Recent studies tell us that teaching mindfulness in schools improves test scores and decreases anxiety.  Since Sunrise RTC integrates DBT and mindfulness into every aspect of our program, we figured we were the perfect school to test this research.  Our academic team has spent the current school year focused on more fully developing and implementing DBT skills and Mindfulness in our school.  Here’s how we did it.

Using Mindfulness in School

1. It Starts with Mindful Teachers

As an academic team, we’ve read books together and implemented a DBT/Mindfulness curriculum in our classrooms.  In particular, we found these resources to be useful:

2. Teaching Mindfulness in the Classroom

Each week students participate in lessons and activities focused on increasing mindfulness in the classroom. These lessons include:

  • learning about different parts of the brain – including the amygdala, prefrontal cortex, and hippocampus – that play a role in determining responses to stimuli and increasing emotional control. Students learn about the important role the amygdala plays in responding mindfully or creating a fight, flight, or freeze response.
  • mindfully practice using the senses –  listening, seeing, smelling, tasting and movement can help increase mindfulness and decrease automatic emotional reactions.

These lessons are specifically focused on how the amygdala’s response to stimuli in the classroom impacts learning and academic success.

3. Creating Space for Mindfulness

And, in addition to weekly lessons and activities, our students have the opportunity to practice different forms of mindfulness for 2-5 minutes in each class daily.
We have now been implementing our mindfulness program for about seven months and are experiencing great results.

Our Students’ Experience with Mindfulness

As students move toward graduation, each prepares a transition and relapse-prevention plan.  This plan helps our students generalize the skills they have learned and increases their chances of success upon returning home. In the last few weeks before graduation, I hold an exit conference with each student and work with her family to ensure the academic transition plan is solid.
This week I had the opportunity to meet with a student (we will call her Kacy) who had a significant history of school-related problems and failure before she arrived at Sunrise. During her time at Sunrise, we’ve had many conversations about the changes Kacy has made and have set intermittent goals toward a successful transition back to her previous high school.
It wasn’t until this meeting that I was able to see, first-hand, how paramount the DBT/Mindfulness program at Sunrise Academy is in helping students achieve academic success while at Sunrise; and the significant role it plays in preparing our students for future academic success.
For part of Kacy’s transition plan, she and I decided to write a letter to her previous principal, outlining her individual needs and what has helped Kacy create such a positive academic experience during her time at Sunrise.

Identifying Triggers

As I sat down with Kacy, she was able to identify the academic triggers she anticipates upon returning to her previous school – including:

  • past negative experiences with teachers and administrators
  • previous drug use at school
  • being arrested on school property
  • a system of unhealthy friends that await her return
  • being called on in class when she isn’t raising her hand
  • and being given corrective feedback in front of other students

Using Mindfulness to Make a Plan

She then proceeded to identify her old, automatic reaction to these triggers (both fight and flight) and her new, adaptive ways of mindfully responding to these triggers – including:

  • using mindfulness to take a break in the classroom
  • using her five senses to focus on being mindful
  • deep breathing
  • and using the DBT skills of GIVE, DEAR MAN and DISTRACTING

Kacy was also able to identify visual cues to share with her future teachers so they will know when she is feeling shame or frustration; and provided feedback regarding what teachers can say to offer support, direction and encouragement during these moments. A list of things teachers can do to show care was compiled, as well as a list of three school personnel to whom Kacy can reach out to if she’s feeling particularly upset or dysregulated.

Effect of Mindfulness in Schools

At the end of the meeting, Kacy and I reviewed her transcript and identified that her grade point average (GPA) was a 1.52 upon admission at Sunrise and is 3.89 for the credits she’s completed during her current year at Sunrise Academy; with an overall GPA increase of 1.30 points.
This conversation led to the most powerful and touching part of this meeting – when she exclaimed:

“I just have to remember why I’m really in school and what I’m there for, long term. I have learned that I am capable. I am smart! And all I have to do is put in the effort and use my skills to be successful and I can do it! I never thought I would feel this way”

What I observed this week is that teaching DBT and Mindfulness skills also helps increase confidence, problem-solving, self-awareness and self-advocacy.  Practicing mindfulness in school helps our students generalize the skills they’ve learned to environments outside of treatment. Our DBT/Mindfulness curriculum at Sunrise Academy – combined with our strong academic program – is truly preparing our students for bright academic futures!


  1. Enhancing Cognitive and Social–Emotional Development Through a Simple-to-Administer Mindfulness-based School Program for Elementary School Children
  2. Mindfulness Exercises Improve Kids’ Math Scores

By Janette Thompson, Academic Director at Sunrise Residential Treatment Center.
Sunrise Residential Treatment Center is a fully integrated DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) program that teaches and practices DBT skills at every level – clinically, residentially, and academically. This process begins with our therapists becoming Foundationally and Intensively trained in DBT through The Linehan Institute’s Behavior Tech Program. This training is then passed down to all employees and practitioners at Sunrise RTC through a series of formal trainings. Each week our students, staff, therapists, and teachers learn/review a new skill and we provide a variety of opportunities for practice and generalization.