful to students, since if they have no stress in their life early on, they can’t cope with it later. I think that the district should try to teach students on how to deal with stress that come with midterms. I think what (NüYü) is doing is for that, like mindfulness, is very important,” member Jonathon Solomon said.
Over the summer, NüYü members presented their findings at the Edcamp—a professional learning experience for teachers—held at Grover Middle School. The students discussed some methods to destress students, like incorporating five minutes of deep-breathing meditation before tests.
At this year’s Wellness Fair, the NüYü members combined their experience and activities with outside expertise. “Annie Rosenburg, a teacher a Village School, helped in our yoga room; Steven Beste and Samantha Gans, teachers at CMS, led the mindful drumming sessions; Trish and Kurt Baker, founders of Attitudes in Reverse, ran the therapy dog sessions along with Linda Scalan, a math teacher at CMS, who brought in her emotional support dog. Trish Miele of To Be Mindful ran sessions on the science of mindfulness and we even had a read-a-loud room for younger children with books donated by The Hawn Foundation and MindUP and guided by a CMS Language Arts teacher, Katie Maher,” McLelland-Crawley said.
The Wellness Fair was educational for both the attendees and the organizers. “I learned many things from the Fair - for example, that there is no one right way to do mindfulness, and that different ways appeal to different people. I saw that many people went to the DIY mindfulness sessions, as well as the therapy dogs with AIR. But many people were interested in mindful drumming as well.” Mau said.
NüYü students hope to expand “our outreach (for next year). We've started advertising in the local community through libraries and bulletin boards, but I think next year, we should do that even more. Most people attending this year's Wellness Fair were from our district, but I want to reach out further than that. This way, we would be reaching even more people in the community and offering healthy coping strategies for people to de-stress,” Mau said.
The 8th graders currently in charge of NüYü are looking ahead to high school and their futures. Solomon wishes to channel his passion of building through a career in engineering. Panchagnola finds the fields of math and science enticing. Mau is interested in various careers, especially management. Akshintala is not yet definite on career goals, but acknowledges the vitality of the work she is doing as part of NüYü.
“What we’re doing is quite powerful because it’s student-led and student-run, We’re taking it upon ourselves to put these things out for the community. We know that when teachers tell us to do something, it may not have such a strong impact, but as the 18 of us are putting ourselves out there for our peers, it may resonate with them more, because it’s people that they know, people that they hang out with, people that think similar to them,” Akshintala said.
“I know that what I’m doing for other people today, and what I’m doing for myself, is something that will help me for a lifetime. I’m not only proud of the people around me who are doing this with me, but I’m also grateful for being provided this opportunity, because I’m able to learn and implement these strategies,” she continued.
“The students who have been in NüYü for two years have matured dramatically and developed much healthier coping mechanisms for their social-emotional wellbeing. They have learned how to take the highs and lows of middle school in stride,” McLelland-Crawley added.
Solomon concluded with his view on the work of this group. “NüYü is important because it teaches people how to deal with their stress, which is inevitable, and which will eventually come in life. I think that if we learn how to deal with stress when we’re young, then we can do it in the long term,” he said.
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