A Case for Teaching Mindfulness in the Classroom

Today’s world is extremely fast paced and holds more distractions than ever before.  Children and adolescents face numerous stressors including academic and social pressures, media influences, increased technology usage, family and relationship conflicts; and changes resulting from moves, illnesses, losses, and other difficulties that affect their world such as bullying and peer pressure.  Such problems have been found to contribute to an increased risk of various emotional, social, and cognitive difficulties.  

Students meditating
Inadequate responses to coping with stress and other problems in children contributes to a range of psychosocial problems including poor academic performance, conduct problems, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, violence, and sometimes suicide.  In fact, children’s abilities to cope with every day stressors and minor problems may be a better predictor of concurrent and subsequent symptoms than their ability to deal with major life events.  Effective coping with daily stressors can mediate the impact of major life events, and is associated with positive behavioral and emotional adjustment.  Therefore, it is imperative to equip children with effective strategies to manage their busy, and often stressful, world.

When children lack effective coping strategies, it is reflected in their school performance as energy is directed away from the learning process and development, and towards struggling with stress. National interest has been provoked regarding this topic due to the World Health Organization’s prediction that depression will be the second leading cause of disability by the year 2020.  The growing awareness of the long-term negative consequences of psychosocial factors on children’s development has resulted in governments increasingly looking to schools and community health programs for promoting mental health and resilience in young people.  

The education system in the United States does an effective job of focusing on cognitive intelligence, but often undermines the development of equally important non-cognitive intelligence.  This type of intelligence is difficult to measure, but is the foundation of good character, resilience, and long-term life fulfillment.  Mindfulness helps individuals develop this type of intelligence.

Interventions and programs directed toward only high risk individuals are ineffective so what is then needed are prevention programs that reduce the overall risk in the whole school population.  Such programs would aid in enhancing coping resources of children within an environment that is already an integral part of their lives.  One such possibility to equip the next generation with necessary coping and emotional resources is mindfulness training within the school setting.  It is argued that mindfulness is not only an intervention to deal with life struggle; it is more closely linked with being a cognitive style.  Therefore, mindfulness represents a preferred way of thinking and is a skill that one can easily learn. 

The Five Senses and Mindfulness
Children encounter and learn about the world via their five senses. A newborn can hear sounds in the womb and can distinguish her mother's voice from other voices at birth. A baby will explore a new item by shaking it, throwing it and placing it in his mouth. Kindergarteners start to question, make predictions and test their hypothesis (an early version of the scientific method) while engaged in sensory play. Grade school students idolize superheroes with their heightened senses. It only “makes sense” to utilize each of these senses when practicing mindfulness in the classroom.
Hearing In a quiet classroom, ring a bell. Ask the students to listen and silently raise their hands when they no longer hear the vibrations of the ring. After all hands are raised, have the students remain silent and note the other sounds they can hear once the ringing has ended.
Seeing Younger children may need a visible cue to help them focus on their breathing. Have your students bring in a favorite stuffed animal to school. Lying on their backs with their cuddle buddy in their arms, encourage the children to breathe slowly and watch as the toy rises and falls with each inhalation and exhalation.
Touch Have each student partner up with another student. Present one in each pair with a simple item to touch (a stuffed toy, a feather, a squishy ball, etc.). Ask that student to close their eyes and describe what they are feeling to their partner.
Smell Gather a collection of items for your students to smell (a candle, herbs, a flower, an orange) and pass them around the circle. As they inhale and breathe in each one, encourage them to think about how they feel. When the item has completed the circle, the students can share how the item made them feel.
Taste Something as small as a raisin can be a complete mindfulness sensory experience. Give each student one raisin and, before they put it in their mouth, ask them to really take time to see the raisin, touch the raisin, smell the raisin. Once they have fully explored the raisin, have them place it in their mouth without chewing and explore the sensations. Next, have them take one or two bites and notice what happens. Does the taste change. How does the feel change? When the student is ready to swallow, ask them to see if they can feel the raisin as it travels from their mouth down into the stomach. Finally, have the student sense how their body is feeling after completing the exercise.                                            
-Meredith Gioia

 Ideally, preventative programs are embedded in the organization within which the target group is located.  For children it is within the classroom.  As early as 1890, educators have recognized the need for cultivating a more mindful and attentive mind.  “The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will…An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence” (James, 1890, p.424, italics in original).

