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Mindfulness and Meditation in Schools: Mindful Kids, Peaceful Schools

Mind­ful Kids, Peace­ful Schools

With eyes closed and deep breaths, stu­dents are learn­ing a new method to reduce anx­i­ety, con­flict, and atten­tion dis­or­ders. But don’t call it meditation.

— By Jill Suttie

At Toluca Lake ele­men­tary school in Los Ange­les, a cyclone fence encloses the asphalt black­top, which is teem­ing with kids. It’s recess time and the kids, who are mostly mindfulness exercises for teenagersLatino, are play­ing tag, yelling, throw­ing balls, and jump­ing rope. When the bell rings, they reluc­tantly stop and head back to their class­rooms except for Daniel Murphy’s sec­ond grade class.

Murphy’s stu­dents file into the school audi­to­rium, each car­ry­ing a round blue pil­low dec­o­rated with white stars. They enter gig­gling and chat­ting, but soon they are seated in a cir­cle on their cush­ions, eyes closed, quiet and con­cen­trat­ing. Two teach­ers give the chil­dren instruc­tions on how to pay atten­tion to their breath­ing, telling them to notice the rise and fall of their bel­lies and chests, the pas­sage of air in and out of their noses. Though the room is chilly the heat­ing sys­tem broke down ear­lier that day the chil­dren appear com­fort­able, many with Mona Lisa smiles on their faces.

What did you notice about your breath this morn­ing?” one teacher asks.

Mine was like a dragon,” says Michael, a child to the teacher’s right. Albert, another child, adds, “Yeah, I could see mine. It was like smoke.”

The teach­ers lead the chil­dren through 45 min­utes of exer­cises focused on breath­ing, lis­ten­ing, move­ment, and reflec­tion. At dif­fer­ent points, the kids are asked to gauge their feel­ings calm, neu­tral, or rest­less. There are no right or wrong answers, just obser­va­tion. The ses­sion ends with the chil­dren lying qui­etly on their backs, stuffed ani­mals ris­ing and falling on their stom­achs, as they con­tem­plate peace within them­selves and in their com­mu­nity. Later, seven–year–old Emily sums up her expe­ri­ence. “I like the class because it makes me calm and soft inside. It makes me feel good.”

Toluca Lake is one of a grow­ing num­ber of schools that are using “mind­ful­ness train­ings” in an effort to com­bat increas­ing lev­els of anx­i­ety, social con­flict, and atten­tion dis­or­der among chil­dren. Once a week for 10 to 12 weeks, the stu­dents at Toluca take time out from their nor­mal cur­ricu­lum to learn tech­niques that draw on the Bud­dhist med­i­ta­tive prac­tice of mind­ful­ness, which is meant to pro­mote greater aware­ness of one’s self and one’s envi­ron­ment. Accord­ing to mind­ful­ness edu­ca­tor Susan Kaiser, bring­ing this prac­tice into schools is “really about teach­ing kids how to be in a state of atten­tion, where they can per­ceive thoughts, phys­i­cal sen­sa­tions, and emo­tions with­out judg­ment and with curios­ity and an open state of mind.”

That such an uncon­ven­tional prac­tice with its roots in a reli­gious tra­di­tion, no less has made its way into pub­lic schools may come as a sur­prise to many peo­ple. But schools Yoga school studentshave been turn­ing to mind­ful­ness for very prac­ti­cal rea­sons that don’t con­cern reli­gion, and their efforts have been sup­ported by a recent wave of sci­en­tific results.

Steve Rei­d­man first intro­duced mind­ful­ness prac­tices to Toluca Lake about six years ago. Rei­d­man, a fourth grade teacher at the school, had been expe­ri­enc­ing prob­lems with class­room man­age­ment first for him, after many years of teach­ing. Con­flicts on the play­ground were esca­lat­ing and affect­ing his stu­dents’ abil­ity to set­tle down and con­cen­trate in class. When he con­fided his prob­lems to Kaiser, a per­sonal friend, she offered to come to his class to teach mind­ful­ness, a tech­nique she’d taught to kids as a vol­un­teer at a local boys and girls club.

I noticed a dif­fer­ence right away,” says Rei­d­man. “There was less con­flict on the play­ground, less test anx­i­ety just the way the kids walked into the class­room was dif­fer­ent. Our state test scores also went up that year, which I’d like to attribute to my teach­ing but I think had more to do with the breath­ing they did right before they took the test.”

