RX for Schoolkids: Open Your Mouth and Say “Ommmmm…”

images-10Decades ago, when Transcendental Meditation (TM) became a hot topic in the US, some New Jersey schools began a pilot program to introduce it to their students. An immediate furor arose from people objecting to what they saw as a religious incursion into the public schools. I wrote a letter to the editor of the newly introduced New Jersey Weekly section of The New York Times, which the Times ran as an Op-Ed titled “A Word in Favor of Meditation in the Schools.” (See About Me.)

I stated that while I agreed with the critics that the public schools aren’t the place for the mystical trappings that TM incorporated, meditation was also effective without them, as Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School had demonstrated.

Concurring with the pilot program’s stated purpose—to help students improve their learning skills, behavior, and levels of aspiration—I said I was also drawn to it because we are a stress-filled society, and the evidence is mounting that stress plays a significant role in ailments ranging from migraine headaches to heart attacks and strokes.

Here I shamelessly quote myself:

If we can educate young people in relaxation techniques that will enable them to handle stress before they are exposed to the eventual stresses created by employment, marriage, child-rearing, and the like (in other words, everyday living), we may well be setting them on the way to longer, healthier, and happier lives.”

Unfortunately, all these years later, school children are being exposed to stressors that didn’t even exist then, and they are showing the impact in terms of anxiety, depression, and attempts at suicide. At the same time, mindfulness meditation and yoga have become all the rage among adults. So I decided to explore the extent to which mindfulness has been incorporated into public education, and how effective it’s been. The topic is vast, so I’m just scratching the surface here.

As a reminder, here’s the definition of mindfulness from Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, who coined the term: “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.” The emphasis is on concentrating on the rhythm of your breath to focus your mind.

Two of the largest programs are MindUP, which was initiated by the Goldie Hawn Foundation (yes, that Goldie Hawn), and Mindful Schools, based in California. Both organizations have developed curricula now in schools; taken together, they’ve trained more than 175,000 teachers and reached over 8 million kids. Their websites provide details and scientific papers validating their approaches.

Much of the positive information about mindfulness in schools is anecdotal. One teacher, Becca Wertheim, after a year of practicing what she called Morning Mindfulness and focus on breath awareness with her second graders, made the case for mindfulness training sound so reasonable: “All of my students naturally crave mindfulness practice,” she wrote. “They crave a sense of peace and calm…they also deserve them. In just one school day kids can be completely overwhelmed socially, emotionally and academically,” and the result may be “attention-seeking behaviors. I, like most teachers, have tried a myriad of classroom management strategies. Some stick, some don’t. But I’ve never found anything as powerful as mindfulness practice. I’m going to repeat that because it’s just that important.

I’ve never found anything as powerful as mindfulness practice.”

It took Wertheim just a few weeks to get a bunch of fidgeting, giggling second graders to reach the point that they became better listeners—to her, to their fellow students—and to themselves. She offers “4 Simple Ways to Teach Mindfulness in Schools.”

Significantly, some of the most successful mindfulness efforts have occurred with at-risk kids. In a poignant article in The Atlantic, Lauren Cassani Davis describes the efforts of an English teacher, Argos Gonzalez, in a small satellite school in one of New York City’s poorest districts. Though most of the students want to graduate, their life circumstances make school attendance extremely difficult.

“On the day I visited,” Davis writes, “one of Gonzalez’s students had just been released from jail; one recently had an abortion; one had watched a friend bleed to death from a gunshot wound the previous year. Between finding money to put food on the table and dealing with unstable family members, these students’ minds are often crowded with concerns more pressing than schoolwork.”

Gonzalez was certified in the Mindful Schools curriculum. His training encompassed child development, the specific neuroscience underlying mindfulness, and the workings of the nervous system. He also received guidance in trauma. He’s augmented this with his own mindfulness practice and training in applying what he’s learned to his students. He uses the typical mindfulness techniques in five-minute intervals, Davis notes: “from counting breaths and focusing on the sensations of breathing, to visualizing thoughts and feelings…to help train their attention, quiet their thoughts, and regulate their emotions.”

Davis recounts her conversation with a young woman who had transferred to the school two years previously. She cried during the periods set aside for mindfulness, thinking of her older brother who’d been killed by a car and a friend she’d seen die in the street of a gunshot wound. She’d routinely rip up the worksheets that accompanied the daily mindfulness exercise.

Davis ends with this passage. “But one day when she was in a particularly dark mood, something clicked.” The student told her that when Gonzalez instructed the class to close their eyes and connect to their breath,

“I noticed that I could feel my breath in my chest. And at that moment, I felt so relieved. The only thing I could think in my mind was, ‘I’m Ok.’ And, I don’t know—from that day on, it just didn’t hurt anymore.”

