Shelly Meier, behavioral health school educator, colors a flower alongside two students at Pleasant Hills Middle School.
Together, they trace their fingers along the petals as they practice taking deep breaths to stay calm and focused.
“Breathe in. Now hold it. Then breathe out,” Meier reminds the two sixth-grade girls, as they sit quietly inside the dimly lit, quiet space on the lower floor of the school.
Inside The Mindfulness Center — or what kids and teachers call “The Chill Room” — Meier and licensed social worker Cindy Everett are available to meet with students five days a week to teach them techniques for how to stay present in the moment and offer therapy for those who need it. Every student in the school comes through the room at least once a month for lessons on mindfulness, and teachers and families also are offered services.
The room, which is offered at Pleasant Hills Middle School and Baldwin High School, is a central part of The Chill Program, a new way to look at school-based behavioral health services, that the two schools are piloting this year.
A grant from the Jefferson Regional Foundation made the program’s launch possible. The Chill Program is run through Allegheny Health Network’s Jefferson Counseling Services.
“A lot of times, kids these days have difficulty just being present in the moment, being still,” said William Davies, program coordinator. “There’s a mindset that if I’m being still, there’s something wrong with that. Just being still, not thinking about the past and the future helps to create calm.”
Davies brainstormed the idea for the program while working in a different position in behavioral health, where he saw breakdowns in how the current school system works.
Typically, schools only serve a small number of students who have reached the point where they need services.
Davies looks at the school as a family structure and wants every member of the family to receive support. That includes students, teachers and parents.
That’s the premise of The Chill Program.
It also gives students, teachers and parents tools to handle stress and anxiety before they encounter it, as a preventative measure.
Every student at Pleasant Hills Middle School and all ninth- and 10th-graders at Baldwin High School go through The Mindfulness center at least once a month for preventative lessons.
Students who need more have the option to stop by whenever they need a moment to breathe or talk with someone.
At Baldwin High School, students can privately scan a QR code on their phones to get a pass to The Mindfulness Center, said Marissa Gallagher, supervisor of pupil services. Students also can access all of the lessons on Google Classroom if they want to learn more. Teachers in upper grades are even booking the room for lessons, because they want their students to be a part of this, she said.
“It’s really about the culture and change that will be sustainable,” she said. “We forget the societal pressures of what students face every day. It’s really allowing students to have an outlet.”
At Pleasant Hills Middle School, the room has a lit tree, with Christmas lights hanging across the ceiling.
The goal is for it not to feel like a classroom, Everett said.
In West Jefferson Hills, the district switched its school-based mental health provider and school-based counseling this year, so all of the services are offered through Jefferson Hospital and Allegheny Health Network, said Jade Fiore, supervisor of special education. This allows families and students to get every service they need without having to travel around.
Having people in the school all day that the students can go to whenever they need something is what makes this program special, Fiore said.
“Now there’s another person they can go to,” she said. “They’re a part of the PHMS culture.”
Throughout the day, students will come down to the room when they need a break and, hopefully, head back to class in a better place.
Students already have said: “This is my new happy place,” Meier said. That makes her happy.
As she talked with the two girls about ways that they want to be present and in the moment, through an activity that emphasizes doing and being present, they said they wanted to work on accepting themselves for who they are and taking time to appreciate the trees blowing in the wind.
Already, the girls said they’re using the techniques in class and at outside activities.
When they get stressed, they remember to practice deep breathing, and focusing on that helps them relax, they said.
“We’re all so busy right now either thinking about everything that we have to do or what we’ve done in the past, that we’re forgetting what’s right there in front of us, and we’re forgetting to take that time to just let ourselves enjoy that moment,” Meier said.
She hopes to help students remember to be in that moment.