By Kathryn Coulibaly
In 2019, Warren Hills Middle School teacher Heather Garcia and school counselor Hope Ranalli each approached their principal with some ideas about introducing mindfulness practices to students. While Ranalli hadn’t yet had any formal training, Garcia held a social-emotional learning (SEL) mindfulness certification through Breathe for Change.
The principal encouraged them to collaborate, and together they came up with a plan. While they hoped to eventually reach all 450 seventh and eighth grade students, they knew they couldn’t reach everyone at one time. Instead, they started with a small group of students who had been diagnosed with anxiety or school phobia or who had reported feelings of anxiety.
They converted a room in the school basement into an inviting space and began working with the students on meditation, mindfulness and basic yoga. Their initial feedback was fantastic.
In early 2020, Garcia and Ranalli applied for an NJEA Frederick L. Hipp Grant for Excellence in Education to build a calm space for students and staff to use at their school. They were successful. They planned to use the $4,750 grant to expand the space and provide more resources to reach even more students and staff.
They were inspired by a similar project that was already successful at West Morris Central High School called the Zen Zone, so they adopted the name as an homage to that project.
And then the global pandemic changed everything.
“We were meeting virtually with students and staff and offering meditation and yoga online,” Ranalli said. “But it was hard to provide these resources remotely. A lot of students were just done being on the computer at the end of the school day. They just wanted to shut down their computers and go outside.”
But as Garcia and Ranalli knew, the needs were still there—and they weren’t being met.
“We had seen school phobia and anxiety before the pandemic,” Ranalli said. “We know that most schools are seeing mental health issues that far exceed the resources that are available for students and families.”
Some studies estimate that as many as five percent of school-age children experience school phobia, which is also known as school avoidance or school refusal. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), more than seven percent of children between the ages of three and 17 have been diagnosed with anxiety. Students manifest mental health issues in a variety of ways and it can be hard for parents and school staff to recognize when there’s a problem. Even when it is clear, there aren’t enough counselors or therapists available to treat students.
According to an article in NorthJersey.com, “‘Crisis situation’: Mental health services in NJ stretched thin as pandemic boosts demand,” New Jerseyans seeking mental health treatment are facing an enormous wait time, if they are able to get an appointment at all. According to Jennifer Thompson, executive director of the National Association of Social Workers’ New Jersey chapter, prospective patients are facing a “30- to 60-day wait for a private practice counselor and a three- to five-month wait to see an agency therapist.”
Many families are dealing with mental health issues, which may lead students’ needs to go unmet as resources are diverted to other family members who are perceived to be in greater crisis.
During the pandemic, Garcia and Ranalli ran several programs to engage with students and get them to open up about their emotions. They recorded guided meditations that students could access whenever they wanted. They held a “bring your pet to yoga” event. A popular activity was Yoga Dice, where students took turns rolling dice and then did the pose that popped up.
For Garcia and Ranalli, the Zen Zone became a labor of love and an area where they could devote their energies and, hopefully, spark positive changes in students’ and staff members’ lives.
A labor of love
They enlisted students to create a mural, and they outfitted the large space with soft lighting, salt lamps, bean bag chairs, futons, yoga mats, blankets, and music and meditations gently playing from the Calm app.
Ranalli also used part of the Hipp grant to become SEL certified. She is also yoga certified and she enjoys bringing these new skills to her students.
“I work with our alternate health class of eighth graders on a mindfulness curriculum that includes mindful movement and basic yoga movements,” Ranalli said. “It’s been so fun to expose students to this when I believe they never would have been able to experience this.”
After Garcia left the district, Ranalli carried on with the vision for the Zen Zone. Ranalli sees the space as providing students and staff with a space to disconnect. There’s no technology allowed unless they’re working on a project.
The Zen Zone has enjoyed universal support from administration and the board of education, including funding.
“The superintendent started a mental health committee to address student and staff mental health concerns and to help support everyone,” Ranalli said. “The district held a professional development day and Hope ran three different sessions for staff and showed off the Zen Zone and mindfulness and meditation. It was really geared toward self-care and explored different ways to relax and be mindful of their emotions.”
Support staff mental health needs
When the Zen Zone was first conceived, the focus was on the students’ mental health needs, but Ranalli has come to recognize how important it is that staff be part of it.
“When we first started, I was more focused on the students’ experience,” Ranalli said. “But now I’m realizing that it’s equally important to our staff. Our custodians are sometimes in there. They clean it for us every night, but they also take some time to enjoy it. Our vice principal will take a moment in there. Some people take their prep periods in the Zen Zone. The more they use it, the more likely they are to use it with their students.”
Ranalli also recognizes the importance of staff checking in on their own mental health needs, especially as working in all sectors of education has gotten more stressful.
“Our staff is not putting their mental health needs first,” Ranalli said. “They’re really just focused on their students. But they need to address their own mental health in order to be really present and successful in helping students.”
The Zen Zone has been warmly embraced by the entire school community. Staff sign it out for students to meditate, and Ranalli runs after-school groups such as Club Zen and after-school yoga and meditation. In addition, there is a staff meditation held every Wednesday.
“This has grown into an amazing opportunity to expose students and staff to mindfulness, meditation, and movement,” Ranalli said.
For anyone suspicious about how effective mindfulness really is, the American Psychological Association analyzed more than 200 studies and found that mindfulness-based therapy is very effective at reducing stress, anxiety, and depression.
“We are thrilled at the success of the Zen Zone and we just hope to continue to build and draw in more students and staff,” Ranalli said. “We believe in the power of meditation, yoga, and mindfulness to help people and we want to share this with students and staff so they can take that with them throughout their lives.”
Kathryn Coulibaly is the associate editor of the NJEA Review and provides content and support to njea.org. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Apply for an NJEA Hipp Grant
NJEA Frederick L. Hipp grants help educators bring creative ideas to life. The only foundation of its kind in New Jersey, the Hipp Foundation supports initiatives to promote excellence in education. More than $2.3 million in grants for innovative educational projects that represent a bold, fresh approach by public school employees has already been awarded.
Apply for a Hipp grant and bring your innovative ideas to life. The deadline is March 1. Grants range from $500-$10,000. Learn more at njea.org/hipp.