Keep read­ing…

News of Reidman’s pos­i­tive expe­ri­ence spread to other classes at the school and helped launch Kaiser’s career as the founder and direc­tor of a new non­profit orga­ni­za­tion: InnerKids. Funded through pri­vate grants, its mis­sion is to teach mind­ful aware­ness prac­tices to stu­dents in pub­lic and pri­vate schools for lit­tle or no cost. In the last five years, the orga­ni­za­tion has served hun­dreds of schools across the coun­try and has grown to the point where there’s more demand for the pro­gram than Kaiser can han­dle alone. Recently, she retired from her suc­cess­ful law prac­tice to devote her­self fully to InnerKids. She’s now busy train­ing new teach­ers. “Requests come from all over New York, Cal­i­for­nia, the Mid­west,” says Kaiser. “It’s really amaz­ing how this has caught on.”

A 2004 sur­vey of mind­ful­ness pro­grams by the Gar­ri­son Insti­tute in New York an orga­ni­za­tion that stud­ies and pro­motes mind­ful­ness and med­i­ta­tion in edu­ca­tion showed that many schools are adopt­ing mind­ful­ness train­ings because the tech­niques are easy to learn and can help chil­dren become “more respon­sive and less reac­tive, more focused and less dis­tracted, [and] more calm and less stressed.” While mind­ful­ness can pro­duce inter­nal ben­e­fits to kids, the Gar­ri­son report also found that it can cre­ate a more pos­i­tive learn­ing envi­ron­ment, where kids are primed to pay attention.

InnerKids is one of sev­eral mind­ful­ness edu­ca­tion pro­grams that have sprouted up around the coun­try; oth­ers include the Impact Foun­da­tion in Col­orado and the Lin­eage Project in New York City, which teaches mind­ful­ness to at risk and incar­cer­ated teenagers. Like these pro­grams, Kaiser’s cur­ricu­lum was inspired by the work of Jon Kabat Zinn, the founder of the Stress Reduc­tion Pro­gram at the Uni­ver­sity of Mass­a­chu­setts Med­ical School. Kabat Zinn was among the first sci­en­tists to rec­og­nize that mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion might have heal­ing ben­e­fits for adult patients suf­fer­ing from chronic pain. He devel­oped a sec­u­lar ver­sion of the Bud­dhist prac­tice, which he called Mind­ful­ness Based Stress Reduc­tion (MBSR), and ran stud­ies demon­strat­ing its effec­tive­ness. Now, with over a thou­sand stud­ies pub­lished in peer review jour­nals about it, Kabat Zinn’s MBSR pro­gram has been found to reduce not only chronic pain but also high blood pres­sure and cho­les­terol lev­els. Evi­dence also sug­gests MBSR can help improve one’s abil­ity to han­dle stress and alle­vi­ate depres­sion, anx­i­ety, post trau­matic stress, and eat­ing disorders.

Despite the suc­cess of MBSR with adults, there has been lit­tle cor­re­spond­ing research on chil­dren, though that’s start­ing to change. At the Uni­ver­sity of British Colum­bia in Canada, psy­chol­o­gist Kim­berly Schon­ert Reichl and a grad­u­ate stu­dent, Molly Stew­art Lawlor, recently fin­ished a pilot project on mind­ful­ness in schools, with fund­ing and teacher train­ing pro­vided by the Bright Lights Foun­da­tion (now called the Goldie Hawn Insti­tute), an orga­ni­za­tion founded by actress and children’s advo­cate Goldie Hawn. Fourth through sev­enth graders in six Van­cou­ver pub­lic schools were instructed in mind­ful aware­ness tech­niques and pos­i­tive think­ing skills, then tested for changes in their behav­ior, social and emo­tional com­pe­tence, moral devel­op­ment, and mood.

The pos­i­tive response to the pro­gram was almost imme­di­ate. “In one class­room, the chil­dren went from hav­ing the most behav­ioral prob­lems in the school as mea­sured by num­ber of vis­its to the principal’s office to hav­ing zero behav­ioral prob­lems, after only two to three weeks of instruc­tion,” says Schon­ert Reichl. Her results also showed that these chil­dren were less aggres­sive, less oppo­si­tional toward teach­ers, and more atten­tive in class. Those who received the mind­ful­ness train­ing also reported feel­ing more pos­i­tive emo­tion and opti­mism, and seemed more intro­spec­tive than chil­dren who were on a wait­list for the train­ing. “It’s impor­tant to do research like this because kids need some­thing to cope with all the pres­sures at school,” says Schon­ert Reichl. “If we don’t find some­thing to help them, there are going to be tremen­dous health costs for these kids down the road.”

