At Staten Island’s Concord HS, the fourth ‘R’ is relaxation

Considering the library at Concord High School was jam-packed with dozens of students, it was oddly quiet.

Each person was in a mode of contemplation, reflection and meditation. They took deep breaths as they rested, hands on their laps, eyes closed.

In fact, every day for the past 10 weeks, students at this alternative high school did something their peers rarely get a chance to do — relax.

As part of a scientific experiment on mind training, the teenagers, who often come to Concord from troubled backgrounds, sat calmly for three minutes at the start of their fourth-period class. The test was to see whether brief bouts of meditation can help relieve anxiety among students who are normally cramming for exams and homework while juggling the stresses of family life.

Almost right away, their teachers and mentors noticed a difference.

“Before, they didn’t pay attention and they felt the need to be snarky in order to show they existed and to wake up. For teachers to yell at them about these things takes time out of class and makes them feel worse about themselves,” said Susan Finley, executive director of The Producers Project, which has been filming Concord High School students for seven years. “Now, when a teacher says focus, they know they can…There’s more confidence, they’re more relaxed in their own skin, and they feel more hopeful.”

Throughout the experiment, the students researched with scientists from around the country, including Dr. Tracy Dennis from Hunter College; Dr. Merlyn Hurd, a psychologist who measured students’ brainwaves; Dr. David Vago from Harvard University; and Dr. Robert Roeser from Portland State University.

At the start of the experiment, students answered a survey to answer about stress and confidence. They were then split into groups: the experimental would practice deep breathing exercises for three minutes a day; the placebo would sit and do nothing for that time; and the control would go about their daily routines. Students were given another survey at the end of the 10 weeks to measure the effects.

All the while, students studied different parts of the brain. They learned that neuroplasticity means the brain can change with life experiences and that mind training could have a deep impact on ones behavior.

They found out that mind training could help with functions of the thalamus, such as alertness and memory, and that it could benefit those with damage to their occipital lobe, which controls eyesight, by helping people deal with illusions.

Students said they felt calmer and had a better outlook on life. The research showed decreased levels of anxiety and better self-awareness.

Ndeye Ndiaye, of Mariners Harbor, said the meditation sessions were dream-like, but her mind often spiraled into a nightmare where she felt herself falling. Before it got out of hand, she focused, and was able to bring herself back to reality. She said the experiment has helped her cope with challenges, like her diabetes diagnosis, and moving to Staten Island to immerse herself in an unfamiliar community.

“Mind training has helped me to try to not think about the negatives of my past, but it has helped me to think of the positives in my future,” she said.

Kim Wilson-Hite, an English teacher, hoped the exercise would help students beyond their graduation from high school.

“If you can think about nothing, you can think about greater things and you can fix any problems in the world,” she said.

[Amy Padnani SI Live]
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