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?

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Annie