The West Windsor-Plainsboro School District has no shortage of high-performing students who cram their schedules with schoolwork and extracurricular activities.
It should come as no surprise that stress is a big part of student life in WW-P, and the statistics bear that out. During the 2015-’16 school year, some 120 students in the district were sent for outside mental health evaluations and 40 were hospitalized due to stress-related issues, according to school officials.
Over the last year, a group of students at Community Middle School took it upon themselves to take on the issue and find ways to help peers deal with stress.
On Jan. 9, Community Middle School’s NüYü student group hosted its second annual Wellness Fair, an event where students, parents and teachers were invited to de-stress themselves by practicing mindfulness—the practice of paying more attention to the present moment, which has been scientifically shown to help lower stress hormones and decrease inflammation in the body.
NüYü was created last year by Rebecca McLelland-Crawley, a faculty member at CMS, as a subgroup of the Community Problem Solving program, and in response to the high levels of stress witnessed among students.
The name is derived from the goal of the group, said 8th grader Vivek Panchagnola, a NüYü member. “After the mindfulness sessions and activities, you feel like a new you.”
Mindfulness meditation involves sitting and focusing on breathing and thinking about the present, without thoughts or concerns about the past or future.
Students say they initially joined the group because of both their own and their peers’ experiences with stress.
“I’ve seen people break down because they received a 92 percent on an assessment and get frustrated when others weren’t pulling their weight in group projects,” said group member Maya Mau.
After organizing a school-wide survey later last year, the NüYü group realized the extent of the problem and used the results to motivate their work.
“Our group discovered last year through a survey that more than 80 percent of students were stressed some to all of the time, and most actually used unhealthy coping strategies to try to cope with their stress,” Mau said. “That’s why our group is aiming to teach people healthy coping strategies—specifically mindfulness. We know that, the longer people stay on autopilot and not in the present moment, the more stressed out people are.”
The group now consists of 18 student-organizers, all 8th graders, who run activities throughout the year to help their fellow students tackle stress. Along with the Wellness Fair, NüYü members also run the Panther “PAUSE” Challenge, which consists of twice-weekly meetings discussing ways to practice mindfulness and strategies to alleviate stress.
Through these meetings, the students explored the physical and mental ramifications of stress. Panchagnola said that when people get stressed out, their bodies release cortisol and adrenaline, which takes away blood from things like their immune and digestive systems. Using resources such as The Mindful Teen, by Dzung Vo, videos and personal experience, NüYü members found creative ways to destress. One such method is using a “glitter jar,” a container filled with water and some glitter.
“You’re supposed to shake the glitter jar up so that the glitter is everywhere, and then meditate. You have to look at it and assume that each of the glitter (pieces) is your thoughts and they’re settling down. You’re going to feel much better afterwards,” Panchagnola said.
Member Panishree Akshinthala talked about the usefulness of this method. “The glitter jar will not tell me the answers on a math test. But going into that test completely confused, completely stressed out just raises the probability of you not doing well.”
Akshintala said she believes the quick nature of these activities makes them more accessible and effective. “If you’re able to spare those 30 or 45 seconds, that time can be the difference in what kind of day you’re having.”
After their first year, NüYü members began to understand the importance of their work in the context of their school district.
‘I think that if we learn how to deal with stress when we’re young, then we can do it in the long term.’
“There’s a lack of coping strategies for stress,” said NüYü member Jonathon Solomon. “I think that the district should try to teach students on how to deal with stress that come with midterms. I think what (NüYü) is doing for that is very important.”
Over the summer, NüYü members presented their findings at the Edcamp—a professional learning experience for teachers—held at Grover Middle School. The students discussed some methods to destress students, like incorporating five minutes of deep-breathing meditation before tests.
At this year’s Wellness Fair, the NüYü members combined their experience and activities with outside expertise, McLelland-Crawley said.
The Wellness Fair was educational for both the attendees and the organizers. “I learned many things from the fair,” Mau said. “For example, that there is no one right way to do mindfulness, and that different ways appeal to different people.”
NüYü students hope to expand their outreach for next year. “We’ve started advertising in the local community through libraries and bulletin boards, but I think next year we should do that even more,” Mau said.
She added that most people attending this year’s Wellness Fair were from the WW-P School District, but she wants to reach out further than that in the future.
“This way, we would be reaching even more people in the community and offering healthy coping strategies for people to destress,” she said.
Akshintala said that the work they are doing is “quite powerful” because it’s student-led and student-run.
“We’re taking it upon ourselves to put these things out for the community,” she said. “We know that when teachers tell us to do something, it may not have such a strong impact, but as the 18 of us are putting ourselves out there for our peers, it may resonate with them more.”
McLelland-Crawley said that the students who have been involved with NüYü for the past two years have matured dramatically and developed much healthier coping mechanisms for their social-emotional wellbeing. They have learned how to take the highs and lows of middle school in stride, she said.
“I think that if we learn how to deal with stress when we’re young, then we can do it in the long term,” Solomon said.