Pupils meditating in lotus position on desk in classroom

Presents of Mind

Houston is leading the nation in introducing mindfulness to school kids, and the results — more focus, less bullying — are starting to show.

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN a classroom of giggly, busy-bodied kids begins stretching and focusing on breathing is a lot like what happens when distracted, stressed adults center themselves on a yoga mat. The resulting calm is what drives the Pure Edge Foundation (formerly the Sonima Foundation) to bring yoga-inspired exercises into dozens of K-12 classrooms coast to coast, including 52 in HISD — the highest concentration of schools implementing the curriculum in any city. “Pure Edge teaches students how to exercise, eat right, breathe, relax and center themselves,” says Exec Director Terry Grier, the former HISD superintendent who initiated the Houston program in 2014. “We’re already seeing improvements.”

Motivated by staggering mental-health stats, like the fact that 3.2 million kids ages 7 to 17 have been treated for depression, PEF originally donated millions to schools so they could hire yoga professionals to instruct students. The program has evolved into two models to help kids handle everything from the pressures of high-stakes testing to problems at home. In one model, a teacher incorporates bitesized well-being lessons throughout the week. The second involves trained teachers giving biweekly wellness lessons. “These are auxiliary classes, like P.E. and music,” explains PEF’s Houston program manager Gill McLean. “Math and science seem to be more important, but if we place as much importance on well-being, and students deal with stress, they get better test scores.”

Like studying languages from a young age, showing children how to regulate their stress and emotions through mindfulness and breathing is thought to yield lifelong healthy coping skills. “It helps prepare kids for difficulties for the rest of their lives,” says physician John K. Graham, president of the Houston-based Institute for Spirituality and Health. But that’s not all: Graham, who practiced medicine for 20 years before going to seminary, says mindfulness and meditation have measurable physiological benefits. “Everything you want to name — cholesterol, blood pressure, hospitalizations, suicide rates — goes down, and a sense of wellbeing and longevity goes up.”

Grier and McClean have heard glowing anecdotal reports from teachers implementing the curriculum at schools like Rice and Whittier Elementary. “Kids went from being hyperactive to more focused, and we’ve cut suspensions by half at the high school level,” Grier says.

To further its mission, PEF is in the midst of a three-year study with Stanford University, which will use CAT scans, sleep studies and other scientific methods to measure the effects of its curriculum. Grier believes it’s only a matter of time before the findings help the foundation grow. “We will expand,” he says, “when it is real clear that kids who are socially and emotionally well have higher graduation rates and do better.”