More Mindfulness, Please: On Bringing Mindfulness into the Classroom

The time is now. We as teachers need it. Our students need it. Our quick-fix, fast-paced society of more and now needs it.
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"When we look at low performing schools it's not that these children are unable to learn, it's that very often they are unavailable to learn." --Jean-Gabrielle Larochette, elementary school teacher

Remember those Ovaltine commercials? The ones where the kids would shout "More Ovaltine, please!" and then the commercial would list the seemingly infinite benefits of the sugary chocolate milk powder? It has a few vitamins and minerals going for it, but it was primarily the hook of the hype machine that had us buying. The hype machine of the mindfulness movement is rolling stronger than ever right now, particularly as it relates to incorporating mindfulness-based practices into our schools. But now the hype is being bolstered by a growing body of empirical evidence from a variety of sectors.

My personal practice of mindfulness was sparked by the teaching of Zen Master Thích Nhất Hạnh, and was reinforced when I attended his 5-day "Happy Teachers Will Change the World" retreat in Ayutthaya, Thailand back in April 2013. Here we were, teachers from all over the world meditating together and discussing the myriad intersections between our personal practice and what we've been able to integrate (or not) into our classrooms. But we weren't just talking in the experiential; we were backing up our experiences by referencing the burgeoning arena of mindfulness-based science in the schools.

I was particularly interested in its application to schools considered "low-income" and/or "at-risk." My experience teaching on the Tohono O'odham Native American Reservation, in low-income high schools and in a juvenile detention center often pulled me to areas of most need.

One teacher brought up the 2011-2012 collaboration between Mindful Schools and UC Davis -- a study that involved 937 students, 47 teachers and 3 public elementary schools that were certainly considered "at-risk." For a detailed breakdown of how the study was conducted, dive into the PDF here. A few highlighted results:

"One teacher showed a video of a student taking a mindful breath after stumbling during a poem recitation in front of 300 students."

"One teacher showed a video of a child kicking chairs after getting a spelling quiz answer wrong, then suddenly stopping, putting his hand on his anchor spot, taking a few breaths, and picking up the chairs."

These were the kind of stories being told at the retreat. Some teachers had asked their students to see the classroom bell as a mindfulness bell. This involved -- at the sound of the bell and instead of rushing to pack up -- taking three breaths before gathering their materials and leaving. Students and teachers both reported feeling less rushed at the end of class and more receptive/calm at the very beginning of their next class.

In 2013 the British Journal of Psychiatry published an article titled "Effectiveness of the Mindfulness in Schools Programme: non-randomized controlled feasibility study" (see PDF) in which researchers from the University of Exeter and Cambridge University sought to fill in this much-needed gap:

"Mindfulness-based approaches for adults are effective at enhancing mental health, but few controlled trials have evaluated their effectiveness among young people." So they took to the schools. Twelve secondary schools, to be exact. Their findings?

"This study provides preliminary evidence that the programme [Mindfulness Programme .b] ameliorates low-grade depressive symptoms both immediately following the programme and at 3-month follow-up. This is a potentially very important finding given that low-grade depressive symptoms not only impair functioning but are also a powerful risk factor for depression in adolescents and adults."

Similar results are being seen across the board and in a variety of cultures and countries. It's happening in New Zealand. It's happening in Thailand. It's happening in Canada.

The time is now. We as teachers need it. Our students need it. Our quick-fix, fast-paced society of more and now needs it. For ways to get started, check out this article by Holly Welham, coordinator for the Guardian Teacher Network, titled "How to introduce mindfulness into your classroom: nine handy tips."

And for more information about the aforementioned study, check out this TEDx talk from Richard Burnett:

Cameron Conaway is the author of Malaria, Poems, an NPR Best Books of 2014 selection.

--Feature Photo: From Planting Seeds of Mindfulness

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