Q&A: Stress management techniques can help eliminate barriers to learning

The numbers are alarming. Up to one in five U.S. children has a diagnosable mental health issue such as anxiety or depression. Yet only one-third will receive treatment.

Lucy Vezzuto

Dr. Lucy Vezzuto, OCDE’s coordinator of social-emotional learning and student mental health

Dr. Lucy Vezzuto knows the statistics all too well. More important, she knows these disorders can be barriers to learning if they’re not addressed.

As OCDE’s coordinator of social-emotional learning and student mental health, Vezzuto and her team support administrators, teachers, counselors and other youth-serving professionals throughout the county by providing research-based training and technical assistance to promote positive school climates and greater student well-being.

She also heads up OCDE’s Resilient Mindful Learner Project, which empowers educators with strategies to help students cope with stress in their lives, leveraging mindfulness and other techniques.

In all of her work, the goal is to make children healthier, more resilient and more successful in school.

We recently sat down with Vezzuto to talk about the latest mental health trends, the Resilient Mindful Learner Project, misconceptions about mindfulness and the impact of stress management on learning.

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What are some of the bigger trends you are seeing in mental health these days?

Well, when we look at the stats, we see that 20 percent of youth from ages 9 to about 19 have a diagnosable mental health issue. And only about a third of those will be getting treatment. And I heard one talk, a doctor, give a great analogy for Orange County. Think of Angel Stadium with a crowd of 30,000. Now think of three Angel Stadiums full of OC kids. That’s the number that has a diagnosable mental health issue. But only one of those stadiums are going to get treatment.

We’re also seeing some trends, in general, of school professionals recognizing that students suffer from mental health issues. Seven years ago, when I offered trainings, I had small numbers of folks in my trainings. Now, I’m filling my trainings up. The other trends that we’re seeing are reports from principals and teachers of younger and younger kids showing emotional health issues, including depression and suicide ideation.

Do you think there is a focus now on the whole child and addressing social-emotional issues that didn’t exist twenty, thirty years ago?

In the ’70s, we did focus on social-emotional health a lot more. We did focus on childhood stress, and it kind of just went away for a couple of decades. So what I’m seeing is a little more openness of school leaders to acknowledge that it’s not just about academics.

(Orange County Superintendent) Dr. Al Mijares is one of the major leaders in the county that has really embraced social-emotional learning. But I am hearing more and more California school leaders saying that they value that, and I’m getting phone calls to do trainings.

When you talk about diagnosable mental health issues, are there specific areas that stand out?

The most common in youth is anxiety disorders, and this is an extreme case of not being able to handle stress. Another mental health issue is youth depression. And now in teens, the number two cause of death is suicide. It used to be number three only a few years ago. No. 1 is accidents, teen accidents.

Tell us about OCDE’s Resilient Mindful Learner Project.

Well, it has two aims. No. 1, it works with teachers and others who work with kids to build and cultivate their resilience, their wellness, their ability to be good role models of coping with stress. And then the second aim is to help those individuals incorporate stress management skills into their classroom settings, after-school settings or any settings in which they work with kids.

So it’s about introducing healthy ways to manage stress?

It teaches that stress really is about our reaction to those things that happen to us in life, and each of us has to find a way to handle those in a healthy way. And that’s the same for adults and for kids.

How does mindfulness tie in with that?

I use the medical model of stress management in my trainings and have expanded it to be inclusive of mindfulness. Mindfulness, if done regularly in an authentic way, one of the outcomes of it is reduced stress. But mindfulness is a lot more than that. The outcomes can be positive relationships, developing more empathy and, physiologically-wise, improving the immune system. So while it is a way to reduce stress, it’s also a perspective on life.

How would you define mindfulness?

Mindfulness is the ability to be present, with curiosity and non-judgment in the moment. That’s a common definition of Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn from the University of Massachusetts, who brought mindfulness-based stress reduction to the medical community in the ’70s.

With mindfulness, you have practices that you do in order to get yourself to that state of being mindful. Contemplative exercises, such as focusing on the breath, are one of those. Another way is a body scan, focusing one’s attention and awareness on parts of your body. Another way is mindful walking. So there are a lot of exercises that can get you to the point of being mindful.

It’s not about having an empty mind. It’s not anything like that. It’s not religious. It’s just a perspective on being present and reducing distraction. But what I’m concerned about is that it’s being distorted and considered as a selfish or narcissistic practice.  

Is mindfulness training part of the Resilient Mindful Learner Project?

Yes. I introduce what mindfulness is. We do mindfulness practices through our training session and then we have an all-day mindfulness retreat. I bring in individuals who are certified in mindfulness-based stress reduction — specifically who teach at the UCI Samueli Center for Integrative Integrated Medicine. So from the very beginning, they start the practice of trying to be present without judgment in a curious way.

How would you describe its impact on school climates or academic performance or other areas educators tend to track?

Looking at adults, there is 30-some years of research that shows that consistent practice of mindfulness has a lot of benefits in health and wellness, such as lowered perceived stress and improved relationships.

Our teachers are saying, I’m present for students. I stop before I react and pause before I respond. We have data that shows the symptoms of burnout are reduced, their mindful awareness increased. In areas of burnout, we saw specifically that teachers look at kids’ behaviors in different ways. They don’t personalize it so much. And the other impact that we’re seeing through our data is they feel more accomplished in the profession.

In kids, the research is evolving. On our website I have research showing some of the impacts of mindfulness in K-12 students. For youth, we are seeing perceived stress being reduced. We’re also seeing some global health improvements in certain kids in classrooms where teachers are very consistent about doing stress management practices.

So what does that have to do with learning? Well, they’re able to calm themselves down so they can focus and concentrate. It can also help them get along better with their peers.

Besides mindfulness, what are some other stress management tools presented through the Resilient Mindful Learner Project?

Diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, imagery practice, gratitude, collegial support and community building — the opportunity for participants to share their stories, share the impact that stress has on them with other colleagues. So the community and support factor is a big one.

What other kinds of trainings do you provide throughout the year?

We provide trainings on suicide prevention, because this year the state mandated that all school districts have a suicide prevention policy that includes prevention, intervention and post-vention.

We’re offering and responding to issues around self-harm. We’re bringing down Jennifer Johnson from Cal State Stanislaus, who is an expert in the area. We are offering training on trauma-informed education to help adults understand what trauma is and how to support youth who have experienced adverse experiences in life. We’re also offering a stand-alone, one-day mindfulness retreat for anyone who wants to come. We haven’t done that specifically before so I’m excited about that. And we offer a lot of trainings on restorative practices, which is an alternative approach to discipline that really brings in student voice and builds community.

You are obviously very passionate about social-emotional learning. What is the ideal outcome of your work?

The ideal is that social-emotional learning, in all its aspects of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, responsible decision-making and relationship skills, becomes an integrated part of our educational system, and that educators really get that academics is not a cold, rational thing. It’s really intertwined with emotional health, and we must look at kids as very complicated, intricate, human beings that need a whole range of skills to be healthy in life and in work.