Promoting mindfulness and decreasing stress with the Zen Den


By Olivia Foster ’18

The frenzied and fast-paced lifestyle that characterizes the lives of many high school students may be quelled with a simple and relaxing solution: Zen Dens. These places of serenity and solitude cultivate relaxation and peacefulness of mind. They will make a debut in the guidance department in the upcoming school year.

Zen Dens will be a useful place of relaxation for students who “need a break from the buzz of the day,” guidance counselor Leslie Hammer said. The Zen Den will not require appointments and students can use the place as a way to center themselves and regain focus for the day. They will be monitored by either a school psychologist, social worker or guidance counselor at all times.

After writing a grant proposal and obtaining approval for a mini-grant from the PTA, the creation of a Zen Den in the health office is well under way. The grant highlighted the  Zen Den’s focus on Westport’s Guiding Principles of emotional and social awareness, kindness and principled thought, and the need to aid student’s mental and physical health so they can better perform at school. The proposal states, “At the present time there is not a space free from distractions and personal technology devices that would allow students and staff to take a moment to regroup, get some coaching on how to manage a stressful situation, a place to practice mindfulness in the moment or to learn some skills about how to “cope ahead” instead of ‘stress ahead.’”

The Wellness Seminar class, which focuses on building mindfulness and emotional health, is one of only a few courses at Staples that help students curb their stress. This class was well received by both students and parents, and the Zen Den hopes to emulate the success of this class by teaching skills such as self-regulation and resiliency through visualization and communication techniques.

Although there was not a specific event that sparked the creation of the Zen Den, both Dr. Alycia Dadd and Yasu Wade, school psychologists, felt that a designated area for students to regroup and relieve stress was necessary in the community. “The casual ‘drop in’ nature may appeal to students who may not be comfortable actively seeking out or setting up ‘formal’ appointments with their counselor, a social worker, or psychologist,” Wade said.

A large part of increasing mindfulness comes with having a peaceful surrounding, and the Zen Den will be no exception. The Zen Den will be complete with a shoji screen, a sliding door with a latticed screen covered in white paper, for people to meditate and practice breathing, and a special chair that ensures privacy and relaxation. Dadd and Wade also plan on having a mural and other student artwork to decorate the area. Lastly, the Zen Den will also enlist the help of a water feature, calming music, and mindfulness activities to “increase our awareness of where our emotional thermometer is,” Dadd said. “The idea is if we can be proactive in scheduling time to take care of ourselves then we may dissipate some stress before it becomes all consuming.”

Julia Feldman ’18, an avid participant in Kung Fu, feels that the Zen Den has the potential to bring peace to students who are  feeling stressed. “They could be helpful for students who feel like they need a place with a less academically-driven and competitive environment. I think that’s something that’s missing from Staples,” Feldman said.

As of now, the space will be referred to as the Zen Den, but that is subject to change with suggestions from the school community. Not only will the Zen Den serve to increase mindfulness while simultaneously decreasing stress, but it will also work to “increase the visibility of the school support staff and decrease the stigmas sometimes associated with accessing emotional support,” Dadd said.

The space is not solely for students, as teachers can also utilize the Zen Den, thus enabling students and staff to interact outside the classroom. According to Dadd, the Zen Den hopes to reach the greater school community, as “students who are able to regulate their emotions are better able to learn and come to school feeling empowered.”