Featured Story

Mattituck school district’s wellness center to focus on mindfulness

Mattituck High School students will have the opportunity next year to take yoga and other mindfulness classes as an elective during the school day. 

The classes will be held in the school’s new wellness center, which is expected to be completed sometime in the spring. The center will be similar to a physical education room and will offer students opportunities to participate in cardio and weight-based activities and team training, but also guided mindfulness activities — like meditation and yoga — said Tricia Desiderio, director of special education.

The room will be all-inclusive and open to all students to use, she said.

Similarly, Cutchogue East Elementary School will also be getting a wellness center. Designed for younger students, the space won’t be an all-encompassing physical education space but will instead focus solely on mindfulness, meditation and breathing.

“The intention is as these students then graduate up and they’re in junior high and high school they’re already that much more learned and are utilizing that space quite differently from what we’re now going to be doing for the students at the high school, who are just going to be introduced more formally,” Ms. Desiderio said. “We do want to create it so it becomes a life skill.”

These rooms are part of the district’s focus on social emotional learning, which began during the 2016-17 school year.

Ms. Desiderio said she became interested in focusing on social emotional wellness after seeing an increase in stress levels, anxiety and depression in students.

Erin Van Gelder, the district’s occupational therapist, said she was concerned about what kids are developmentally presenting today and was struggling with meeting their self-regulation needs to help them be ready for learning in an ever-changing society.

Both educators cited the growing use of technology and social media as part of the problem.

“We do so much in terms of counseling and family supports and team interventions, and it’s not enough,” Ms. Desiderio said.

“Or, maybe it’s not what they need. So we’re trying different [practices] to meet them where they’re at in the world they live in today.”

For example, last year GoNoodle was introduced at the elementary school. The web-based program offers short instructional videos on mindfulness practices that students can participate in during the school day, Ms. Van Gelder said.

Teachers and administrators also worked together to form a social emotional learning committee. The group’s goal is to come up with ideas that focus on strengthening students’ mental health as well as their academics. As an example, a handful of faculty members were sent to a three-day training seminar in New York City to learn about Mission Bee, a 16-lesson curriculum designed to teach social emotional learning.

Additionally, the district has kept an open line of communication with parents throughout this process, Ms. Desiderio said, and has hosted numerous workshops for parents to help them better understand what their children are learning in school and the importance of taking breaks throughout the day.

“It’s not just the social media, but when lifestyles are changing the physiology is changing,” Ms. Van Gelder said. “But you’re still expected to sit and use a writing implement and listen and look, but does society really encourage that? There is a little gap that schools, especially the elementary, are really faced with trying to fill. We’re constantly evaluating the effectiveness of what we’re doing and this becomes a no-brainer.”

Photo caption: Mattituck-Cutchogue occupational therapist Erin Van Gelder (left) and special education director Tricia Desiderio have been working, with others, to incorporate mindfulness and social emotional learning into the classrooms for the last 1 1/2 years. (Credit: Nicole Smith) 

[email protected]