The Concept of Mindfulness

Since there appear to be misconceptions regarding mindfulness, it is important to point out what mindfulness is not.  It is not a cold and distant stance one takes to deal with the world, nor is it a passive avoidance of unpleasant experiences.  It is not aloof and disinterested spectatorship.  It is not a particular state of mind such as peacefulness or joyous, nor does it refer to particular contents of the mind such as positive thoughts or feelings.  It refers to a particular attitude towards experiences; an attitude of curiosity, acceptance, and non-judgment.  Mindfulness is rooted in the fundamental activities of consciousness: attention and awareness.

Generally, humans are judging, or making appraisals, of stimuli constantly; whether it is ‘good’, ‘bad’, or ‘neutral’.  This appraisal usually is in reference to the self and is conditioned by past experiences.  Historically this process served as a protective and survival mechanism of being human.  After an appraisal process occurs, the experience is easily assimilated into existing cognitive schemas.  The problem of such automatic appraisals is that concepts, labels, ideas, and judgments are often imposed on everything or every experience that is encountered.  As mentioned, this process serves certain protective functions and has adaptive benefits, including the maintenance of order upon experiences related to the self, and the facilitation of goal pursuit and attainment.  However, it also means that objects and events are rarely seen impartially, as they truly are, but rather through the filters of self-centered thought and prior conditioning.  Thus, not only is reality often distorted, but reactions to that reality are often automatic or unchosen.

Mindfulness permits an immediacy of awareness and attention to events as they occur, without discrimination, habitual thought, or categorization, and allows more flexibility and objectiveness in psychological and behavioral responses.  The flexibility of mindfulness has been described as a zoom lens, moving back and forth to gain a larger perspective on what is taking place and can also zero in on situational details.  Mindfulness encompasses the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.  Characteristics of mindfulness include a clarity of awareness, a nondiscriminatory awareness, flexibility of awareness and attention, an empirical stance toward reality, being present-oriented, and stability of attention and awareness.  Imagine if we could train the entire next generation to not react automatically, but to slow down and be curious; examining each stimulus as it is presented.

Mindfulness is associated with concentration ability and control, or flexibility, of attention.  The characteristics of mindfulness imply that being in a mindful state is inherently empirical, in that it compiles the full facts such as a scientist seeking accurate knowledge of some phenomenon.  This stance encourages a deferral of judgment until careful examination of facts has been made.  The characteristic of being present includes acknowledging when the mind wanders away from the present into the past or future, and then consistently returning awareness to the present.  Returning consistently to present awareness allows for the full experiencing of, and being an active part in, life as it happens instead of being on automatic pilot.

Types of Mindfulness-Based Interventions

Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) was originally developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, MD in the late 1970s as an 8-week group intervention, for people experiencing a range of medical problems including chronic pain, within a university based medical center.  The MBSR program core curriculum was later incorporated into mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), as an adaptation for preventing relapse in adults with previous depression.  MBSR and MBCT include a series of mindfulness meditation practices drawn from Buddhist origins applied in a secular context, offering universal application not tied to religious or philosophical traditions.

MBSR and MBCT are experiential learning programs that include weekly group sessions, regular home practice, and the core curriculum of formal and informal mindfulness practices.  Formal practices include body scanning, sitting, movement, and walking meditations.  Informal mindfulness practices include intentionally bringing mindful awareness to activities of daily living.  Activities of daily living include such common activities as cooking, doing laundry, and washing the dishes.  Through practice, participants develop mindfulness skills and attitudes, including focusing, sustaining and switching attention, and accepting their present moment experience, including felt sensations in the body, without judgment or elaboration.

