NEW YORK – Take a deep breath. Relax your body. And exhale slowly through your mouth.
Then repeat six times.
In New York City, everyone from preschoolers to high school students will be required to do similar exercises during classes next fall after Mayor Eric Adams announced Tuesday that all public schools will be required to offer two to five minutes of mindful breathing exercises each day.
Adams, who often talks about the benefits of healthy eating, mindfulness and fitness in his life, presented the plan as a simple and “easy” way to build students’ emotional skills and deal with the pandemic-exacerbated youth mental health crisis, citing research showing breathing exercises can reduce stress and increase alertness.
“Thousands of years ago, other cultures learned to breathe,” Adams said in a statement at PS 5 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. But in today’s world, “they never taught us,” he said.
“We think air just goes in and out of our nose and we move. No, breathing is a science,” the mayor added before closing his eyes and doing a student-led breathing exercise.
Tuesday’s announcement came after some activists and families called for a stronger local approach to youth mental health and criticized a proposal to cut funding from the city’s budget for a program that connects high-needs schools with mental health clinics and provides mobile response teams for students in crisis.
But Adams said the effort was just an inexpensive and smart way to improve student well-being and help kids learn the precious but forgotten “beginning of something that is one of the oldest things in humanity.”
New York’s breathing exercise requirement reflects the increased focus school districts across the country have placed on student well-being in recent years as they grapple with rising levels of anxiety, depression, self-harm and other mental health issues in children and teens.
For example, in Los Angeles County, students through twelfth grade are receiving virtual mental health services under a new plan that was implemented earlier this year. And in Illinois, a new law has just gone into effect that allows students to take up to five days off from school due to mental health issues.
At the nation’s largest education system, Adams and principal David S. Banks said all high school students will soon be able to receive virtual mental health support for the first time through the new program, though full details have yet to be announced.
“People often ask me: “What are you doing? Children go through a lot. What are your mental health programs?” Banks said. “There is nothing more important we can teach our children than mindfulness and mindful breathing.”
However, some elected officials, teachers, and families are calling for a more comprehensive approach to addressing mental health needs and disadvantaged students in particular. New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli found that in the 2020-2021 school year, the city’s schools were not adequately prepared to deal with the youth mental health crisis. Since then, education officials have made several changes, including giving each school access to a social worker or mental health clinic.
Don Yuster, director of the School Justice Project at the nonprofit Child Advocacy for Education, said she remained very concerned about the administration’s proposal to cut $5 million from the mental health initiative at about 50 high-needs schools where the level of police intervention for emotionally distressed students is very high.
The program offers students access to faster mental health care, links schools to clinics, and provides mobile crisis teams that can help with urgent needs. A city spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the proposed reduction.
Yuster acknowledges that mindfulness and breathing exercises can have a “real impact” on students. But he added that “of course, this is not a replacement for other really important programs and services that are in danger of disappearing.”
Classroom in the Bronx, January 27, 2023. (Thalia Juarez/The New York Times)