Originally published June 3, 2024 by NBC5Chicago.

By Lauren Petty and Matt Stefanski

Heart monitors are being used in a rather unconventional manner at a south suburban high school - they're helping students with emotional challenges in a big way.

"A lot of our students come to us with emotional and behavioral issues that we kind of try and tackle them," Mike Reid, a special education teacher at Hillcrest High School in Country Club Hills, explained.

For some students, heart monitors have become commonplace -thanks to an idea from a physical education supervisor.

"I said, 'Hey, you really don't know me but how would you feel if you wanted to partner up on this?"' said Terri Schrishuhn, PE supervisor at Bremen High School District 228

Jennifer Winefka, the school's special education coordinator, was on board immediately.

"They've just rolled out this new part, teaching the students about their coping skills and how that's connected to their heart rate...Do you think this could be useful in one of your behavior support programs? and I jumped right in," she explained, recalling the conversation.

The monitors were already used in gym class. But it’s not just physical activity that raises your heart rate. Anxiety, anger and fear do, too.

"When we started to bridge the gaps...just kind of emotionally and like how our emotions affect our heart rate, it was a very natural transition for them," Reid said. "Yeah, and they caught on right away."

For one student, Jermaine Brown, passing periods proved stressful.

"When there’s a lot of people around me when people are fighting or, you know, when I'm getting frustrated," he explained.

Jermaine could see his heart rate spike on these daily graphs, linked to the monitor.

"They know what normal is, and they know when it's not," Reid explained.

Then, the teacher can offer alternatives instead of just telling the student to relax.

"We're able to help pinpoint those things for them and teach them coping strategies, such as taking a walk, such as journaling, listening to music," Winefka stated. "Maybe it's just a moment of deep breathing in the classroom to kind of lower their heart rate."

As this school year ends, Hillcrest is already planning to use the heart rate monitors again next year and is looking at ways to expand to help more students.

"At this point...just it's figuring out, okay... logistically, what's the best way to incorporate it?" Schrishuhn, said.

Jermaine has learned several coping skills - like taking a deep breath or going for a walk. These techniques, he said, will help him this summer and hopefully beyond the school's walls.

"When kids can move away from the program and use a strategy on their own independently, because something outside of the school day has them in a stressful situation, that's, that's a game changer," Schrishuhn said.

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    NBC Chicago: Suburban high school uses heart monitors to track and manage students' stress levels
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    NBC Chicago: Suburban high school uses heart monitors to track and manage students' stress levels
    It’s not just physical activity that raises your heart rate. Anxiety, anger, and fear do, too.
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