Written by Elinor Aspegren
Four Gunn High School students are pushing for several ideas of their own, including a plan to bring a wellness program to Gunn called Youth Empowerment Seminar (YES!).
YES! is a program which offers youth practical tools and life skills to manage stress and emotions. It is a five-week program that will take place in physical education (PE) classes.
Principal Denise Herrmann came to the Mental Wellness committee – sophomore Chloe Sorenson, juniors Cole McFaul and Sarah Reich and senior Rose Weinmann – with this idea after being contacted by YES!. “I was approached by YES! who said, ‘we really think that the things we are doing at other high schools could be really beneficial at Gunn,’” she said. The committee listened to a presentation about the group and agreed to investigate further.
After the initial stage, Gunn Student Executive Council and Palo Alto High School (Paly)’s Associated Student Body participated in a 90-minute pilot program. Sophomore class president Sorenson not only planned the pilot program but also attended it. “They led us through a bunch of different exercises and they didn’t lecture a lot,” she said. “There were a lot of engaging activities like games and icebreakers.” Sorenson was surprised that by the end of the program, she had not only learned how to manage her stress, but also made a lot of friends from Paly.
Junior class vice president Cole McFaul’s concerns of the legitimacy of the program were assuaged with the pilot program. “ I initially reacted with a little bit of skepticism about the whole program. It seems ridiculous that breathing exercises can help with stress but the YES pilot program showed that the exercises really do help with so much.” Both members of the Mental Wellness Committee believe that this program, which will take place in freshman Physical Education classes, will be helpful not only because of the wellness aspect but also because it will allow kids to get to know each other.
According to Herrmann, the committee knew that this program would be helpful and well received. “The students understand that high school is stressful,” she said. “But they only have a few tools [to manage stress] and they really would be interested in learning more.”
PE teacher and mental wellness committee adviser Amy Anderson said that the teachers agree that this program would be a good thing for Gunn. “While the foundation of our current curriculum supports overall health and well being, a few teachers in our department have already begun to incorporate wellness activities and lessons into our units by teaching yoga, meditation and breathing techniques to reduce stress and promote wellness and balance,” she said.
Sorenson hopes that this program will teach kids how to manage stress. “A lot of the things that the district and the parents and the community have been focusing on is reducing academic stress as a whole, but I think another thing that’s important is how to deal with it,” she said. McFaul hopes that students will use the tools presented in this program to adapt to the stressors of high school. “In other schools in which the program has been implemented, reports show that students are well adapted for all stressors that can be thrown at them,” he said.
One of the resources that the YES! program provides is mindfulness. Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present, which involves living in the moment and not worrying about the future. According to Herrmann, this strategy has many positive effects. “The research that is out [about mindfulness] now shows that it is one of the most impactful kinds of interventions for students that impacts their mental well being,” she said. Studies show that students that use mindfulness before taking a test score better than their counterparts who do not. Anderson has seen the impact other tools presented in the YES! program have had on students. “Some students have really latched on to the idea of mediation and have already begun to incorporate this into their weekly schedules,” she said.
The mental wellness committee that approved this program was originally formed for the purpose of educating the school about mental health. Chloe Sorenson and Cole McFaul formed it in November after hearing a speech from alum Ori Herschman about things that the group could do to help the committee. Besides the YES! program, this committee has started to implement several other agendas. “We are still in the very beginning stages of the group, but we have already set up a referral box where you can refer a friend to the counselor’s office and we hope to start an education campaign about the signs of depression in the future which will hopefully happen later this year,” McFaul said.