Just breathe: DOE to require breathing exercises for public school students

New York City public school students demonstrate breathing exercises during an announcement by New York City Mayor Eric Adams and Schools Chancellor David Banks on the introduction of mindful breathing practices to all New York City public schools at P.S. 005 Dr. Ronald McNair in Brooklyn on Tuesday, June 27, 2023.
Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

Public school students across New York City will be required to practice breathing exercises in the classroom for a few minutes each day starting next school year, as part of a new plan to improve mental health. 

Mayor Eric Adams and Schools Chancellor David Banks announced the new requirement on Tuesday morning at P.S. 005 Dr. Ronald McNair in Brooklyn. Adams suggested that schools have the discretion to use funding to hire a social worker who could be involved with the mindful breathing program.

At the June 27 presser, Adams and Banks and Banks also announced the launch of the New York City Department of Education’s Yoga and Mindfulness Teacher Preparation Program — an initiative hizzoner called a first in the nation. The yoga teacher training program is the only one of its kind to be managed by a public school system, and approved by the Yoga Alliance, the largest nonprofit representing the U.S. yoga community.

Adams touched upon the need to address the root causes preventing students from fully achieving their potentials, and how this means going beyond only preparing students academically.

“We teach them algebra, trigonometry, history, and English, and all of those things that they could be prepared to get a job,” Adams said. “But we don’t teach them how to be emotionally intelligent (and) things needed to to keep a job.”

The mayor asked whether students are being prepared to confront stress, manage and navigate complex emotions, and interact with different people. Adams referenced his mother’s death in March 2021 and recalled how “very, very painful” the loss was for him, especially in the midst of campaigning to be New York City’s next mayor.

“I had to find some self-care while I was running to be mayor,” Adams said. “In our pathway of building these many rivers to optimum health and wellbeing, we are announcing one of the ways of doing this.”

Adams credited the calm he maintained throughout his mayoral campaign to the breathing exercises he’d do before going on debates. He said that doing these breathing exercises has helped him to calm his nervous system and regain a sense of balance and focus.

“The simplicity of it is just breathing,” he said. “There’s a science to breathing. You are about to teach these children, these scholars, the basic principle of something that is one of the oldest things in humankind.” 

The breathing exercises should last at least two minutes, but no longer than five minutes, Adams clarified. The mayor called these few extra minutes where kids will learn to do breath-work a potential “game changer in your physiology.” 

The mayor promised parents and educators that students will be less disruptive in classes and change over time when they start practicing daily, mindful breathing at school. Adams ensured schools that while the administration is requiring these daily breathing exercises, schools can opt-out if they so choose. 

“It is not forced on anyone,” Adams said. “If you choose not to do the breathing exercise, that’s fine. But we want to make sure that we build it into our everyday process of education.”

While hundreds of public schools in New York City have already incorporated some mindfulness or wellness practices into classes, Schools Chancellor Banks said that every school should be jumping on board now. 

Lena Gates, the principal of P.S. 005, said that the school had introduced a mindfulness and yoga program two years ago and that the program has been an important resource for students and families. 

“We feel that the mindfulness program has been effective,” Gates said. “They’re able to just put their heads back and just think and take that time to reflect. Then our students are ready to go on with the day.”

There will be multiple educators trained in the Yoga and Mindfulness Teacher Preparation Program, according to Banks. Schools could potentially incorporate the breathing exercises in their advisory periods, physical education classes, morning town halls, or between reading lessons. 

“We are not mandating when,” Banks said. “We are making suggestions, but we’re leaving it up to the leadership at the school to determine the best place to make it fit.”

Banks reiterated Adams’ message by saying that the breathing techniques will be a lifelong skill that students can carry with them everywhere they go. He said that the DOE will also provide parents and guardians with access to the mindful breathing program.

“There’s nothing more important that we could teach our kids than mindfulness,” Banks said. “We are also going to take more affirmative actions to ensure that our parents also get it.”

Adams pointed to another development coming down the pipeline from the city’s health department to help student mental health: a mobile app that connects students with mental health counselors in real time.

“There’s never enough,” Banks said. “The goal is to keep building more and more of what’s needed to develop academic success with emotional success. Even when we move to make sure we have social workers in every school, we’re still going to be finding new ways.”