When I started teaching mindfulness based stress reduction with my 3rd graders, I worried there would be push-back from my parents thinking I would be teaching meditation, although the word was not used in the curriculum.
However, within the first week of practice, students would use the word meditation from their own background knowledge of the word.
Knowing this could be cause for concern, I briefly taught the students the difference between practicing breathing techniques to calm the brain and Meditation. Since then, in the nine years of teaching Mindfulness, I’ve only had one incident where a parent discontinued their child in the activities, due to religious choice.
The program I implemented was called The MindUp Curriculum by the Hawn Foundation. I chose this program, because it is non-secular in its teaching of mindfulness using brain-based research in the 15 activities.
Students were taught in the first three lessons how their body responds to stress and how to regulate the stress through mindful breathing techniques called Core Practice. For the rest of the twelve lessons in the program, the students learned how to be Mindful, practice Empathy, and to self regulate during stressful or excitable situations.
As a teacher that strived to bring the best to her students, mindful based stress reduction seemed like the perfect fit. The positive findings coming out of the research for MBSR in schools was motivating enough to stick with it.
Research has robustly demonstrated that children’s psychological, emotional, and social well-being influences their future physical and mental health, educational outcomes, social prospects, and quality of life in adulthood (Currie et al., 2002). Specifically, the ability to regulate emotions correlated with higher levels of well-being and learning outcomes in both children and adults (Barnes et al., 2003; Mendelson et al., 2010; Weare and Nind, 2011).
It also appeared that mindfulness may influence cognitive aspects of information processing by enhancing the more controlled top-down processes (e.g., attention and inhibition) while at the same time reducing or balancing automatic arousal and appraisal systems associated with bottom-up processing (arousal and affect; Zelazo and Lyons, 2012).
So why should parents balk at these skills being taught in elementary school?
Since 2007, a handful of schools have had to say goodbye to their mindfulness programs or at least limit them, due to parent complaints about the use of Yoga in the practice. Cobb County in Georgia was the most recent school district that had to deal with parents wanting the program gone from the curriculum.
What was their grave concern? Religion. They feared that the Yoga practice was relating too closely to the “New Agey,” Eastern Mystical Theology threatening their Christian beliefs.
So what exactly is Yoga?
The earliest signs of yoga appeared in ancient Shamanism, where yoga postures were found on artifacts dating back to 3000 BC and found in the oldest-existing text called the Rig-Veda. Rig-Veda is a compilation of hymns. Topics of the Rig-Veda include prayer, divine harmony, and greater being.
From that brief history, I could understand Christian parents’ concerns that there might be a broach of religious practice in school. However, Modern Yoga is based on the proper practices of stretching, breathing, mindful postures and proper diet. This more closely resembles the practices of the schools in question.
I respect the separation of Church and State, and that religious practices should not be specifically taught to children. However, I do believe that there is a time and place to learn about world religions in secondary studies to broaden the minds of our scholars.
The confusion seems to be in the semantics.
Mindfulness has been defined as a mental state or trait that can be developed and nurtured (Schonert-Reichl et al., 2015). It is understood as a dynamic process involving the intentional focus of the mind’s attention on thoughts, feelings, sensations and perceptions, and the ability to be aware of and connect with these experiences in a non-judgmental way (Kabat-Zinn, 1994). Mindfulness promotes the cultivation of a less automatic mode of mind, enhances awareness of internal processes and reduces reactive patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving (Chapman et al., 2013).
A video I showed parents on Parent Night demonstrated the most recent studies of the brain. Professor Bin He, University of Minnesota’s professor of Bioengineering and his team of graduates use a brain-computer interface to control a remote drone. Parents could see how technology has developed in regards to the advancing knowledge of our brain. Ironically, during Professor He’s research, he realized the brain needed to be calm in order to fly the drones.
When Professor Bin He initially worked with his grad students to fly the drones, they were crashing more than flying, until he let one of the female grads fly the drone herself. She had over 85% accuracy, which made the professor a little concerned. He was hoping it wasn’t a gender factor, but something she did was apparently different. After interviewing her, Professor He realized she practiced meditation every day for 20 minutes. He decided to implement a three week course for all of his grads to see if it would improve their ‘flying skills.’ Within three weeks, the grad students were flying the drones successfully.
I feel when we present parents with information regarding a curriculum that can benefit the whole child, we need to present it in a manner that reflects the educational realm. Bringing the proper research and findings into the conversation would create less fear and allow good programs to flourish.
Our world is changing, and we need to change with it.