PHOTO BY PAULA MULLER
Violaine Gueritault leads students Camille Comstock, center, and Delainey Bostley in meditation in the Zen Room at Marblehead High School.
By GAYLA CAWLEY
MARBLEHEAD — Students are offered a unique chance to relax and relieve anxiety at Marblehead High School.
The meditation and mindfulness program was founded two years ago at the high school by Violaine Gueritault, a French and Latin teacher. Gueritault is also a psychologist and clinician, whose Ph.D. was on stress management.
“It’s always been something very important to me and I was just really getting to the point where I thought the earlier we instill people with good and effective stress management techniques and effective strategies, the more chances we have to avoid all problems that can last for a lifetime,” Gueritault said.
The program has been a hit with students. They get the chance to meditate for two to five minutes before some of their classes, participate in the Zen Club, which includes yoga, and after school and during study halls they can stop by the Zen Room, which was added last year off the library. There, with a teacher, they can practice guided mindfulness, which is a moment by moment awareness of our thoughts, emotions, sensation and surrounding environment, and breathing exercises.
Emma DaRocha, 15, a sophomore, said she participates in the club and does a few minutes of meditation before her math class.
“It just relaxes me before class and math can be hard, but doing the meditation, it calms everyone down,” she said.
Mercedez Pelletier, 15, a sophomore, said she decided to give meditation a try because she heard it helps with relaxation. She practices it in the morning sometimes and before every math class.
“It lets my mind not be so flustered with everything that’s going on in high school,” she said.
Keshaun Agnew, 15, a sophomore, said meditation helps him wake up and get his mind ready for school. He added that it clears his mind and relaxes him.
“I feel like it’s helping my grades this year,” he said.
Meghan Dutton, a special education teacher, who also co-teaches geometry, said her students practice mindfulness during the first two to four minutes of every class. She said there’s about six other teachers, including Gueritault, who start their classes similarly.
Dutton, a certified yoga instructor who is also certified with Mindful Schools, a California-based organization that trains educators in mindfulness, also has Zen Room duty, where she’ll help students practice mindful breathing, walking and movement, yoga and guided meditations.
She said she wants to shorten her sessions in the room to 20 minutes to attract more students.
Dutton said research shows that mindfulness practices help to build emotional regulation, improve memory, attention and focus and build clarity. She said test scores may increase.
“Mindful practice allows anyone — teens, adults — an opportunity to practice these tools when they’re in a state of ease so when anxiety, nervousness may arise, because mindfulness doesn’t mean that there won’t be stress … but it does mean that now we have some tools to manage.”
Gueritault said when the program started, she offered two morning sessions of meditation a week, from 7:15-7:45 a.m.
She was convinced that no students would show up for weeks, and that they would make fun of her for the idea, but was surprised to find that from the first day, teenagers came. She started integrating meditation, mindfulness and awareness classes.
Later that year, she began offering guided meditation to any student who had a study hall throughout the school day in the conference room of the library. The program attracted up to 50 students daily.
Students began to talk to their teachers, who became interested, and a stress management mindfulness workshop for teachers was added in the spring of that year.
She holds additional mindfulness workshops, which are open to any educators from the school district, who can then bring the techniques they learned back to their own classrooms.
Gueritault said students have told her that meditation instantly calms them down. She said they reported feeling rested in the sense of feeling grounded, centered and calm. She’s been told that they feel focused and energetic.
During high school, she said students have nonstop schedules, waking up early, and after making it through the school day, most of them have sports, followed by hours of homework after getting home at night. They deal with social and academic pressures and are often exhausted and sleep deprived.
“It (meditation and mindfulness) allows them to recharge their batteries, to refocus, to regroup, to ground themselves,” Gueritault said. “That helps them basically get through the day and continue to just like perform … in the way that they’re not going to completely collapse in complete exhaustion.”
Gayla Cawley can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @GaylaCawley.