Alt-ed program brings mindfulness to the classroom

B.C. school leading the way in anxiety reduction strategies

Days at CHANCE Alternate School start not with the clanging of lockers and frantic rushes to the classroom.

They start with a time set aside to breathe calmly, with students grounding their feet to the floor and focusing on the day ahead. The small school has been leading the way in adopting mindfulness strategies into the day, even using a B.C.-made app in the classroom. Staff there feel they are giving students lifelong survival skills.

Because not every battle is against other people. Many people have a battle going on within their own mind. At any given time, one in five Canadians is dealing with mental-health issues, according to a provincial government release last month. If we go family by family, they say, almost everyone experiences mental illness some time.

The school is partnered closely with Anxiety BC, and other organizations, to offer their students, staff and parents programs, resources, workshops and tools to help achieve success all around. Back in May, the school held its regular Balancing our Minds summit, and prior to that, Anxiety BC’s Dr. Kristen Buhr was at the school for an entire day of small workshops to explain how the brain works when coping with anxiety, specifically substance use and anxiety, and dealing with intense emotions.

She’s a regular presenter at the school, says Cathy Preibisch, a counsellor for the school district.

“This is something we’ve been doing for the last three or four years,” she says, and it’s a partnership that benefits everyone in the school.

“At our parent nights we usually have 20 to 30 parents come out. We work really hard at building (those relationships),” she says. In addition, it’s given the staff opportunities to become better trained as educators and counsellors, especially for their specialized work as alt ed teachers.

“The staff has been trained with Anxiety BC for over three years,” she says, and the constant partnering doesn’t just add an education component, it’s improving dialogue in the small school.

“It breaks down stigma, that’s what we’ve been trying to do,” she says. “We are all on a mental health journey in life.”

Anxiety can block learning, hurt relationships, and lead to depression and unhealthy lifestyles like substance abuse. So, starting the day on a calm note is a big step toward lessening anxiety among students, and encouraging students to feel comfortable within the school. Many students at CHANCE have left the mainstream schools specifically because anxiety kept them from walking through the front doors, says Preibisch.

But students are only at school for part of the day, and overall a short time in life. The key is to give them tools to manage anxiety through life, she says. And that’s where the app comes in. It’s called MindShift and is available for free on mobile phone app stores. Developed by Anxiety BC with partnerships, including CHANCE, it is a simple tool to help anyone adopt mindfulness practices into their day.

Students can practice mindfulness in the middle of their day, with earphones on. They can choose a male or female voice for guided meditations, or listen to seagulls and waves crashing.

“The MindShift app has really made a difference,” Priebisch says. The app includes guided meditations, tips on identifying situations that cause heightened anxiety, and coping strategies to survive those moments.

In Dr. Buhr’s talks with students and parents, she outlined the close correlation between survival and anxiety. Anxiety is a helpful, even life-saving, reaction to danger, she said. And many of the telltale traits of anxiety are just physiological reactions to danger. That includes a racing heart to get away from danger, sweaty palms, and even upset stomach. They each had a place when humans were more reliant on survival mechanisms.

But sometimes the body confuses signals. Sometimes, instead of your body ramping up to run from a bear, it ramps up because of other fears — speaking in public, standing up for yourself, worrying about what classmates think of you, and even being overwhelmed by a workload.

And of course, anxiety is not a teenager problem, Dr. Buhr said. It’s a human problem. And Priebisch can vouch for that.

“I’ve used the MindShift app at our PAC meetings,” she says. “A member with our PAC took that and applied and it in her own life. She downloaded it herself, listened to it over and over and over. It made a difference in her own life.

“She remembered the app, and that’s the best I can hope for, to put the tools out there and that people will use them.”

There’s a new Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions, created by the NDP government.

They say that “approximately 84,000 children and youth, aged four to 17 years have a mental-health disorder. Only about one-third of them connect with the community-based supports and services they need. We know that early intervention and prevention are key to giving our children and youth the best start possible in life, so we must make sure young people feel comfortable asking for help. We must also make sure the mental-health services and supports they need are there, when and where they need them.”

At CHANCE, they are working toward that goal every day.

How to use MindShift

Once the app is downloaded, the user is asked to pick a situation they would like help with. Then they follow steps to set up a personalized plan to help manage anxiety and cope better.

The app then lists facts about anxiety or the situation the user is facing, for example, fearing confrontations.

Then the user will put together a plan that includes developing helpful thoughts with “Thinking Right”, to learn to dial down anxiety and stress in the body with the “Chill Out Tools’”

The app also includes other features: quick tips for in the moment anxiety, inspirational quotes to keep going, and a place to jot down thoughts and reflections. Finally, it is also password protected.

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