When Mindfulness Meets the Classroom
Many educators are introducing meditation into the classroom as a means of improving kids’ attention and emotional regulation.
It may not be the typical way to start an English class, but Gonzalez’s students were familiar with these five-minute mindfulness exercises—from counting breaths and focusing on the sensations of breathing, to visualizing thoughts and feelings—that he uses to help train their attention, quiet their thoughts, and regulate their emotions.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, the biologist who first coined the term “mindfulness” in the ’70s, defines it as a state of mind: the act of “paying attention on purpose” to the present moment, with a “non-judgmental” attitude. But mindfulness is really a secular philosophy and set of techniques adapted from thousands-of-years-old Buddhist meditation traditions—ones that only recently landed in mainstream Western consciousness. It was Kabat-Zinn who first formally brought mindfulness into a medical setting; he developed the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, which used specific exercises to help patients dealing with chronic pain and is now widely applied in other therapeutic contexts, and founded the Center for Mindfulness at UMass Medical School.
Still, the body of scientific research illustrating the positive effects of mindfulness training on mental health and well-being—at the level of the brain as well as at the level of behavior—grows steadily more well-established: It improves attention, reduces stress, and results in better emotional regulation and an improved capacity for compassion and empathy. Brain-imaging studies at Harvard and Mass General Hospital have shown that long-term mindfulness training can help thicken the cortical regions related to attention and sensory processing, and may offset thinning of those areas that typically comes with aging. Mindfulness is widely considered effective in psychotherapy as a treatment not just for adults, but also for children and adolescents with aggression, ADHD, or mental-health problems like anxiety. (It remains to be seen whether mindfulness alone is a sufficient replacement for other therapies. In a review last year of 47 different randomized clinical trials, The Journal of the American Medical Associationsuggested that mindfulness training wasn’t any more effective than other types of therapy, like drugs.)
The lack of rigorous, robust, and long-term studies on mindfulness is what makes people like the Penn State University psychologist Mark Greenberg cautious. Greenberg works with the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning—one of the groups at the forefront of the two-decade-old social-and-emotional-learning (SEL) movement. The mindfulness-in-education movement has a lot in common with, and in many ways complements, SEL, since both aim to teach children how to build self-awareness, effectively handle their emotions, and empathetically manage their relationships. Unlike mindfulness, however, which takes more of an inside-out approach by helping students to slow down, intentionally focus their attention from moment to moment, and build compassion, SEL works from the outside in, teaching children a set of skills like how to mediate a conflict, or how to verbally express and explain their emotions to improve communication. Research shows that SEL programs alone have boosted kids’ academic performance, as well as benefitting them socially and emotionally—but many believe mindfulness should also belong in the SEL toolkit.
Linda Lantieri, who helped found the SEL collaborative and has been working on these issues for decades, argues that the best approach to education combines mindfulness and SEL skills rather than treating one as a sufficient replacement for the other. While Greenberg agrees with Lantieri, he is a sober voice amidst the hype and enthusiasm about mindfulness, earning him the fond title of “curmudgeon” in some circles. “We don’t know if these effects last,” Greenberg told me. “Right now the promised benefits far exceed the actual findings.” He is also concerned that mindfulness is just one “flavor of the month” that may detract attention from SEL programs supported by more substantial evidence. (Greenberg recently co-authored an impressive longitudinal study that followed hundreds of students as they progressed from early childhood through young adulthood and found that poor social-emotional skills in kindergarten helped predict negative outcomes across multiple domains of education, employment, criminal activity, substance use, and mental health.)
“I noticed that I could feel [my breath] in my chest,” she told me, “And at that moment, I felt so relieved. The only thing I could think in my mind was, ‘I’m ok.’ And, I don’t know—from that day on, it just didn’t hurt anymore.” She told me she hadn’t been in fights the way she once used to. Her four other brothers are in jail, and she is convinced it’s because they didn’t get the mindfulness training she now has. “Your emotions drive you mad,” she said, but escaping them is possible by “focusing on now.” (Our conversation also benefitted from the fact that I myself have some knowledge of mindfulness; I discovered it during a year off from college as I struggled with anxiety and depression.)
Another student told me she was skeptical about mindfulness but admitted that it could be helpful. She told me that she initially refused to do the exercises, sitting defiantly while others participated. Some of the tasks—like tapping your thumb to each finger individually, to narrowly focus attention on your fingertips—did nothing but irritate her. Eventually, though, she realized she was alone in her resistance, and she began to go through the motions, largely because she likes and respects Gonzalez. She was also struck by a movie Gonzalez showed them that compared two jails, one that trained prisoners in mindfulness and one that didn’t. The prisoners who learned mindfulness were much happier and more successful when they got out. Still, ultimately, she maintains that she doesn’t see the point.
The clinical social worker at Gonzalez’s school—a large man with a warm baritone voice—thinks mindfulness supports the school’s overall SEL mission. “At times all the roles blur—teachers, therapists, social workers. Especially in a school like this. If you don’t address the noise in a kid’s head that they bring in from the outside, I don’t care how good a teacher you are, you’re not going to have much success.”
He was convinced that Gonzalez is on the right track; and that all teachers should get something akin to mindfulness training, given that they must deal with undiagnosed mental conditions on a regular basis. While they are not therapists, they “can at least ease some of the stress in the moment. Long enough to have somebody intervene.”