To be sure, mindfulness in schools is no panacea. The concept isn’t always understood well and conveyed properly, and some worry that it’s used to control kids rather than help them. Many critics feel it hasn’t been sufficiently rigorously studied over the long term to draw conclusions about its efficacy.

But there seems fairly solid evidence that it helps in varying school populations, especially the most disadvantaged children—and that seems to be a huge accomplishment. A non-profit called Headstand defines its mission this way: “Empowers at-risk youth in K-12 to combat toxic stress through mindfulness, yoga, and character education.”

According to another Atlantic article, written by Amanda Machado, “Harvard’s Center for the Developing Child defines toxic stress as ‘severe, uncontrollable, chronic adversity’” that can negatively affect the developing brain, frequently resulting in problems with learning and both physical and mental health.

Machado points out that Headstand’s curriculum includes focus on character education, centering on specific traits.

“A unit on ‘responsibility’ is framed around questions like ‘What does it mean to accept personal responsibility?”, “How does being irresponsible affect the people around you?” and “How are responsibility and power related?”

Those strike me as terrific questions—ones that I would like to see asked and answered far beyond the walls of schools for at-risk children. And they lead me to believe that while we should certainly study the application of mindfulness in schools with academic rigor, we should simultaneously look for programs and approaches that merit replication and can benefit our school children—and thus our society. In the adult world, mindfulness has become a multi-billion dollar industry. Surely our school children, who are our future, deserve the best that we can offer.

Do these ideas resonate with you? And if you have teaching experience, how does all of this strike you? Do you think it would work in your situation?

Please also click on “like” and “share” if you feel this post deserves wider circulation. Thanks!

Annie

 

10 thoughts on “RX for Schoolkids: Open Your Mouth and Say “Ommmmm…”

  1. I do think that the stress of today are passed easily down to the children. Unfortunately, parents will many times and do not say wittingly, will help expose their kids to those stress just out of everyday communication and discussions. Parents want to parent but do not necessarily know all that is needed, have the time to pursue it beyond their own limits and have been tied by budget restraints at home and in their schools financial budgets. We limit our children by our own prejudices and for that I do not address that which we more commonly use the word prejudice but more as whole toward what they experience and have not experienced. Schools on their end have cut arts and sciences far more than budgeted to them compared to other school activities ( I do not think arts and sciences are activities but seem at times to be treated so) compared to athletics. I have had many experiences were coworkers have asked for support of the school team or a Childs team activities but never asked the same for a science program that was in need or arts that may have been cut from a budget and I know both have been limited many times.

    If children are to be exposed to mindfulness then it needs to be a discussion by those that can best address this and it might not be parents. If they do not practice mindfulness, then how are they to understand it for their children. I am sure they would want it but how does it become a subject, discussion and then a practice?

    I feel the the first part of the your statement, “Decades ago, when Transcendental Meditation (TM) ” address an overall view of those that feel schools have taken to much freedom with their kids education and still they, parents, do little to help on the subject. It is remindful of sex education were many parents did not want it in the school to lead but still let the subject not be addressed as fully as it should have by themselves.

    I fully realize, that my statement or opinion steps on toes and many will dispute all or parts. That is Ok.I just say look at those parents that are more or totally mindful of their children’s emotional stability, address their concerns and help truthfully reassure them and calm them. Those parents that seek out their children when they may need their attention most. Not easy but necessary. Adults take pills to help get us thru a day. I do. Kids need to be taught it is Ok to kick back and feel their inner body, relax it and let their spirit speak to them without the worries of what if.

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    1. Hi, Charles–

      Welcome to Annie Asks You, and thank you for introducing some issues that I didn’t cover in my post. The role of parents is, of course, critical, and sometimes the kids are reacting to stressors from their parents. In the at-risk schools mentioned, the parents may be absent, overwhelmed, or dealing with issues that make it impossible for them to do good parenting, no matter how much they may wish to.

      I don’t know how or to what extent mindfulness programs involve parents. That’s a very interesting question. Perhaps this is an instance where the children can educate their parents.

      You also talk about school budget cuts. That’s a huge topic, and I’m sure factors into whether mindfulness programs are feasible. But I did come across one researcher who said “Mindfulness is a way to stop the bleeding, and sometimes a Band-Aid does help. This is something teachers can do immediately and isn’t that difficult to implement. You get a lot of bang for your buck…” She also pointed out that unlike testing and the like, this is something that teachers can control. (Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at Stanford University Graduate School of Education; coauthor of Overlooked and Underprepared: Strategies for Stronger Schools and Healthy, Successful Kids. She was quoted in an article I read titled “Being Mindful About Mindfulness” that appeared in Slate and I would have included, but I worry when my word count starts climbing…)

      Finally, you cite my reference in the article I wrote decades ago about people trying to stop meditation because they fear incursions of religion in the schools. While you equate it with sex education, in fact, the same religion in the schools argument, though erroneous, is still going on in some places, and has even on occasion successfully prevented the implementation of mindfulness programs.