Mindfulness with Children

 In light of emotional, social, cognitive, and physical benefits shown in studies with adults, the application of mindfulness-based interventions with children could be beneficial in much the same fashion, and furthermore would impart a new level of coping with life’s challenges that would develop early and become more of a lifestyle than an intervention.  In a 2010 report from the Garrison Institute, the application of alternative interventions, such as mindfulness-based, in a school context was said to be becoming more widespread.  Within the published literature, there is proven success with the feasibility and acceptance of mindfulness programs.

In 2007, the UK initiated the first major effort to use mindfulness in schools.  This year, Oxford researchers launched $10 million study on mindfulness in education.  http://myriadproject.org/  Since then, the United States has sprouted a handful similar initiatives that train teachers in mindfulness and develop lesson plans.  Among the two largest are MindUP http://thehawnfoundation.org/mindup/ and Mindful Schools http://www.mindfulschools.org/

Research has shown that mindfulness training in children have numerous benefits, not only to their emotional and social health, but also to their academic health.  Results have included significant improvements in anxiety and feelings of depression, in attention and concentration, in social skills and peer-related behaviors, in emotional reactivity, and in reductions of externalizing behaviors (such as physical aggression, verbal bullying, relational aggression, defiance, theft and vandalism).  Furthermore, mindfulness has been shown to help children with developing social relationships, attaining goals, and sleeping better.  Children who have participated in mindfulness programs self-report that they are happier, calmer, have more energy, can think more clearly and make better decisions, and are more patient and kind with others and themselves.  Physical proof of the positive effects of mindfulness have been shown including decreases in resting systolic blood pressure and less cardiovascular reactivity to acute stress.  In addition, teachers and students reported that meditation resulted in a calmer school community with a more positive school climate and less stressed, happier, more engaged students.  These results demonstrate the possible benefits for not only the individual, but the greater community.  

Meditation can be done in only minutes a day, while other interventions to facilitate cognitive growth in young children can be long and elaborate, such as conservation training and educational enrichment programs.  Two common types of meditation are concentration meditation, which includes mantra meditation, and mindfulness meditation.  Concentration meditation involves repeatedly focusing on a particular word, phrase (mantra), or object in an attempt to quiet the mind.  Mindfulness meditation does not involve the use of a mantra, rather it involves an awareness and acceptance of the present moment.  As previously mentioned, it includes intentionally paying attention, non-judgmentally, in the present moment.  For adults, the standard recommended practice is two 20-minute sessions a day.  For children, this is adapted to one 5-10 minute sessions a day.  Briefer meditation periods have been proven effective without compromising benefits to students, therefore making it an ideal addition to the already busy school day.

This ever changing world full of distractions and influences are forcing us to be more attuned with ourselves than ever before.  Children are faced with similar, if not greater, pressures as they struggle with peer and family issues, identity issues, constantly expanding technology, media influences, and the process of development in general.  It is in these young developmental years that individuals learn to cope with problems, get along with others, develop healthy lifestyles, practice making choices, foster a self-image, and develop a lens through which they see themselves in context with the world.  How do we equip the next generation with effective coping skills, and healthy developmental tools on a larger scale, so they can manage life’s challenges and live meaningfully?  Teaching mindfulness as part of school curriculums may be one strategy that can answer this question.

Furthermore, teaching mindfulness in a school setting may allow for the development of healthier, better functioning communities which could positively affect the greater society and create more wholly functioning adults.

Reference:

James, W. (1890). The principles of psychology. New York, NY: Holt.


Dr. Martha Mason is Director of the DePaul Education and Counseling Center (ECC). She has served in the mental health field for 20 years and specializes in mindfulness-based interventions for youth and adults. The ECC provides academic and counseling programming for the Chicago community, including teaching children mindfulness. For more information, email ecc@depaul.edu.

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