Talk to any high school student right now, and they’ll concur: The pressure is on.
Like teens of all eras, Philly adolescents are thinking about SAT prep, driving, social drama, their post-high school plans. Like no other generation before them, they’re simultaneously wrestling with the fate of the world during a global pandemic, the growing threat of climate change, the perils of life online, and pervasive racial injustice—all while living in a city with a seemingly immovable 25 percent poverty rate, a raging opioid crisis, and an ever-soaring homicide epidemic.
A steady stream of research substantiates Gen Z’s stress: The CDC reported that, last year, the proportion of pediatric emergency admissions for mental problems like panic and anxiety was up by 24 percent for young children and 31 percent for adolescents, compared to 2019. Rates of suicidal thinking and behavior were also up by 25 percent (or more) from similar periods in 2019.
But one local group is making tangible progress in addressing the emotional well-being of Philadelphia students: Inner Strength Foundation, started in 2014 by Amy Edelstein to provide a research-backed mindfulness curriculum to public schools, has reached more than 15,000 Philadelphia students—with positive measurable results in areas like focus, self-compassion, disregarding negative rumination, and more.
This year, with funding from the School District of Philadelphia, they were in 51 classrooms in the fall and are in 46 this spring, for a total of 97, with talks about expanding into more classrooms next fall underway. The District also distributed ISF’s video curriculum addressing the pandemic and racial unrest to all 66 of its middle and high schools.
Creating better citizens
Edelstein, a Pittsburgh native, discovered mindfulness through a book, back when she was a public high school student herself, in 1978. She went on to spend more than two decades working with mindfulness tools as a curriculum developer, copywriter, and nonprofit leader.
When she moved to Philly in 2013, she was struck by that uniquely Philly feeling so many transplants experience: “Jefferson and Franklin and Adams walked these same streets and they looked around and said ‘How can we create a culture that’s going to foster higher human potential?’ I’d had the privilege to spend so much of my adult life working with mindfulness tools, and I really wanted to translate that to a format that could reach a significant percentage of the population, so that we could start seeing change across the city,” she says.
She hypothesized that if all of our city’s high school students had better tools to cultivate their creativity, to stay on track, to focus, to be able to develop their sense of curiosity about the world around them—if they were taught these skills with a trauma-sensitive lens, and an understanding of the effects of intergenerational poverty, systemic racism, educational inequity—then those students would graduate and be better entry-level employees, better team players, better managers and teachers and firefighters and parents. Better citizens.
So in 2014, Edelstein began working with one classroom, at Bodine High School in Northern Liberties. She stayed with them for another semester, then another year.
“The students were phenomenal,” Edelstein says. “By the end, they were really exploring very complex questions—what’s the relationship between the objects of our thoughts, the process of thinking, the organ that does the thinking, and our relationship to all of that? And what that does is teach students how to choose what thoughts to pay attention to, and how to notice which thoughts are ‘sticky’ and whether they want them to be sticky. They were able to deal with a lot of negative self-talk, a lot of the things that would stop them from achieving their goals.”
Since then, Inner Strength has grown into a 12-week program, with instructors having visited 377 classrooms in 19 schools across the city once a week for a full class period, weaving together didactic and experiential learning as well as relationship-building and self-reflection writing. An app, developed with input from participating teens, is forthcoming.
They hold teacher trainings, and a new, free curriculum designed last summer is part of the District’s Healing Together initiative, to address the pandemic and upheaval in response to racial injustice.
Among the boldfaced names on ISF’s board is Michael Baime, the well-regarded physician who founded The Penn Program for Mindfulness (he’s a friend of Edelstein’s, and while he did not work on curriculum development, he looked it over and liked what he saw).
“We always think about ‘What do we want our students to leave with when they graduate?’” says Lankenau Environmental Science Magnet High School principal Joshua A. Levinson, who’s in his second year of working with ISF. “And within the past two years, we’ve shifted our mindset to include the fact that students need to be trained in mindfulness.”
Not just for rich white kids
Skeptics may think of mindfulness as a hippie-dippie variation on yoga, a luxury for private school and suburban kids. And for a period of time, in the U.S. at least, mindfulness was largely the domain of white women with disposable money and time. (Its roots actually go back to ancient times; the practice was popularized in the U.S largely thanks to Jon Kabat-Zinn, the Haverford and MIT-educated professor emeritus of medicine who founded the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.)
Cynics may wonder: How can mindfulness do anything meaningful for kids who are facing relentless Real World problems, daily?
“We always think about ‘What do we want our students to leave with when they graduate?’” says Levinson. “And within the past two years, we’ve shifted our mindset to include the fact that students need to be trained in mindfulness.”
But research continues to show that mindfulness can have an impact on self-regulatory abilities, which are necessary for youth to be able to suppress inappropriate emotional responses and behavioral impulses, tune out distractions, and achieve their long-term goals.
Mindfulness also fuels self-compassion, which mitigates stress. Harvard studies have looked at brain MRIs and detected real changes in the activation of the amygdala, the part of the brain that activates our fight-or-flight response, before and after study participants learned mindfulness.
And with other findings suggesting that students from urban areas, who are more commonly exposed to the effects of poverty and violence, are more prone to experiencing deficits in self-regulation, and subsequently having more behavioral and academic issues in comparison to more affluent peers, Edelstein says the beauty here is that mindfulness is an intervention that’s relatively simple, straightforward, and inexpensive to teach.
“These are tools that work with innate human curiosity, and the power of observation, and the body and the breath,” she says. No expensive technology or fancy equipment necessary—no barriers involved.