      Thanks for thoughtfully advancing our dialogue.

      Annie

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  2. Hi Annie,
    Another well written, thought out and researched post on an important subject. Hard to argue against many kids needing help with stressors in their lives.(of course adults as well).
    However, if the plan is to
    introduce these ideas into schools, problems may have to be dealt with. Eg, the schools would need to be on board with the concept, then make sure the teachers are properly certified(and then monitored)to teach the material, have a follow up study to somehow see benefits, if any, etc.
    Great concept but could be difficult to put into practical use.
    But as you can tell, Annie, I’m not a teacher so I don’t know what I don’t know.
    But it seems there could be important benefits if the program was properly designed and applied.
    ‘Cheers’, Don

    and the things kids are being ‘taught’.

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    1. Hi, Don–

      You’ve noted some important points. From what I’ve read, some of these problems are already being dealt with, though perhaps not everywhere that mindfulness training occurs. But in the better organized situations, the schools are on board, the teachers are certified, and follow-up studies are being done. If you’re interested, both MindUP and Mindful Schools cite research studies validating their efforts. Mindful Schools even categorizes the research under the umbrella terms Cognitive Outcomes (eg, attention and focus); Social-emotional Skills (eg, school behavior and empathy); and Well Being (eg, post traumatic symptoms and depression). I’m not qualified to assess the rigor of all these studies, but there certainly are ongoing assessments. Thanks for your kind words and for raising valuable issues.

      Annie

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  3. Hi Anne,
    Decades ago, just after I married and was living in Madison, Wisconsin where I was continuing my college education, I took a part-time job as a teacher’s assistant in a Montessori school. When I read your post I couldn’t help but think of those days back in 1968 and my experience in that Montessori school. I realized that the school was actually using mindfulness techniques… not just for the children, but for the teachers as well. It was not labeled as such but from your post, it was just as you describe. So I looked up “Montessori and mindfulness” and, low and behold, it was actually part of Maria Montessori’s grand plan for teaching children. I was often amazed by how few behavior problems there were in that school and how much respect was given to the children and their work… and respect the children had for each other and their teachers. I think you are on to something if some of the mindfulness techniques could become mainstream.

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    1. Hi, Fran—

      That’s so interesting. Maria Montessori was a pioneer who had a large following and plenty of critics, as I recall. That seems to parallel the responses to mindfulness in the schools today. I am optimistic that well-grounded research will demonstrate its value. Thanks for these insights.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I love the definition of mindfulness you provided from Jon-Kabat Zinn. It’s so clean, crisp and reasonable that it seems do-able. I’ve written it out on file cards that I have tucked in various places (wallet, car, refrigerator) as reminder to be attentive to the goal: breathe, notice, and quiet the mind. This actually works, at least in that ambush moment of discovery, and I look forward to it becoming much more a part of life without my file card reminders. I wish, as a parent, that I had given my children this gift.They grew up in a rural community with a decent balance between study and play, but looking back, was it enough? It was something in the directon of stress reduction, but no, not enough. If I had started them young on a mindfulness course, if the schools had incorporated these teachings – what would be different today? So very much, I imagine, from better stress management to possibly career shifts. I applaud the school initiatives and the teachers willing to see it through. A good teacher, in my day, was someone who made the subject, especially dull things, come alive. A teacher who inspired mindfulness and stress reduction was, well, unheard of. Possibly this next generation will come of age with these skills and a cultural sea change will follow? Let’s hope. Thanks for another great column, and please keep writing.
    ~ Your faithful reader, Denise.

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    1. Hi, Denise–

      I’m so glad you’re finding Jon Kabat-Zinn’s words and the mindfulness concept helpful. One reminder to you: two issues that mindfulness is designed to minimize are regrets about the past and worries about the future. (I tend to do better with the former than the latter.) So, sure, it might have been better if you (we all) had known how to improve our lives and those of our kids by introducing mindfulness, but we really need to focus on now and moving forward. (I wrote about the topic all those years ago, and yet I didn’t really get involved with it until my younger daughter and her husband, both serious meditators, and a yoga instructor opened my eyes a few years ago. It’s never too late. And thanks so much for your encouragement–and for being a faithful reader and insightful commentator. Means a lot!

      Annie

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