It’s that time of year already, as kids are heading back to school.

Unlike last year, many students will be attending class in person – unless the COVID-19 situation prompts changes – and that’s something that many kids haven’t done in a while. After what was maybe the most stressful time of many people’s lives since the pandemic reached Southwestern Pennsylvania in March of 2020, many schools are adding a new tool to help kids cope with stress and anxiety and improve attention span and mood.

The Chill Project

The Chill Project seeks to teach students some mindfulness techniques and give them tools to try to be more attentive and less stressed and anxious.

“The Chill Project provides a multi-tiered and evidenced-based behavioral health program to schools in which mindfulness is a key skill that is taught and practiced with students and teachers,” said Dr. William Davies, Program manager of the Chill Project by Allegheny Health Network and Jefferson Counseling. “The skill sets we teach are applicable to most ages and practicing mindfulness skills have been proven to reduce the stress reaction, improve attention and stabilize mood.”

Davies said in the case of individuals who are living with medical concerns, mindfulness skills have been proven to reduce the perception of pain and helps to allow people to live fuller lives in the moment.

The Chill Project uses a custom-made, evidenced-based coping skill curriculum which is an idea spreading into classrooms across the country.

“We bring a wide range of coping skills to a school community,” Davies said. “Mindfulness is one of those skills and it is a skill that we utilize as the foundation for our work.”

Davies said the idea behind The Chill Project came from a belief that behavioral health institutions were not doing enough to serve an entire school community in a way that is proactive rather than limited and reactive.

In other words, if you help teach kids how to be more mindful and how to handle stress and anxiety, you might be preventing other behavioral problems from happening.

How does the program work?

“We are embedded in schools five days a week, and not only provide education to students, but also to teachers who need an opportunity to de-stress and be more present for themselves, their families and their students,” Davies said. “We teach such skills through our Chill Room, which is a designated space within each school where our lessons occur but is also available for individual and small group assistance. We also provide traditional school-based therapy, adding another tier to our approach.”

The Chill Project started with just a few pilot school districts including Baldwin Whitehall and West Jefferson Hills. Davies said the program is still going strong in both and seeing great success. This fall, more than 15 schools will be involved including Pleasant Hills Middle School, Thomas Jefferson High School, Carnegie Elementary, South Park elementary, middle and high Schools, Chartiers Valley High School and Beaver County Career and Technical School.

How to be mindful

Mindfulness has gotten a lot of publicity over the past few years and is a growing trend toward focusing on wellness, reducing anxiety and being present in the moment – as compared to the “multi-tasking” behavior that was promoted for decades as the pinnacle of production.

At some point, many people’s minds can only handle so much, and they end up overwhelmed or not doing any one thing well.

“Mindfulness skills have been proven to reduce the symptoms of anxiety, depression, provide a stabilizing factor to people during a stress response, improve interpersonal relationships, and allow people to enjoy the color and fullness that is the present moment,” Davies said. “We are often consumed with our thoughts, thinking about the past and the future. In such a mindset, we miss the fullness of the current moment that can bring us satisfaction and fulfillment to our lives.”

Davies said living mindfully is a state of being and a way of life. It can de-escalate tense situations and moments of rage and help people recognize we are in a state of stress and need to calm down rather than react.

“When we start to have a stress reaction, the high-level decision-making part of your brain is starting to shut off, which is dangerous,” says Davies. “The part of your brain that deals with life and death is starting to kick in and that part of our brain isn’t well suited for higher-level decision making. We can use some deep breathing techniques to quickly kick the higher-level decision-making part of your brain back in and better decisions can arise.”

Participants in The Chill Project have access to one-to-one counseling, support groups, medication management, school-based outpatient services, school-wide preventive services, professional development opportunities, a social-emotional curriculum and classroom consultations and exercises and consultations specifically designed for student athletes.

For more information on the program, call Davies at 412-650-1116.

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