Mindfulness. It’s probably not the first time you’re hearing this word, which is often paired with the word meditation. It may elicit images of skinny people doing yoga atop a Cliffside by the ocean while picturesque waves crash all around them but they aren’t even noticing it because they’re just so mindful that they can’t even. Turns out, that’s not what mindfulness is, because it’s being used in public elementary school lessons for children as young as five years old and although it does often involve yoga, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Mindfulness is the practice of observing one’s thoughts, emotions and actions without passing judgment, with the intent to create a sense of self-awareness that allows one to live each moment of the day in the present. The word mindfulness was inspired by one of the seven factors of enlightenment of Buddhism called sati which means “to remember” and refers to presence of the mind, rather than memory of thoughts which signifies the past. Mindfulness became a popularized concept in America in the 1970s largely in part due to the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, a scientist, writer and meditation teacher. He taught mindfulness in such a way that it was seen less like a religious practice and more as a necessary component to living a healthy life.
Everything is a Controversy:
“Since the 1960s, the United States Supreme Court has found it unconstitutional for public schools to teach religious practices such as prayer” (Brown, Psychology Today). Therefore, teachers must be cautious of the words they use to describe the mindfulness lessons and exercises they implement in their classrooms. The word meditation is being used less and less, substituted for the word mindfulness. Similar to what John Kabat-Zinn achieved, educators are secularizing mindfulness in the classroom so that it will appear less like a religion lesson, which it is not, and more as a way of helping children cope with stress, increase attention skills, and learn to respect others.
David S. Black and Randima Fernando published data “from the largest mindfulness intervention trial for children” in the Journal of Child and Family Studies in 2014 which produced measurable results that showed students’ improved attention skills, active participation in classroom activities, and increased respect for others” (Black and Fernando, 1245). In this trial, teachers self-reported student behaviors before and after the five-week study in which the curriculum from the Mindful Schools program was implemented in a California public elementary school. The Mindful Schools program has designed curriculum for children ages K-8 and classrooms and grade levels were randomly assigned to receive three fifteen minute sessions for five weeks or seven weeks, taught by trained mindfulness meditation teachers. Children learned about mindful listening, mindful movement, and mindful eating. You can see some of these lessons in action on the documentary called Healthy Habits of Mind.
The objective of introducing mindfulness techniques to children is to encourage “improved self-regulation, attention control, and reduced psychological stress in youth” (Black and Fernando, 1242). By proactively teaching students how to cope with negative emotions and stress, teachers can create a calm learning atmosphere that is less disruptive and therefore better geared towards learning. The fact of the matter is that social issues both inside and outside of the classroom have a significant impact on how children learn, pay attention, and treat others. Unfortunately, minority children from low socioeconomic status families face the bulk of these issues, which can range anywhere from bullying inside and outside of the classroom to family struggles such as living in disadvantaged neighborhoods or not having enough food to eat. They oftentimes lack a support system to help guide them through difficult times. Through mindfulness training those children can learn how to help themselves in times of distress by regulating their own bodies and minds depending on the circumstance.
The results of the study demonstrate that teachers believe that students show better classroom behavior after completing the mindfulness program. Limitations to the study include: small sample size of students from only one elementary school, lack of including a control group for comparison, and the self-reporting by the teachers whose opinions towards their students may have influenced their reporting. Additionally, the study lasted less than one year and there has since been no follow-up to determine whether or not the students’ behavior was maintained after the study. However, Black and Fernando believe that the study still provides evidence to suggest that “mindfulness training may improve classroom behaviors among ethnically diverse and lower-income school children” (Black and Fernando, 1245).
Another program similar to the Mindful Schools program that has seen equally positive results is the Move-Into-Learning (MIL) program which “combines movement, music and arts in a series of forty-five minute classroom based sessions…the overall aim of MIL is to give children in underserved areas tools to manage stress and to encourage self-efficacy” (Klatt, et. al, 234). The MIL program is part of a Mindfulness-Based Intervention program (MBI) which combines yoga, music, written, and visual arts. In a study completed by Klatt, et. al, published in the Journal of Positive Psychology in 2013, participation in the MBI program resulted in positive effects on the behavior of low socioeconomic status students and showed that “a daily opportunity to practice mindfulness and to connect with one’s body through movement has the potential to relieve stress in both teachers and students” (Klatt, et. al, 239). The limitations to this study were similar to that of Black and Fernando’s study which includes a small sample size, lack of a control group, and the fact that participants were not double-blinded. However, both the studies concluded that there is evidence for students’ positively benefitting from these programs.
Although no long term research has been completed, I think it is worth the time of schools across the country to implement programs such as Move-Into-Learning, as well as lessons from the Mindful Schools curriculum in their classrooms, or to develop their own mindfulness curriculums. What stands out the most to me from both the Journal of Child and Family Studies article and the Journal of Positive Psychology article is the fact that teachers reported positive changes in their students’ behavior. By teaching children mindfulness, we are collectively as a society showing children that they matter. It is very easy to overlook children and assume that they cannot comprehend the world around them, but in fact they can and they are acutely aware of the same things that adults are. They have an equally broad range of emotions as adults, and they are highly sensitive to their school, home, and relational environments. In my personal experiences with children I have learned that there is no subject too advanced for a child to understand if it is presented to them in ways that they can comprehend. It does not take long for a child to learn how to be attentive and learn how to be thoughtful of themselves and others. Teaching mindfulness to children is a way of showing them that they matter, and that teachers and parents care about them enough to help them cope with stressful situations now, which they can then carry over to their middle schools years, high schools years, and throughout the rest of their lives.
Thank you for letting me share some of my personal academic interests here on the blog! Shoutout to my Religion, Culture & Health teacher for introducing me to this topic several weeks ago.
*All images are via Google or Bing and do not belong to me.
Black, David S. and Fernando, Randima. “Mindfulness Training and Classroom Behavior Among Lower-Income and Ethnic Minority Elementary School Children”. Journal of Family and Child Studies. Volume 23, Issue 7, pp. 1242-1246.
Brown, Candy Gunther. “Mindfulness Meditation in Public Schools: When Will Courts Notice the ‘New American Religion’?” Psychology Today. December 5, 2014. Online.
Klatt, Maryana, et. al. “Feasibility and Preliminary Outcomes for Move-Into-Learning: An Arts-Based Mindfulness Classroom Intervention”. The Journal of Positive Psychology: Dedicated to furthering research and promoting good practice, DOI:10.1080/17439760.2013.779011.