Ryan Teaches Mindfulness to Early College Students

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – After a few minutes of silence, the students at Rayen Early College Middle School slowly opened their eyes.

“What was going through your head just now?” congressman Tim Ryan asked them.

Among the first answers: food, sleep and candy.

“I’m seeing a common theme here,” the U.S. representative, D-13 Ohio, said with a laugh.

Other students chimed in with basketball, marching band, what to do that afternoon after school and video games. Once all of their thoughts had been aired, Ryan continued.

“OK, we’re going to do this again. And this time, when that thought comes out, catch yourself having that thought,” he said. “That’s what we call the moment of awareness. You’re aware of what you’re thinking about. That’s what separates us from all other creatures. This is a precious gift you have.”

And the room returned to silence once again.

This year, a group of sixth-through-eighth grade students are reading Ryan’s book, A Mindful Nation, to learn how to deal with the stress that accompanies their lives both in and out of school. Over the course of the hour-long session, Ryan talked the students through breathing techniques and thought processes they can use when they feel stress or anxiety.

“Stress is stress. Rich people have stress and poor people have stress,” Ryan told them. “And there are different ways to alleviate it, but it all has the same effect on the mind and body.”

As for what concerned students, many had similar answers, generally focusing on their schooling or interactions with classmates and friends.

“The stress is worrying whether or not this paper is going to be turned in on time. Or thinking what my teacher is going to say about it in the morning,” said Aalissia Thomas about what makes her anxious. “I worry about people’s approval – I know my mom tells me I have to stop – and it’s one of my biggest fears, knowing that what someone says about me could dictate how I look at other people.”

After the session with Ryan, many of the students, including Thomas, said they felt better than before they entered the room and that they should be better able to handle stress when it arises.

“It helped me feel calmer in myself and helped me realize I can stop myself from thinking too much about my future or my past,” Thomas said. “A lot of times, people don’t realize how to stop in the moment and this book and Congressman Ryan have assured us that we have to stop and live in the now.”

As part of his discussion with the students, Ryan relayed how he first encountered mindfulness, how such techniques have helped him personally and professionally and how students can approach stressful situations.

“Our kids come with so much trauma and so much going on that if we can teach them how to release that in a positive way, we can prevent an incident that might end badly for them,” said Rayen Early College Principal Debbie DiFrancesco. “Our most important job is to teach them to be the best adult they can be and this is a big part of that.”

Across the Mahoning Valley, Ryan noted, schools are beginning to adopt mindfulness practices as part of their social and emotional learning curriculums. Ryan, who adopted the practice later in life, said no age is too early to start teaching how to deal with stress.

“I was burnt out. I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to keep being a congressman,” Ryan told the students. “I wrote this book because I wish someone had taught me how to do this when I was sitting in your seat. I believe that all of my relationships would have been better, that all of my professional [life] would have better if I knew then what I know now.”

As part of the curriculum, the students will travel to Washington, D.C., near the end of the school year to meet again with Ryan and discuss what they’ve learned over the course of the school year. Students will also go to the chapel in the Capitol where Ryan and other members of Congress practice mindfulness.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.