Keep read­ing…

Sim­i­lar research is get­ting under­way in the United States. Susan Smal­ley, a geneti­cist and the direc­tor of the new Mind­ful Aware­ness Research Cen­ter at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Los Ange­les, has found that a mod­i­fied ver­sion of MBSR can help teenagers with Atten­tion Deficit Hyper­ac­tiv­ity Dis­or­der (ADHD) by reduc­ing their anx­i­ety and increas­ing their abil­ity to focus. She is con­tin­u­ing to work with ADHD teens, but her encour­ag­ing results have prompted her to won­der if MBSR might help other groups of chil­dren par­tic­u­larly preschool­ers, who must learn to reg­u­late their emo­tions and behav­iors to be suc­cess­ful through­out school. She con­tacted Kaiser and together they launched a pro­gram with chil­dren attend­ing a preschool run by UCLA. They adapted a ver­sion of Kaiser’s cur­ricu­lum to see if it could be taught to such young kids; their results so far indi­cate that it can. Now they’re embark­ing on a series of stud­ies over the next year that will com­pare a con­trol group to the UCLA preschool­ers, as well as to sec­ond and fourth graders at Toluca Lake.

We want to find out if mind­ful­ness can help chil­dren over their entire lifes­pan, and if it might help inoc­u­late them against psy­cho­log­i­cal prob­lems later in life,” says Smalley.

Patri­cia Jen­nings, a researcher at the Gar­ri­son Insti­tute, finds much of this research encour­ag­ing but says more work is nec­es­sary to prove the effec­tive­ness of mind­ful­ness pro­grams. In par­tic­u­lar, she hopes stud­ies will focus on spe­cific com­po­nents of these pro­grams and con­trol for other fac­tors that might be oper­at­ing on the kids. This will give researchers and prac­ti­tion­ers a bet­ter sense of which aspects of the pro­grams have the most pos­i­tive effects on chil­dren. “If we found some­thing, like breath aware­ness, that is effec­tive at reduc­ing stress and requires very lit­tle in terms of teacher train­ing or cost, we would have a lot eas­ier time get­ting it into school cur­ric­ula,” she says.

Despite these con­cerns, teach­ers have encoun­tered lit­tle resis­tance to intro­duc­ing mind­ful­ness to their stu­dents, and they report gen­er­ally pos­i­tive results. Though some expressed ini­tial con­cern about how par­ents might react to the pro­grams which, after all, grew out of spir­i­tual tra­di­tions prac­ti­tion­ers and researchers say they have suc­cess­fully removed mind­ful­ness from any reli­gious con­text. I don’t even like to use the word Med­i­ta­tion when I talk about Mind­ful­ness, since it has reli­gious con­no­ta­tions for some, says Smal­ley. The pro­grams we are study­ing are about stress reduc­tion and increas­ing aware­ness and are totally secular.

Still, there’s likely to be con­tro­versy around these pro­grams as they expand, says Goldie Hawn. “There will always be peo­ple who see this as scary, or as some kind of East­ern phi­los­o­phy that they don’t want for their kids,” she says.

But, she adds, most peo­ple find research results con­vinc­ing, and she believes research will even­tu­ally show that mind­ful­ness helps kids in much the same way it’s already been shown to help adults. “Mind­ful­ness gives kids a tool for under­stand­ing how their brain works, for hav­ing more self-control,” says Hawn. “If we know it also has the poten­tial to decrease stress, decrease depres­sion, and increase health and hap­pi­ness like the research on adults shows wouldn’t it be self­ish to with­hold it from children?”

At Toluca Lake Ele­men­tary School, the stu­dents make their own argu­ments in favor of mind­ful­ness. “Last week, I made a pic­ture of a heart to give to a spe­cial friend of mine, but my lit­tle brother ripped it up. I was really mad at him,” says Emily, of Daniel Murphy’s sec­ond grade class. She pauses a moment before adding, “Breath­ing helped me to calm my anger. I real­ized, Hey, I can just do it over again.’ I never would have thought like that if I hadn’t taken the class.”

Jill Suttie Greater Good— Jill Sut­tie, Psy.D., is Greater Good’s book review edi­tor and a free­lance writer. Copy­right Greater Good. Greater Good Mag­a­zine [1], based at UC-Berkeley, is a quar­terly mag­a­zine that high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tific research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altruism.

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