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'Breathe in, breathe out, move on'

By BRAD COOLEY • Apr 20, 2019 at 6:00 AM

No different than a room full of students, some people followed the instructor’s lead, some faked it and some just wondered why we were doing it in the first place.

We had started out the school year, prior to our students’ first day, doing deep breathing exercises as an entire staff. Apparently our local wellness committee and our trainers from the Cleveland Clinic thought we needed to learn ways to manage stress and to harness that extra energy during the day so we could perform at our best. After all, working with 6- to 19-year-olds has a mysterious way of making you feel invigorated when they are in your presence and depleted when they leave.

Whether I was willing to admit it or not, I did feel the calming effect and the lowering of my heart rate on that late August day. No one asked me to do breathing exercises again, well, at least up until midyear when I was ready to give blood at Norwalk High School, a routine stop for the American Red Cross. My blood pressure was running on the high side, beyond the acceptable range to give. I wasn’t even feeling stressed. How was that the case? The lady stated to me in a joking yet serious manner, “I’ll be back in 15 minutes; think happy thoughts and take several deep breaths.” Magically, it worked.

Imagine if such a powerful, yet simple act of breathing could be utilized by our students. Could test scores improve? Could both physiological and psychological benefits be realized? Could life become better as perspective is gained?

Several weeks ago, our Norwalk High School juniors took the ACT, a critically important and nationally normed test used primarily for entrance into undergraduate universities and programs. The score on that test matters a lot to some students and not so much to others. Despite those differences, our building level leadership team was continually brainstorming methods to improve upon those factors that we could control — the testing environment and the pregame festivities. It was decided that we would provide a light and healthy breakfast to all juniors, followed up by music in the gym, physical movement, and of course, deep breathing.

Since all of those techniques were researched-based, we knew that is was the perfect plan. We definitely had put our 11th graders in a great spot and for the next few hours, it was their time to perform.

However, following feedback from our students the next day, we realized our plans didn’t work as well as they had looked on paper or as they were discussed in our conference room. Some students loved the upbeat music and hanging out with their friends. Some loved the physical activities that got their blood pumping. Others even found it funny to do the focused breathing. Unfortunately, not many found the mixture of all of those events in a peer group of 190 students all that powerful. Some students simply wanted to start the test immediately after eating their eggs, fruit and granola bars.

Lesson learned. Pieces and parts of those morning activities will be used in the future, while other parts will be scrapped. Breathe in, breathe out and move on.

Dealing with pressure and handling stress isn’t a new phenomenon, be it for teachers, students, or anyone else. In fact, I would argue that most successful people need so-called “good stress” in their lives in order to perform at their highest level. Our society absolutely values those people who can persevere through the most challenging and adverse situations. Is there a more compelling story?

Some of our high school students we work with on a regular basis need guidance on how to manage their life-wrecking stress; they have pressures that run far deeper than with taking tests or with school in general. Many stressors are tied to their home lives, where remedies aren’t so abundantly clear. Other stressors appear much more self-inflicted to a degree, where words and pictures that appear on their own smart phone can govern their lives, generating feelings of euphoria or complete despair.

We all have our stress relievers that we feel work best for us and for me, those are lifting weights, biking and paddling. It isn’t uncommon for me to ask stressed-out students that come to my office about their level of physical activity each day. I have yet to find a happy person who sits all day in a desk and then goes home and sits on the couch to monitor their devices.

Far better than my prescription, singer and songwriter Jimmy Buffett (yes, call me a Parrothead) covered it best in his song, “Breath In, Breathe Out, Move On.” It wasn’t composed for us to practice our deep breathing to, but I am sure it could work just fine. It is, however, the ultimate reminder that our perspectives are what matters the most; every person can move beyond the pressures of their day or their situation.

“According to my watch the time is now./Past is dead and gone./Don’t try to shake it just nod your head./Breathe In, breathe out, move on.”

Local columnist Brad Cooley is the Norwalk High School principal.

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