‘It makes me feel like a better person’: Newark students learn how to teach meditation to their peers

After his brother was shot and killed in alleged gang violence three years ago, Tyrell Williams had trouble controlling his temper — until he tried meditating. Now, he wants to teach his peers how to meditate, too.

The Weequahic High School junior and nine other students, including one from East Side and another from LEAD Charter School, are training to become “meditation mentors.” They’re halfway through an eight-week intensive program at school that teaches them how to facilitate meditation groups.

The Newark students are so motivated that they come to school one hour early every day to practice meditating, regulating their breathing, and calming their mind. They also meet for several hours on Saturday to deeply self-reflect, do yoga, and learn games and exercises to facilitate meditation groups for people of all ages.

“After I meditate in the mornings, I’m calm for the rest of the day,” Williams said, adding that it’s helped him relieve stress related to his brother’s death. 

Jennifer Kohl, who facilitates meditation sessions and started yoga classes at the school a year ago, said the students practice mindfulness, a non-religious meditative practice that has become a popular aid to treating health problems, including chronic pain, and to dealing with life’s pressures. Increasingly, schools also are teaching mindfulness to help stressed-out students.

“Meditation is the practice of observing what’s going on, without reacting to it. It’s the practice of observing thought pattern and sensation, and the process of observing your environment, externally and internally,” she said. “You sit in stillness, and the brain starts to quiet, and at the same time, you’re observing what’s happening around you.”

Kohl has students practice mindfulness activities. One day, for instance, she had them pick a positive word and create a necklace or bracelet with the word spelled out with colorful lettered beads, focusing on that word the entire time. 

“We’re doing something quiet and peaceful, and it helps them feel safe and supported, which affects the brain,” Kohl said. She said that’s especially impactful on teenagers, whose brains are still developing. “Because of that, meditation is setting them up for success.”

Music video director and producer Director X’s TEDx Talk, which advocates for meditation to prevent violence, inspired the meditation program at Weequahic High.

Almost half of New Jersey’s children have experienced trauma, which can negatively affect classroom performance, behavior, and health, and can increase the likelihood of ending up in jails. Childhood trauma has been found to affect black and Hispanic students disproportionately, and about 90% of Newark students are black or Hispanic.

Superintendent Roger León backs the meditation and yoga classes. 

“Can you imagine how many kids are not learning simply because they’re not in the right mental state?” he said at the initiative’s launch last Thursday. “This work we’re launching today, is going to make an incredible impact, not only in our school system, but in the homes of these young people and the lives of their friends.”

The district won $6.5 million in grants this year for student mental health, and schools are offering more support to students, like counseling services and “grief baskets” of items to help students coping with loss. District officials, including León, have spoken out about prioritizing student mental health needs and care for students who have experienced trauma, and student mental health is a recurring topic at school board meetings. 

Thomas Owens, executive director of MENTOR Newark, which is partnering with local organizations Lotus Yoga and the Hanini Group to provide the classes, said he thinks the district’s recent focus on student mental health is a “large part” of why they joined the initiative. 

Schools across the county have adopted meditation, which research suggests helps practitioners deal with trauma and lessen anxiety — though mindfulness practices in schools are largely experimental. In Chicago, a meditation program aimed at addressing trauma in youths who live in poverty and among violence has led to fewer arguments in school but has made some students feel uncomfortable. Students in Washington, D.C., however, love their weekly meditation sessions, and in nearby New York City, one principal told Chalkbeat that incorporating meditation during the school day increased academic performance at her school.

Many of the meditation mentors at Weequahic, which offers yoga as part of physical education and an alternative disciplinary measure, were skeptical of participating in the program at first. Williams was suspended a few months ago for recording a fight between two students. When he came back to school, he was sent to practice yoga. 

“The first day, I didn’t really want to do it because I thought it was corny,” he said. “Then, I started to really like it.”

After a few weeks, Kohl encouraged Williams to also join the mentorship program.

“I’ve enjoyed it a lot more than I expected,” he said. “It’s helped my temper. I used to get mad fast, but not now.”

Four years ago, Weequahic had a high suspension rate, but Principal Andre Hollis said in a 2018 Chalkbeat interview that he’s tried to steer the school toward “restorative practices,” which are designed to help students reflect on their actions and make better choices, rather than sending them out of school.

León said last week that attendance and discipline have improved at Weequahic, which he partially attributes to a focus on student mental health.

“We can only come to a couple of conclusions,” he said. “On the list of things we can say are responsible for it, I have to add meditation.”

After the intensive 8-week portion, students will spend three months completing a practicum before they graduate. Then, Kohl hopes the student mentors will teach meditation classes throughout Newark. The mentors plan to work with elementary-age Newark children this summer, and Kohl is hopeful the students will be hired — by the district, city, or other local organizations — to facilitate meditation and mindfulness sessions.

Williams is already spreading the word and the practice.

“I’ve started teaching my two friends who got suspended how to meditate,” he said. “It’s helped them a lot. It makes me feel like a better person, teaching other people.”