Mind over mood

Inside SF nonprofit Headstand’s remarkable mission to empower students to combat toxic stress through mindfulness, yoga and character education.

By Heather Wood Rudulph

It’s hard to be a kid. Authority figures are always telling you what to do. Peer pressure and its ability to obliterate self-esteem can turn even the most outgoing youngsters into introverts. And then there’s the homework, which, as Bart Simpson so poignantly noted, “stinks.”

Of course the normal trials of adolescence are a natural part of growing up. But some children face challenges that betray the innocence of youth—hunger, poverty and the threat of violence, to name a few. In California, home to the nation’s largest public school system, more than half the student population lives in poverty, with some three million kids qualifying for federal free and reduced-price lunch. As education funding is slashed, phys ed and after-school sports programs are being cut, while cases of hyperactivity and childhood obesity trend upward. All of these variables create what researchers call toxic stress, and the negative effects can last a lifetime.

San Francisco nonprofit Headstand is tackling student anxiety by incorporating yoga, meditation and character education into K–12 schools. Founder Katherine Priore, a former public school teacher, developed the program after turning to yoga and meditation to combat the severe stress she was experiencing on the job. After six years of personal practice and certifications to teach yoga to others, Priore had an awakening.

“I was on a plane when I read a feature article in a magazine about how schools in Chicago and South Central Los Angeles were integrating yoga into K–12 education,” Priore says. “I started crying. I just thought, OK this is it. This is what I’m doing with my life.”

Priore started studying with an organization called Yoga Ed., which trains teachers in yoga and mindfulness techniques. For two years she worked as a private English tutor by day and spent all of her free time developing the curriculum for what would become Headstand. When it was time to find a school partner, Priore was intent on piloting her program within a school that catered to low-income, at-risk youth, who in her mind would benefit most from the practice. In 2008, she started working with KIPP Summit Academy in San Lorenzo. The public charter school is part of a national nonprofit whose goal is to prepare the most vulnerable students for a college career.

For three years, Priore was the sole Headstand instructor, working with 400 students a week at KIPP Summit, and adjusting her techniques as she went. She started with simple breathing exercises and yoga poses, and evolved them to cater to different age groups—kindergarteners, for example, learned about yoga through song, while eighth-graders made their way through sun salutations. Priore asked students to keep journals of their experiences so she could better understand what worked. Those journals also revealed the range of factors that built stress, from homework or an upcoming basketball game, to a lack of privacy in an overcrowded home, or divorce.

“KIPP allowed me to fail. And I think that was a huge part of our ability to carry the program through,” Priore says. “I think they also knew that I was very committed to working through those failures. The experiment was: Can we normalize these practices—which were still pretty novel concepts at the time—and transform a school culture over time?”

Priore now has a staff of teachers who lead Headstand programs in six schools throughout the Bay Area. Classes begin with an introduction of a topic or theme, such as kindness or courage. Teachers look to examples in pop culture to capture the students’ attention and help them understand a high-minded concept in a real-world example. Students are then asked to take several deep breaths, allowing them—perhaps for the first time all day—a chance to relax. Classes continue with yoga flow and close with a mindfulness exercise, focusing on sitting quietly with intention. For some, that means reflecting on the root of their stress; for others, it’s another opportunity to just breathe.

“Taking a deep breath and taking a pause is a powerful resource,” Priore says. “To help kids feel like it’s OK to sit still, to let go, can really take them by surprise. It’s different for every child. I once had a fifth-grader who struggled in every class. He really didn’t want to be there, and he let me know it. After three years he came up to me and said, ‘Miss Priore, I get it now.’ I believe in the physiological benefits of these practices. Over time, it can have a profound effect.”

Children are accustomed to repetitive learning. They memorize their ABCs, stockpile multiplication tables in their minds and recite speeches they’ve read over and over again. Yoga and meditation are just like any other skill. With enough practice, the concepts start to click.

In just nine years, Headstand has seen dramatic results. A study conducted in 2014 by the Philip R. Lee Institute for Health Policy Studies at UCSF found that students participating in the Headstand program at the KIPP Summit Academy had improved rates of attendance, reported better understanding of their emotions and how to deal with them and could focus better in class. Across the board, students’ grades went up, teachers reported fewer cases of disobedience and suspensions dropped by 60 percent.

“One hundred percent of our teachers said they would recommend the program to another school. That blows my mind,” says Priore. “But I’m not surprised. I think teachers, students, administrators—everyone is desperate to feel some comfort and relief inside these settings, and this is something that works when delivered well.”

Headstand has piloted programs in Houston and in the South Bronx, and Priore frequently travels around the country to train teachers. In the Bay Area, Headstand programs reach 3,500 students every year, and a new partnership with the San Mateo County Library will bring the program to summer camps. Priore’s goals are to expand Headstand as far as it can go—partnering with public schools, and developing strategies for educators to practice yoga and meditation themselves.

“A really complex set of issues contributes to the stress our students face, that we all face,” Priore says. “Having a simple technique that can be repeated time and again, no matter where you are in your life, is extremely powerful. Everyone deserves access to that.”

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