Brought to you by Learning Disabilities Worldwide (LDW®) through the generosity of Saint Joseph's University.
To the doctor, the child is a typhoid patient; to the playground
supervisor, a first baseman; to the teacher, a learner of arithmetic.
At times, he may be different things to each of these specialists,
but too rarely is he a whole child to any of them (White House
Conference on Child Health and Protection, 1930: Washington, D.C.).
The above quote, delivered over eighty years ago, highlights a recognized need for all individuals working with children: to see a child as a whole person no matter what setting they are in. For elementary school teachers this is especially important because children are in our classrooms for six or more hours a day, five days a week. Teachers experience first hand how academics and social-emotional abilities are entwined and that in order to make progress in one area, the whole child must be recognized and nurtured in all areas: cognitive, behavior, social, and emotional.
As students return to school, we as teachers have the opportunity to look at the children in our classrooms with fresh eyes. These children are the proud sons, daughters and friends of the community as well as our students. When going to school some children bring bubbly eager to learn personalities while others, many with learning or social-emotional difficulties, cross the school’s threshold with feelings of reluctance and fear of failure based on previous frustrations with the academic environment. While some children bring the joy and support bestowed on them by their families of origin into the classroom, others feel the stress that their families feel in regard to managing daily adult responsibilities and do not find supportive learning situations at home. No matter where you teach or what grade you teach, every child in your classroom is an individual imprinted with a complex array of circumstances and we are tasked to work with them all.
As teachers, we are trained to impart skills and knowledge to students in a variety of academic domains; flexible to the many changes in math or reading curriculum and methodology, we grumble, adapt and go with the flow of new requirements. A child’s repertoire of skills enabling him or her to adapt to change is not yet fully developed, thus change of any kind often presents itself as stress and frustration to a child. This is further complicated if a child has learning or emotional difficulties. Scientists who study the brain report that healthy brain functioning is impaired by stress, making it difficult for students to learn. How can we as teachers interrupt this cycle of stress and frustration? We can do what we have been trained to do best; impart to our students the necessary knowledge and skills to manage the stress and frustration they experience in the classroom.
What is Mindfulness?
One way to help students manage stress in their lives is to teach them ways to stay focused in the present. Mindfulness is a skill that has been described as “a flexible state of mind in which we are actively engaged in the present…” as contrasted with a state of mindlessness described as “act(ing) according to the sense our behavior made in the past, rather than the present…” (Langer, 2000, p.220). This active engagement in the present, or mindfulness, has its roots in Eastern culture and philosophy, yet is embraced by Western culture as a way to manage the inherent stress of modern living. In the 1970’s, a biologist at the University of Massachusetts, Jon Kabat-Zinn, integrated the concept of mindfulness into a therapeutic technique known as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). MBSR is a manualized treatment protocol that emphasizes paying attention in the moment while monitoring thoughts to keep out distractions. Kabatt-Zinn defined mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally” (Kabat-Zinn, 1994, p.4). Indeed, research in multiple areas has acknowledged that voluntarily focusing attention in this way has resulted in the positive management of stress related illness (such as chronic pain), behaviors (such as loneliness) and emotional difficulties (such as anxiety) (Jha, 2013; WIckelgren, 2012).
Mindfulness Programs in Schools
In addition to the therapeutic-health benefits of a mindfulness practice, several mindfulness curriculums have been introduced into school settings with promising results. Program reviews of these curriculums report lowered stress levels and increased executive function abilities (see Benhar, Emotional Self-Regulation, SSL V. 5-1, 2011 for a fuller discussion of Executive Functions) with ongoing school-based mindfulness practice. Although it may appear that students are doing nothing as they engage in meditative practice, promoters extoll benefits such as increased ability to focus, concentrate, and relax. Two school-based mindfulness curriculums with successful programs are:
MindUP. A program first sanctioned by the Vancouver, B.C. public school system known as MindUp, seeks to sharpen children’s psychological skill set known as executive functions. Executive functions are essential abilities for engaging in goal-directed behaviors such as using information in working memory flexibly, inhibiting responses and paying attention. MindUp uses a series of lessons that teach students about brain anatomy, positive psychology, optimism, and of course, staying in the present moment. In addition to the direct instruction, students practice mindfulness several times throughout the day as a group by silently coming together, closing their eyes and focusing on their breathing. The proponents claim that by focusing on the breathing, children can “calm the emotional storm, making the skies for learning blue again. Focusing on breathing teaches kids to pay attention to moment-by-moment experience” (Wickelgren, 2012, p.52). Results from a research investigation of fourth and fifth grader’s cortisol level (a stress hormone) found that students enrolled in the MindUp program had cortisol levels that remained stable throughout the data collection points. However, those fourth and fifth graders not in the MindUp program demonstrated a cortisol pattern reflective of chronic stress at the end of the school year. Researchers concluded that the MindUp program helped to protect students from end of the year stress.
