Take a deep breath. Relax your body. And slowly exhale through your mouth.
Then, repeat six times.
In New York City, kindergartners to high school seniors will be required to do similar exercises during class next fall, after Mayor Eric Adams announced on Tuesday that all public schools would have to offer two to five minutes of mindful breathing work each day.
Mr. Adams, who has often preached the benefits of healthy eating, mindfulness and fitness in his own life, cast the plan as a simple, “low-hanging fruit” pathway to build students’ emotional skills and to address a youth mental health crisis exacerbated by the pandemic, pointing to research that shows breathing exercises can reduce stress and raise alertness.
“Thousands of years ago, other cultures were learning how to breathe,” Mr. Adams said at the announcement at P.S. 5 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. But in today’s world, he said, “we have never been taught.”
“We think that it’s just, air goes through your nostrils and you move. No, there’s a science to breathing,” the mayor added, before closing his eyes and following a student-led breathing exercise.
The announcement on Tuesday came as some advocates and families have argued for a more robust local approach to youth mental health, and have criticized the proposed elimination in the city budget of funding for a program that connects high-need schools to mental health clinics and offers mobile response teams for students in crisis.
But Mr. Adams said the effort was just one common-sense, low-cost way to improve student well-being, and would help children learn the valuable but abandoned “principle of something that is one of the oldest things in humankind.”
The breathing exercise requirement in New York reflects the renewed focus that school districts across the nation have placed on student well-being in recent years, as they grapple with increased rates of anxiety, depression, self-harm and other mental health challenges in children and teenagers.
In Los Angeles County, for example, virtual mental health services will be made free for all K-12 students under a new plan earlier this year.And in Illinois, a new law allowing students to take up to five excused mental health days off school recently went into effect.
In the nation’s largest school system, Mr. Adams and the schools chancellor, David C. Banks, have said that all high school students would soon be able to obtain virtual mental health support for the first time through a new program, though full details have yet not been announced.
“I get asked a lot of questions about, ‘What are you doing? Kids are going through a lot. What are your mental health programs?’” Mr. Banks said. “There’s nothing more important that we could teach our kids than mindfulness, deliberative breathing.”
Still, some elected officials, teachers and families have called for a more comprehensive approach to addressing mental health needs, and of disadvantaged students in particular. The New York State comptroller, Thomas P. DiNapoli, found that during the 2020-21 academic year, city schools were underprepared to address the youth mental health crisis. Since then, education officials have made several changes, including giving every school access to a social worker or mental health clinic.
Dawn Yuster, the director of the School Justice Project at Advocates for Children, an education advocacy nonprofit, said she remained particularly worried over the administration’s proposed $5 million in cuts from a mental health initiative at about 50 high-need schools, where rates of police intervention for students in emotional crisis are disproportionately high.
The program gives students access to faster mental health care, linking schools with clinics and providing mobile crisis teams who can help with immediate issues. A mayoral spokeswoman did not immediately return a request for comment on the proposed cut.
Ms. Yuster said she appreciates that breathing exercises and mindfulness can have a “real impact” for students. But she added: “That’s certainly not a replacement for other really critical programs and services that are at risk of being discontinued.”