Stress, Anxiety, Pressure: Responding to the Teen Mental-Health Crisis with Mindfulness in Schools

Today’s teens face ever-increasing stress, anxiety, and pressure. With the digital world creating a fractured, image-based field that vies for so much of our attention, it is harder than ever for teens to navigate their inner worlds and social relationships. Mindfulness in schools offers one solution.

Mindfulness Director Initiative (MDI) is a groundbreaking model for responding to this crisis and the very real developmental needs of adolescents. MDI partners with educators to create school-based initiatives to bring mindfulness to students and other members of the school community by focusing on creating Mindfulness Director roles and supporting them in developing approaches unique to their school environment and needs.

With a number of successful programs already in place — including a collaboration with Shrewsbury High School in Massachusetts that launched in September — MDI is seeking to grow its impact and bring mindfulness to more schools.

iBme intern, Owen Henderson, sat down with Marc Waxman and Doug Worthen, who spearhead MDI, to find out more.

What does MDI do?
MDI makes the transformative power of mindfulness a reality for school communities by facilitating the comprehensive integration of mindfulness into schools through the Mindfulness Director Model. We match interested schools with highly qualified mindfulness directors and then provide implementation support that leads to a thriving culture of mindfulness in each partner school community. Our aim is to partner with schools of all demographics—public and private, urban and rural, financially strong and under-resourced. Together we form a sustainable and an ever-expanding network of school-based mindfulness programs.

There needs to be a place for adolescents to begin to figure out their minds and cultivate skills that lead to happier and healthier lives.

Why is this work important right now?
There is a long list of reasons… we need this more now than ever. There seems to be a mental-health crisis in adolescents: they are facing more stress, more anxiety, more pressure. Social media is obviously negatively impacting the lives of adolescents; it seems that adolescents are struggling to cope with their own existence. We are extremely optimistic about the future and want to help with this crisis.

We want to help kids cope with their minds more skillfully. Mindfulness helps them relate to their thoughts and emotions more skillfully. We want to create a laboratory for the mind! This doesn’t exist in high schools! There needs to be a place for adolescents to begin to figure out their minds and cultivate skills that lead to happier and healthier lives.

Starting with individuals and individual school communities is the beginning of systemic change. Part of what happens in mindfulness is that you begin to cultivate the ability to objectively see both yourself and the world; it brings self-awareness, social awareness, and that it brings awareness of systems. And we need this awareness more than ever right now.

Is there a wrong way to do this?
The wrong way to do it is requiring people to practice. It always has to be an invitation. If the teacher teaching it doesn’t practice extensively themselves, that is a risk and that is not ideal. Then a healthy skepticism. If any teacher is saying that the students should believe them without questioning and just believe the teacher and not trust their experience… that is another realm of it being problematic.

The wrong way to do it is requiring people to practice. It always has to be an invitation.

Moreover, MDI is going to be very aware of the need of its mindfulness directors to have trauma-sensitive mindfulness training. For adults and adolescents, the research is clear that there is a good percentage who have undergone trauma and there needs to be awareness for anyone who works with children.

What is the most successful program you have seen take shape?
Saint Andrew’s school is a wonderful example. Everything fell into the right place for this program. We found an experienced practitioner, Adam Ortman, who was excited to implement the mindfulness program at the school, and we also had an enthusiastic funder. We wanted to see what happens when we let this position grow over a couple of years. We helped support the position, trusting that the school would see the power of it and take on the position full time, and that is exactly what happened. The success of St. Andrew’s program gave us confidence. This is a good fit for a community!

When will this program go into effect?
We are building a nonprofit organization from the ground up to be able to fully implement our mission and programming. We are going to have someone starting as a mindfulness director in two weeks at Shrewsbury High School in Massachusetts, which is extremely exciting; we are going to see this play out in real time. This will be the first mindfulness director at a public school, as far as we know. However, we really hope to have the whole organization up and running for the 2020 school year.

We want to help kids cope with their minds more skillfully.

What makes MDI unique?
There are a lot of different types of programs that currently exist. Yet, none of them are as immersive as MDI. We are putting together a model that is comprehensive and integrative. An experienced practitioner can fully integrate into a community using our method. The mindfulness directors will be able to identify the best ways to meet the needs of that community because they are fully part of it. We believe that this method will be way more effective than simply plugging a mindfulness formula into what the schools already have. Instead we are saying, “how can we become part of the fabric of the school community in ways that really can change how schools operate on a systemic level?”

At the end of this conversation, Doug turned to me [Owen] and said, “We are trying to make my position available at other schools. How would your life be different without the mindfulness program at Middlesex?”

That certainly got me thinking … Read my answer here: Mindfulness: One Teen’s Experience.



IBME Mindfulness Director Initiative

IBME Mark Waxman MDIMarc Waxman has 25 years of professional experience in education, including becoming a National Board-Certified Teacher, and over 20 years of experience in non-profit development and management. He has been practicing mindfulness for many years.


IBME Doug Worthen MDIDoug Worthen is the Founder and Director of Mindfulness Programs at the Middlesex School in Concord, Massachusetts. Since 2010 he has been supporting and educating the Middlesex School community (students, staff, parents, and alumni) in mindfulness. Doug began practicing mindfulness meditation in 1999.