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Ladue Schools’ Wellness Classes Help Students Mind Their Mental Health

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With a routine of seemingly endless screen time – from social media on smartphones to schoolwork on tablets morning, noon and night – today’s kids never stop.

That insight is partly what inspired Stephanie O’Neal, who has been a physical education teacher for 24 years at Ladue Schools, to take aim at addressing not only students’ physical health but also their mental and emotional health – in the form of creating a class called Holistic Wellness at Ladue Horton Watkins High School.

“Everyone needs to take time to find quiet and stillness,” O’Neal says, noting it’s important to “Be here now.”

Those three words form the core of the holistic wellness curriculum O’Neal teaches at the high school, and they also influence the classes she teaches for sixth through eighth graders at Ladue Middle School.

The holistic wellness class launched at an ideal time, says LHWHS Principal Brad Griffith: as the COVID-19 pandemic began. “While the class was not created as a result of the pandemic, the timing was perfect for our students, as stress and anxiety rates are on the rise everywhere,” Griffith notes.

Each class starts with a daily check-in on students’ well-being. Participants write an entry in their private journals in response to a cue provided by O’Neal: “I’ll ask, ‘How is your mindset today?,’ ‘What do you need to let go of today?,’ ‘What do you love most about yourself?,’ or ‘What are you grateful for?’”

The session continues with mindfulness activities, such as walking outside in nature, yoga or Pilates. “I play mellow music, ask them to relax, let go, and be present with themselves and connect with their breath,” O’Neal explains. “I’ll say, ‘Picture your happiest place’ … Whether it’s on a beach or at the top of a mountain or in your bedroom … if you’re stressed about anything from a test to the big game, go to that perfect place … to find calm.”

O’Neal notes that mental, social and physical health are all connected, and class participants have reported improved focus on their other academic and athletic pursuits, as well as better stress and anxiety management. “It’s about finding what you need each day,” she says. “If you’re not mentally healthy, you will not want to exercise and eat healthy, and if you’re not staying connected with yourself, you’re not being mindful.”

Most students have elected to take the “sold-out class,” which also includes a research project on a related topic, such as the importance of eating a healthy breakfast, practicing self-care, healthy sleep habits, proper hydration and good hygiene, O’Neal says. She adds that students have the opportunity to teach on mindfulness-based activities, like writing poetry, gardening or cooking.

“The kids really, really love it,” she notes. “I get 100 percent participation from the students, and some will come up after the class and say, ‘I tried so hard today,’ or ‘Oh, I needed that.’ There are no rules. Yoga is always a practice – it’s not about being perfect. It’s like life – if you fall down, you get up and try again.”

Griffith says the passion O’Neal brings to the class every day is reflected in enrollment growth over the last two years and student engagement in the course. “We are confident that the skills students learn in Holistic Wellness are immediately transferable to our traditional academic courses and, more importantly, as lifelong skills,” Griffith says.

Ladue Schools Superintendent Dr. Jim Wipke says the district’s board of education has been very supportive in allocating resources in the area of social, emotional and mental health, which has allowed the class to expand to more grade levels. “To further support students’ well-being this school year, elements of the holistic wellness course are being taught in our middle school and piloted at the elementary level,” Wipke says.

Additionally, Ladue Schools has extended wellness offerings to staff members. “[O’Neal] also conducts wellness sessions as part of our professional development for all of our district faculty and staff,” Griffith says.

Due to the popularity and positive results of the holistic wellness class, it will be continuing into the foreseeable future, O’Neal says. And many students are practicing mindfulness beyond Ladue Schools. “Last year, a student who took the class is in college now, and he is getting a yoga certification on the side,” O’Neal says. “I am so grateful for the opportunity to share what I love with my students.”

Ladue Schools, 9703 Conway Road, St. Louis, 314-994-7080, ladueschools.net

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