Mindfulness in schools (an opinion)
Mindfulness lessons are warranted and needed
This response was inspired by a social media post about mindfulness in schools. Said post was not a viral rant by an extremist, but rather a Facebook update from a high school friend. I think that’s why it hit me so hard. If people I know, who live in my town, and who’s children attend my city’s schools feels this way, I’m saddened and concerned. Let me preface that I believe that all people are granted their right to their opinion. At the same time, I believe that I am granted the right to disagree and to explain my point. So here it is:
I’m sad not for our schools, or for this person, but for her children, and other children in families where it is not okay to feel the feels. I worry for children in families where taking a moment to look inward and think deeply about feelings, where they come from, and how they are best expressed because these are the children who lead teachers to post messages like this (posted 48 hours after the post above by a National Board Certified, former Teacher of the Year):
And posts like this. Just three days before the post demonizing mindfulness, a loved and respected colleague posted this: one of her former students lost his battle with depression.
Additionally, it is often the students who don’t know how to handle their emotions who act out behaviorally and struggle academically. This is not to say mindfulness is the end all be all. There are other ways to tackle the daily traumas our children face, but it is a tool that kids can use at school and at home and I fully believe that equipping them with this tool can help them be more balanced, more focused, more successful and happier.
As an evidence based educator, I looked to the research when considering my response to mindfulness naysayers. In that research, I found a definition of mindfulness that I feel rings true to how I’ve seen schools practice it.
In a comprehensive peer reviewed article on mindfulness in schools professors Katherine Weare and Felicia Huppert define mindfulness as “the ability to be aware of our experience as it is happening, while maintaining an attitude of openness, curiosity and kindness.”
One of the biggest issues those against mindfulness have is they connect it to eastern religions like Buddhism. Yes, many of the ideas of mindfulness do have Buddhist origins, but the elements extracted from those ideas are secular and student/person based and are not tied to any form of faith or worship.
Most importantly, mindfulness is good for student’s and teacher’s (really any human being’s) mental AND physical health.
Weare and Huppert did a comprehensive study of peer reviewed research on the bodily impacts of mindfulness. This deep dive into the research concluded that “mindfulness can have a significant impact on physical well-being, including pain, medical disorders such as psoriasis and fibromyalgia, and indicators such as blood pressure and heart rate.”
This is in addition to the known mental rewards of mindfulness. Willem Kuyken et al. published their findings in 2015 in the The British Journal of Psychiatry. Their study focused on depression, stress, anxiety, and well-being. Their study and others are beginning to form the empirical research base showing that mindfulness can positively impact mental health, social health and the well being of students.
The research is still relatively new, as is the implementation of mindfulness in most most schools, but the empirical studies are showing that mindfulness does improve positive well-being and decrease prevalence of depression, anxiety and stress.
One of the reasons educators and researchers believe that mindfulness is so effective for students is because it helps students self-regulate.
Weare and Huppert define self-regulation as “the ability to monitor and control thoughts, behaviors/actions and emotions, which has been found to be predictive of a wide range of outcomes around student well-being,” such as decreased stress, anxiety and depression, decreased disruptive classroom behaviors and disciplinary incidents, and improved grades and performance.”
Mindfulness may look and feel a little “hokey” at times, but with suicide being the third leading cause of death of individuals ages 10 to 14, I’m more than happy to spend some time on hokey mindful activities that might give my students coping strategies that could prevent them from becoming one of these statistics.
I could go on, but I don’t want to rant here. Rather, I’d like to offer ways that I incorporate moments of mindfulness in my classroom. Over the next several weeks, I will share the various activities (we refer to it as “Zen Time” in my classroom ) I take my high school seniors through to help them be more mindful and to give them coping strategies for dealing with their daily stress.
For more research check out Mindfulness Training in Primary Schools Decreases Negative Affect and Increases Meta-Cognition in Children and Effectiveness of the Mindfulness in Schools Programme: non-randomised controlled feasibility study .