Mindfulness: Why it’s becoming more prevalent in schools

September 12, 2016 | Posted in: Early Learners, Elementary, High School, Middle Years

Aside from an occasional yoga class, I would have never considered myself the “meditating” type.

Type A? Totally. Zen master? Not so much.

That was, until I was preparing for the birth of my first child and my doctor suggested mindful meditation as a way to help me be well (see: less of a stressed out, nervous wreck) throughout pregnancy, during labor, and as a new mom. “Mindfulness is the new Lamaze,” she said. “Actually, mindfulness is life’s new secret weapon.”

With the help of a few classes, curiosity, and a guided meditation app called Headspace, I am now proud to say I am on my way to being the “mindful” type. Armed with the awareness to be mindful, I feel better equipped to cope with the stressors of postpartum life.

What is mindfulness?

According to Dana Pierce, a school counselor in the Fayetteville-Manlius Central School District in Manlius, NY, mindfulness is about paying attention to the “now” and being present in the moment.

In other words, mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.

But it’s the ability to “not [be] overly reactive or overwhelmed,” that personifies why mindfulness is moving to the head of the class as a strategy for both students and teachers.

Mindfulness meets education

Mindfulness is not new. Rooted in practices of ancient Buddhism, it was biologist Jon Kabat-Zinn who first coined the term in the 1970s.

In 2007, schools in the U.K. were the first to incorporate mindfulness into their curriculum. Five years before, in 2001, a Pennsylvania State University researcher named Mark T. Greenberg set out to study the [then] newly developed Mindfulness Education (ME) school-based intervention program, after observing a growing number of school-aged children experiencing myriad social, emotional, and behavioral issues. These issues were gravely interfering with students’ interpersonal relationships, school success, and their potential to become competent adults and productive citizens.

Fast forward to present day, the impact of these stressors on 21st century learners has only been amplified.

“In any number of instances, starting at the elementary level and through middle and high school, my colleagues and I are seeing more and more students come to us when they’re feeling highly anxious – whether it be about a test or a social situation,” said Pierce. “Children nowadays have to join everything; be the best at everything; get into the best schools. We live frenetically and even young students are seeking out ways to quiet their lives. Being mindful is an excellent tool to do so.”

Overall, the results of Greenberg’s study of the ME program showed evidence of significant positive effects. As researchers hypothesized, students exposed to the ME program, in contrast to students who weren’t, showed improvements in teacher-rated social and emotional competence, as well as in student attention and concentration, and in their positive emotions, namely optimism.

More recent studies have shown that mindfulness can improve attention, self-control, emotional resilience, as well as memory and immune response. All of which would benefit anyone, but particularly, school-aged children. In fact, some states are starting to require social-emotional (or mindful) learning in all of their schools, setting statewide standards and benchmarks for districts to incorporate at all grade levels.

“People used to think [mindfulness meditation] was this new-age thing, but there is all this scientific evidence, that if you engage in mindfulness meditation, you have the potential to change your brain matter,” said Pierce.

Mindful Schools, a not-for-profit training organization, has become the leader of today’s mindful schools movement. In 2015, through direct service and adult training, Mindful Schools curricula reached more than 300,000 youths around the world.

Pierce implements mindfulness into her own work as a counselor and has colleagues that are following suit.

“We have a group of faculty here at Fayetteville-Manlius (F-M) called “F-M Zen,” and we come up with mindfulness exercises to support our students in their personal growth, recognizing there’s this incredible anxiety getting in the way,” she said.

“My hope is everywhere we go, we’ll continue to talk about mindfulness. [Mindfulness] is innate and inexpensive. Anyone can do it – and it is so, so good for us,” she said.

How to be mindful

Girls coloring“One of the first things I do with students is get them to breathe. People’s bodies get tense when they’re anxious or nervous, and it puts us on high alert – and when we breathe, it turns that negative response off, said Pierce. “No one sees breathing, no one can judge. If you can practice finding your breath, it can be a really helpful skill.”

“I also color with students, even here in the high school,” she continued. Pierce says that even playing a board game can be therapeutic. “Breathing, board games and the act of coloring are all readily accessible and have meditative qualities.”

Pierce says there are teachers in the F-M district that lead deep breathing exercises prior to exams, and she is working with an English teacher who is developing a mindfulness unit within her curriculum.

“When a student is being mindful, they are present and focused. They’re better able to observe, listen and learn.”

Pierce says it’s also beneficial for teachers to be mindful as well, because it helps them avoid “burn out.”

“The best gift we can give our students is to be present with them,” she said.

“Practicing mindfulness in schools is an incredible opportunity to allow students to get to know themselves; to learn that the things that are fulfilling to us aren’t SAT scores or ‘the good schools,’ but finding what enhances our lives and creates passion. Of course those things [SAT scores, etc.] are important, but they do not make us who we are,” said Pierce.

Mindfulness in action

Watch eighth-grade students from Cohoes Middle School, Cohoes, NY, practice mindfulness tactics.

Five things you can do at home with children to strengthen mindfulness practices, from school counselor, Dana Pierce:

1. Parents can practice their own mindfulness – This provides a model for children and supports healthy and effective parenting.

2. Color together – I have students who color with me after school, and a number of them have shared that their favorite time at home is coloring with a parent. In this act, together, parents and children can be slow and quiet. This time is about paying attention to/with one another. It’s also a great place for meaningful conversation.

3. Place boundaries around screen time – This tip is for everyone in the house. Placing boundaries around screen time reduces distractions, and the extra stimulation, whether from the television, computer, video games, etc. is an invite for alternate quiet, alone time or shared time.

4. Slow down – Be mindful of over-scheduling. There is no such thing as “multi-tasking,” it’s just switching attention back and forth quickly, which means not being fully present in a meaningful way. Make being a shared value and model that. We can all get caught up in our doing, so slowing down works to create balance between the two.

5. “Name it” – This means calling attention to things, both big and small, and encouraging children to notice these things intentionally. For example, “Wow, look at that amazing cloud! I love the way the sun shines around it. What do you think?” Nature lends itself to lots of “naming it” opportunities. In many situations we can bring attention to a feeling or a sensation, and this observation gives children the opportunity to check in with him/herself and notice their experience.

Aubree Kammler is a new mom, managing the work-life balance one [mindful] breath at a time! 

Copyright ©2016 by Parent Today and Capital Region BOCES; Used with permission

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