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Finding calm in the storm

Chaplain creates culture of mindfulness at school

STAUNTON, Va. — The Stuart Hall auditorium was silent Tuesday afternoon as nearly 200 students gazed at a moving geometric shape projected on a screen, breathing in as it expanded and out as it collapsed.

After a few moments, the Rev. Connor Gwin broke the silence with a light ding of a singing bowl.

He explained that he had planned on using that day’s chapel to discuss All Saints Day but changed course after he realized they’d reached a stressful point in the semester. For the next 30 minutes, Gwin talked the group through a three-point strategy for stress management — notice the storm, ride the wave, find an anchor.

The session was a typical afternoon in chapel under Gwin’s tenure at Stuart Hall. The chaplain has made mindfulness a priority in his work with students from preschool through 12th grade and hopes to create a culture of calm at the high-achieving, 175-year-old Episcopal private school.

“The whole game is to increase the space between stimulus and response,” Gwin said. “So for teenagers, where that gap is minuscule, if I can build in one breath … then I think I’ve been successful. I’m under no illusions that the entire student body is going to be floating around … and chanting through lunch.”

Professor and researcher Jon Kabat-Zinn describes mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” Mindfulness practices have become increasingly popular in schools in recent years, as young people report high levels of stress and studies suggest mindfulness practice may benefit student attentiveness and behavior and relieve anxiety.

The chaplain said he started his own meditation practice about 10 years ago, when his father died while he was in seminary. Gwin found that his usual coping mechanisms weren’t bringing him peace.

“I needed some kind of deep connection, but church wasn’t working, saying prayers wasn’t working — I was just so wrapped in grief,” he said. “So I (thought), ‘Can I just sit silently?’ … and that got the ball rolling.”

Once Gwin learned about meditation, he said he wondered whether adolescence might have felt less turbulent if he’d had those tools as a teen. That sparked an interest in teaching mindfulness to teens when he worked with youth ministries across southwest Virginia, and he made the mindset a priority when he became chaplain at Stuart Hall two years ago.

At Stuart Hall, students begin each day with an assembly that includes morning announcements, reminders and breathing exercises. They also practice mindfulness at chapel every other day, which the chaplain said is not only an opportunity for students to check in with themselves but also a way to incorporate spirituality without alienating members of the school’s diverse student body.

Plus, the practice may help ground students who feel pressure to perform in a high-achieving environment. Simply telling them not to worry about tests or applying to colleges often isn’t effective, but giving them tools to manage stress and anxiety could be beneficial in the long run, Gwin said.

“It’s what I call an achievement-free zone. No one’s going to win at chapel. It doesn’t go on your resume. It’s not part of your grades at the end of the semester,” he said. “What I like to say is that it’s a place to make sure that your head is where your feet are.”

Sophomore Sophia Schwaner didn’t know much about mindfulness before Gwin came to the school. She said the techniques and concepts taught by the chaplain have aided her both in and outside of school, and the discussions about stress and anxiety during chapel have reassured overwhelmed students that they’re not alone.

“The vibe that I get being in chapel — it’s very different from what people would think would go on in a Christian school,” she said. “I think it’s a really effective way to approach finding that calmness in your life, as opposed to attaching it to one strict religion.”

For Gwin, bringing mindfulness to preschool and elementary school students has required more creativity.

He shakes an oversized mason jar filled with water and blue glitter to help them focus on breathing, a strategy that the school now uses to settle children who are sent to the office, he said. They also practice attentive eating and walking, and read children’s books about mindfulness.

On Tuesday, Gwin decided to bring story time to chapel at the upper school. After reading the middle and high schoolers a children’s book about finding peace, he reminded them that their value isn’t determined by their grades or accomplishments — that they are “known and loved” for simply being.

“When everything feels like it’s crashing down on and you’re overwhelmed, you can notice the storm. Notice why you might be feeling the way you’re feeling. Notice what you’re feeling. Ride that wave,” he said during the assembly. “This too shall pass. And I hope you can find an anchor and share your peace.”