Quiet Time. Developed by a Washington D.C. principal in the 1990’s to directly combat student stress, Quiet Time uses twice daily in school meditation practices to prepare students to learn. Students in Quiet Time schools start their day with 15 minutes of meditation to “get a break from all the pressured activity in their lives” (Dierke, 2012, p. 15). Quiet time schools offer teachers and students training in a meditative practice called Transcendental Meditation, which has been shown to be effective at reducing stress and promoting healthy brain development. Students sit at their desks, eyes closed, twice a day, either engaging in the trained meditation or quiet reflection, either way, the whole school is at peace for 15 minutes twice a day. In student surveys about the school-wide practice, “85 percent of students reported that Quiet Time reduced their stress levels, increased their focus, improved health, and reduced violence in the school” (Dierke, 2012, p. 16). In addition to student support of the program, school administration reported that school suspensions decreased, school attendance increased, and student GPA’s increased.
Teaching Ways to be Mindful
In searching for ways to accept the whole child that is at the core of the students’ in your classroom, mindfulness techniques can be beneficial. Unfortunately not all schools and school districts have jumped on the mindfulness bandwagon, but there are ways to implement aspects of mindfulness in your classroom in order to help students increase attention and reduce stress. As with most things we learn, practice makes perfect. If you want to add mindfulness practice into your classroom, it is best that you get comfortable with the concepts and practice the techniques first. Then you will be more at ease to bring the children along on the journey. Main points on the journey include (adapted from Saltzman & Goldin, 2008):
Have children sit quietly at least once a week for several minutes.
With eyes closed have them focus on their breathing.
Direct students to become aware of thoughts, feelings and physical sensations.
Guide students to pay attention in the present moment from a place of kindness and curiosity.
Encourage students to “watch” their thoughts go by without getting stuck in them.
After mindfulness practice, ask students to share how they felt.
Respond to all comments and circumstances that arise rather than react.
Children’s interpretations are different than adults – ask rather than assume you know what they mean.
Guide students to return to the “Still Quiet Place” of their own making whenever they feel they want or need to focus or quiet the anxiety inside them.
As with teaching any skill or knowledge, we hope that our students will see the value of the knowledge we have shared. However, not all children will be interested in practicing mindfulness regularly, but given the skill, they can chose to apply the technique when they need it – before a test, when they have had a fight with a friend, when situations at home become difficult, etc. Furthermore, as the classroom teacher that is with the student six hours a day, five days a week, we need to realize our own true intention – perhaps that is to develop greater levels of patience, kindness or clarity. “Once we realize our true intentions, we can choose a skillful path. Perhaps living mindfully, being present with and responsive to our children moment by moment is more important than getting them to practice mindfulness” (Saltzman & Goldin, 2008, p.158).
Dierke, J.S. (2012, September/October). A quiet transformation. Leadership, 14-17.
Hayes, S.C., & Greco, L.A. (2008). Acceptance and mindfulness for youth: It’s time. Acceptance and mindfulness treatments for children and adolescents. A practitioner’s guide. Edited by Laurie A. Greco & Steven C. Hayes, Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. New York: Hyperion.
Jha, A.P. (2013). Being in the now. Scientific American Mind, 24, 26-33.
Langer, E.J. (2000). Mindful learning. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 9, 220-223.
Saltzman, A. & Goldin, P. (2008). Mindfulness-based stress reduction for school-age children. Acceptance and mindfulness treatments for children and adolescents. A practitioner’s guide. Edited by Laurie A. Greco & Steven C. Hayes, Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Wickelgren, I. (2012). The education of character. Scientific American Mind, 23, 48-58.
Micheline Malow, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor in the Department of Special Education at Manhattanville College located in Purchase, New York. Dr. Malow teaches courses in Foundations of Special Education and Child Development. She has presented at numerous professional conferences and published articles on risk taking behavior and students with disabilities. She has co-authored a book with Greenwood Press, Adolescents and Risk. Dr. Malow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.