Standing near the lectern during a news conference Tuesday, New York Mayor Eric Adams closed his eyes and took deep breaths as calming music played on a Brooklyn gym’s speakers.

In front of him, three elementary school students guided politicians and spectators through six deep breaths while talking about positive thinking. The mindful breathing exercise was an example of what Adams said will be required in all city schools for the next academic year.

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That new policy in the country’s largest school system demonstrates the emphasis schools across the United States are placing on mental health. Adams said breathing exercises are just as important as academic lessons and will teach students a lifelong skill.

“We prepare our children to be academically smart,” Adams said at the news conference. “We teach them algebra, trigonometry, history and English, and all of those things [so] that they can be prepared to get a job. But we don’t teach them how to be emotionally intelligent – the things that’s needed to keep a job.”

Isolation during the coronavirus pandemic heightened students’ mental health problems, causing an uptick in teenage suicide attempts. Last year, federal data found that about 70 percent of surveyed schools noticed more students seeking mental health services.

Mindfulness practices have been incorporated in schools across the country for more than a decade, and schools have begun offering other mental health resources in recent years. In February, schools in Los Angeles County and Philadelphia began providing free mental health services to students. Last year, an Illinois law took effect that allows students to take as many as five mental health days off from school.

Thomas DiNapoli, New York’s comptroller, called on New York City Public Schools last year to provide more mental health resources to students. Now the school system, which serves about 1 million students, will require schools to offer breathing exercises for two to five minutes per day. Students are not obligated to participate, Adams said.

Mary Vaccaro, the United Federation of Teachers’ vice president for education, said at the news conference that thousands of teachers are being trained to lead the exercises.

Adams, who is from Brooklyn, said he would’ve appreciated the exercises when he was a troublemaking student in the school system 50 years ago. He said he performs breathing techniques before his speeches.

A study published in November found that mindfulness exercises can be just as effective as medication for treating anxiety. A month later, a study found that breathing exercises helped reduce college students’ stress.

Adams said he hopes the new program will help the city over time.

“Instead of having bullets, we will have breath,” Adams said. “Instead of having violence, we will have balance.”

Hundreds of the city’s nearly 1,860 schools were already offering breaks for breathing exercises, he added. Lena Gates, an elementary school principal, said at the news conference that she used to believe she needed only to provide food for students to help their well-being. But in the past few years, her students have done yoga or paused during the day to breathe and think.

Still, some city advocates say they aren’t sure the breathing program is the best way to treat mental health. Dawn Yuster, a director for the Advocates for Children of New York, said she worries schools will lean on the breathing program instead of applying more vigorous mental health techniques, such as counseling.

“It is not a replacement for programs and initiatives for children and young people who have more significant mental health needs,” Yuster said.

David Banks, the New York City Schools chancellor, acknowledged during the news conference that students will face more trauma beyond the pandemic. But he said learning to breathe properly is the first step toward facing those challenges.

“There’s nothing more important that we could teach our kids than mindfulness, deliberative breathing,” Banks said. It’s “a lifelong skill that they can take with them everywhere that they go.”

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