The word “mindfulness” can conjure images of yogis sitting cross-legged on a rug, eyes closed, hands resting on knees, forefingers and thumbs touching.
But consider these images: A child taking a moment to breathe instead of lashing out in anger. A child shifting her attention back to the teacher after being distracted for a moment. A child showing empathy for a new student in class. These are just some of the possible benefits of teaching mindfulness to children in school.
Mindfulness is a growing area of interest for educators. Indeed, the mindful movement in general is having a moment, with growing recognition of its benefits for people of all ages. The Association for Mindfulness in Education lists a host of positive outcomes from mindfulness training in schools, including improved abilities in attention, memory, impulse control, anger management and emotional regulation. Decreases in anxiety and depression, and increases in self-calming and social skills are also powerful reasons to incorporate mindfulness in the classroom.
One Valley nonprofit is taking up that charge. Since 2013, Mindfulness First has supported schools and teachers by providing curriculum, instruction and mentoring in mindfulness.
“The research was just so compelling,” says Sunny Wight, founder and executive director of Mindfulness First. “We knew it was time for us to start teaching mindfulness in schools.”
Mindfulness First has collaborated with a number of public and charter schools in the Valley. Currently its efforts are focused on supporting David Crockett Elementary School in the Balsz School District in Phoenix. Crockett is unique in that it serves a large refugee community as well as families experiencing homelessness.
“It’s a population that really knows adversity and uncertainty,” says Wight.
Adversity and uncertainty take a toll on the growing brain in a variety of ways, and the effects are seen not only in social-emotional well-being but in academic performance. Prolonged exposure to stress hormones is termed toxic stress, which causes problems in such areas as learning, attention, memory, impulse control and emotional regulation. Chronic stress primes the brain to be on guard for potential threats. And when a child is on guard, learning something like the 50 state capitals seems relatively unimportant.
“The first port of call when we work with kids is to teach them what is going on in the brain,” says Wight. “We teach them about the amygdala, the prefrontal cortex, the hippocampus, and we teach them — even the young ones — about the fight-flight-freeze reflex.”
Another important step is teaching children to recognize their own stress reactions. To accomplish this, children are taught to pay attention to the sensations in their bodies when certain emotions arise.
“Once they spend some time getting to know themselves on that very intimate level, you can’t take it away from them,” says Wight. She explains that this knowledge applies even to bullying situations. “The children have spent a lot of time with their feelings and emotions, and they can recognize anger before it even starts.”
Wight credits Crockett Principal Sean Hannafin for introducing a mindfulness strategy called “mindful minute.” Students can self-monitor and, when needed, raise their hands in a certain way to indicate to the teacher that they need to step away and regroup, perhaps through breathing work that they have been taught. This is much preferred over the implosion/meltdown scenarios that can occur when students are not mindful that stress is building.
Some critics of teaching mindfulness in schools view it as touchy-feely, and others worry about possible religious associations with mindfulness practice. Wight addresses the first charge by citing the academic and behavioral successes at Crockett.
“The school has the lowest suspension rate in the district, despite its complex population with high student turnover,” she says.
In addition, the school’s most recent Arizona Department of Education letter grade increased from a C in 2014 to a B in 2017, with a designation of “highly performing.”
“You can now see it in their test scores,” Wight says of the mindfulness approach.
Meditation, which is often equated with mindfulness, is used in many of the world’s religions. Wight’s organization is careful not to bring in any particular worldview in their instruction.
“There are so many other tools in mindfulness besides meditation,” says Wight.
At Crockett Elementary School, mindfulness is one component in an effort to create a safe space for students where they can learn and grow. However, all students, in all schools, learn best when they have the tools to manage stress.
Says Wight, “It’s the foundation for education. It’s the foundation for life. It’s the foundation for everything you do.”