“When the student is ready the teacher will appear.” ~ Buddha
I had the privilege this year to teach over 175 eighth graders the art of mindfulness once a week for over 10 weeks. It was a profound experience for them and completely eye-opening for me. Although I had taught hundreds of elementary aged children mindfulness, I did not realize how desperate our teenagers were for this practice in their life.
It wasn’t instant buy-in at first.
I recall the first time the students walked into their Science class that Friday to see me sitting at the side of the room. They immediately went into ‘substitute teacher’ mode. I smiled and walked to the front of the room and stood quietly, ignoring their comments and rambunctiousness. I had forewarned their Science teacher, sitting in the back of the room, to let them just be themselves and not correct their behavior. She was visibly nervous.
I began the lesson by telling them that in the next 15 weeks, I would be teaching them possibly the most important lessons in their education and there wouldn’t be any exams. They sat up in disbelief. Several boys and a few girls were adamant that first day to prove me wrong by rolling their eyes and verbalizing how ‘this was stupid.’
However, by understanding their fears of vulnerability, I knew it would only take a few days to show them how mindfulness was self-empowering.
The first lesson dealt with the Limbic System of their brain and how it triggers our response to stress; good and bad. I wasn’t ready for their onslaught of questions.
“So, if I just calm my amygdala,[structure that controls the emotional center] I can do better on tests?”
“Can it keep me from blowing up at my little sister?”
“When my mom is yelling at me and I get angry, is that my emotional center going crazy? And if I think about my breathing, it will calm me down?”
As I gave examples of how this system could wreak havoc in their lives or cause joy and pleasure, I realized how little we taught metacognition; how we ‘think about our thinking.’ As teachers we are taught about it in theory, but rarely do our lessons generate enough time for reflection on how they learn. Students were hungry for this information and how to apply it to their lives.
The next couple of weeks were lessons about how to calm our ‘fight or flight’ center by utilizing breathing techniques and mindfulness behavior. It is usually by the third lesson I have almost complete student buy-in. Those that weren’t feeling comfortable during the exercises, I discovered, were my ‘red flags’. These students were experiencing physical or emotional trauma in their lives and were choosing exiting or defensive strategies to avoid being vulnerable.
The Science teacher was told to write down their names, so we could watch them more closely and possible seek additional counseling for them. There were eight of them. By the end of the 15 weeks with me, there were only three we felt needed additional help.
“Students were hungry for [mindfulness] and how to apply it to their lives.”
However, there was a flaw in this program.
I realized though, that the program would fail with only one point of contact, me. In corporations, a one point contact scenario almost always fails, since you are relying on that one person to pass on important information, instead of all stakeholders grasping the concept and using it.
Although the school district had adopted the MindUp program last year, it wasn’t becoming a daily practice within each classroom. Only one of the four teachers on the team used it daily. The district counselors were trained to dispense the program to their teachers, however the counselors didn’t have the time in their schedule to train the teachers. In order for this program to integrate completely into the school, the teachers must be properly trained and supported.
I have taught mindfulness in my classroom since 2008 using the Hawn Foundation MindUp program. I saw incredible changes in my students and knew I was on to something that could transform education. As far as I knew, I was the only teacher in Washoe County, at that time, that was utilizing this program in the classroom daily.
Here are some of the eighth graders thoughts by the tenth week of lessons about Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction.
“My son suffers from depression, and we almost lost him to suicide. He comes home now and practices Mindfulness. He has told me how much it is making a difference for him.” – parent.
“After learning mindfulness, I felt more calm in my everyday life. I was also able to handle the stresses from home a lot better.”- Tawny
“Mindfulness has taught me not to take things so personally from my friends or family. I can now take situations more calmly and not hold on.”- Jon
“I really like walking into my Math teacher’s class. She has a mindful video on and the lights are dim. It’s really relaxing, and I can focus better.”- Jeremy
“I taught mindfulness to my mom when she would get angry. Now when she gets mad, she will go off and breathe before we talk.”- Ryan
Research shows that mindfulness training for students could help in the reduction of stress levels by teaching them many ways to handle their daily onslaught of stressors. Many studies are showing it is lowering the incidences of school violence and absenteeism, as well as teacher retention and increase in test scores. (educationnews.org) That is an impressive report card.
Education is slowly taking a shift in how it needs to prepare students for the real world. Several visionary school districts are realizing they need to prepare students for the 21st Century. These programs help to build resiliency and self-regulation to deal with the overwhelming amount of information put upon them from teachers, parents, as well as social media. They are using programs such as MiSP (Mindfulness in Schools Project), Mindful Schools, Mindful Education, the free course, called the Palouse Mindfulness Course for schools, as well as The Hawn Foundation.
In Katrina Schwartz’s article about low-income schools seeing a difference, she reports that educators at Nystrom Elementary school in Richmond are seeing some of those positive effects in their students. “This year is much better,” said third-grade teacher Glenna Hamilton. “Last year, it was just horrible.” One of Hamilton’s most disruptive students became more respectful and responsible since he began receiving mindfulness training. “If he does something incorrect, instead of being argumentative with me, he really thinks about it and realizes, ‘I didn’t make a good choice,’ and I see him self-correcting,” she said. (Schwartz, 2014)
Mindfulness in schools can also identify troubled students. When in a classroom of students, teachers can easily spot students that are uneasy when having to practice breathing techniques or when writing in their Gratitude Journals. Within the first week of teaching mindfulness to my students, I was able to identify eight students who later shared that they were either victims of physical or emotional abuse, to one with ADHD and ODD (Oppositional Defiance Disorder.) This was encouraging for our counselors who often find it difficult to get into each classroom every day. Once I was able to identify these ‘red flags’, we were able to conduct a more meaningful counseling program to help these at-risk students.
“Mindfulness practices in schools can help identify children in crisis.”
Dr. Joel Dvoskin, a nationally known Clinical Psychologist based in Arizona stated in an interview that “once we can identify young children through various mental health screenings, we can then begin a course of action to help those in crisis.” Dr. Dvoskin feels that using Mindfulness in schools is one such practice that can help in identifying such students.
“Untreated psychiatric disorders can lead to more frequent and more severe episodes, and are more likely to become resistant to treatment. In addition, early-onset mental disorders that are left untreated are associated with,”: (NIMH, 2005)
- school failure
- teenage childbearing
- unstable employment
- early marriage
- marital instability and violence
Education, as a whole, is needing a paradigm shift about how we approach learning and teaching. Students’ lives are inundated with stressful information around them, and they need to have the ability to filter out that information in a healthy way. Some proactive schools are now responding to their students’ needs by integrating Mindfulness instruction on a daily basis.
Another profound realization was how it was affecting me as a teacher. I was calmer and more connected with my students. They were more open to share about their lives, as well as ask for help. Many would stay after class or stop by my office to ask more questions or to tell me of a concern they had.
We can’t expect 21st Century learners to grow using 20th century pedagogy.
As Buddha states, “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”
More information on the practice of Mindfulness:
Mindfulness for our Schools – materials to start a school program
Illustration of Body Under Stress by Anthony Zappia and Gdudycha