In fact, Edelstein and her team of instructors, all of whom undergo 80 hours of training as well as racial bias coaching and student teaching, ensure that no aspect of ISF is intimidating—which may explain why they’re yet to be met with resistance (or refusal) from teens, an allegedly skeptical demo to win over.
“From magnet schools to neighborhood schools, I have not experienced the push-back that adults expect there to be,” Edelstsein says. “I think that’s because we’re not asking students to feel calm. We’re not telling them to relax. We’re not asking them to aspire or conform to a particular outcome. We’re asking them to become interested in their experience, and we give them tools to start exploring. And that’s fun.”
Instructors ask open-ended questions, and provide examples of responses, so that no one is put on the spot: Did you feel happy? Did you feel angry? Did you feel sleepy or bored or frustrated?
“We let them experience the gamut of human emotion and when students, especially teens, aren’t being told what to do but how to explore, then it really does release a part of the adolescent brain that is designed for adventure and curiosity,” Edelstein says.
Not a panacea
Granted, mindfulness is not for everyone—and Edelstein and her instructors are aware of this. “Mindfulness is not a silver bullet, and it’s not the right modality for everyone,” she says.
There are certain conditions, like PTSD and bipolar disorder, that can potentially be worsened by mindfulness, and ISF instructors are trained to recognize these real risks. Others—teachers and students alike—just don’t like it, or maybe don’t take to it in school. “We’re in a public school setting [and, during the pandemic, a virtual one]. This is not a therapeutic setting, kids are with their peers and their teachers. That context requires a certain formality, it requires boundaries, and it requires a very alert sensitivity to what’s happening,” says Edelstein.
In evaluating the program, Edelstein doesn’t look at brain scans or cortisol levels, or any invasive measures. Instead, independent researchers at Syracuse University, who received District approval to assess the program, have found that students consistently, across schools, showed a statistically significant improvement in their ability to stay on track, and in their overall self-regulation.
“Teenagers are pushing a really heavy boulder uphill. So it’s really important that we give students the skills to succeed, and we’re failing them if we don’t,” Edelstein says.
“Which means that they can focus, let go of things that are getting in their way, and keep moving forward,” Edelstein says. “Which of course is important for any student, but especially for students who have a lot of challenges in their lives, that’s a significant statistic for academic and overall success.”
The research also showed students improvement in self-compassion, their kindness towards themselves and their ability to bypass or disregard negative rumination and negative self-talk. Even this fall, as students remained exclusively online, they showed improvement in self-compassion. “Even in the poorest ‘performing’ schools, the kids are doing ok. And that’s a big deal,” Edelstein says.
Levinson, the principal at Lankenau, says he welcomed the program to his school because of the importance of self-care. “Everybody needs some type of self-care,” he says. “It is so important to take care of yourself so that you can take care of others. Our teachers, our students—everyone is going through so much, and Inner Strength and mindfulness has been an outlet for that, such a positive support, and really just a whole new way of thinking.”
Levinson has been so impressed with ISF, in fact, that thanks to the support of a grant, he’s working with Edelstein to create a dedicated mindfulness room in the school, for students to use for ISF sessions and to practice mindfulness on their own too.
Amaro Truong, a junior at Central High School, says that he was skeptical of mindfulness, at first. But as he participated in the 12-week program, and got further involved as an intern working on ISF’s forthcoming app, he saw benefits beyond what he expected. “I tend to think about the future a lot. But with mindfulness, I learned to live more in the moment, and that’s really helped my own health, mentally and physically,” he says. Now, he practices mindfulness in a range of settings, whether it’s a short, two-minute version before embarking on a stressful assignment, or a longer, 10-minute session when he has more time on Sundays.
The ISF curriculum aligns with the School District of Philadelphia’s Social Emotional Learning goals, which makes it a natural fit for District programming and funding. Still, for the first 12,000 students who went through the program, ISF waived its per-classroom fee, which then would have been $2,400 and today hovers at around $3,000.
Then, PA Attorney General Josh Shapiro got wind of the program, sent some evaluators to observe it, and provided funding for SDP to put out a call for a Request For Proposals—which ISF won, making this the first year ISF has had District funding. Previously, the group’s annual budget, which is now at $347,000, came entirely from grants and donations, which it does still rely on to supplement the District’s financial support.
There are so many challenges Edelstein continues to rise to—like pivoting to an online format, with instructors teaching students live, in real-time, versus relying on pre-recorded sessions—and still she’d like to see ISF grow. Her focus now is on expanding her network of instructors; she’d like more male teachers, more people of color.
She’s also focused on funding opportunities, which would enable the program to reach more classrooms and schools and create scholarship opportunities to train BIPOC instructors and others who have historically been left out of this realm.
She’s in talks with a local university about the possibility of creating a service-learning program to train new instructors. Recently, Diane and Pat Croce, the entrepreneur, former Sixers president, mindfulness devotee himself, offered a $100,000 matching grant to support the work of Inner Strength. (Croce is also a supporter of The Citizen.) And she’s focused on the future, on passing the baton to the next generation of mindfulness leaders.
“There’s an opening, people are ready for this,” she says. “With our teenagers pushing a really heavy boulder uphill, it’s really important that we give students the skills to succeed, and we’re failing them if we don’t.”
And if she can just sit tight a bit longer, who knows? Perhaps that baton can be carried forward by a local student who experienced the power of mindfulness for the first time through the very work that Edelstein has made possible.Header photo: Students from the Carver High School of Engineering & Science. Photo by Helena Showell