Can “Mindfulness” Help Students Do Better in School?

By Emily Holland, The Wall Street Journal, 2/16/15

 Advocates say the technique raises focus, lowers stress. Critics see religion in disguise.

“Mindfulness” has gotten a lot of buzz recently, with everyone from tech executives to professional athletes to lawmakers saying they use it to combat stress, stay balanced and perform better…. Now some educators and psychologists think schoolchildren could [also] benefit.

Mindfulness is a form of meditation rooted in spiritual teaching in which people focus their full attention on the present moment. They acknowledge what they are feeling and experiencing—and accept it without judgment…. The idea is to quiet the mind and heighten awareness.

The movement is making its way into schools…propelled by advocates who say teaching children how to use techniques such as meditation and controlled breathing to clear their minds can help sharpen students’ focus, reduce their stress,…and boost academic performance.

“Studies show that children who learn mindfulness and meditation are more resilient,” says Sarah McKay, an Oxford University-trained neuroscientist…. “It helps settle them down and improves concentration, particularly if done before school or after lunch breaks.”…

Power of Meditation

Twelve years ago [actress Goldie Hawn] started a program…called MindUP that teaches children how to regulate their emotions and reduce stress with activities such as “brain breaks,” in which they spend two to three minutes concentrating on their breathing. Approximately 13,500 teachers and more than 405,000 students in the U.S. have been exposed to MindUP training since 2011, according to the foundation.

“A stressed brain [is] a brain that doesn’t focus or learn as well,” says Ms. Hawn, who created the MindUP curriculum with the help of neuroscientists, psychologists, and education experts. “I wasn’t going to make a move…without research,” she says, stressing that MindUP is a “neurologically based program.”…

A 2009 study published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology showed that adolescents suffering from a variety of mental and medical conditions who underwent an eight-week program of mindfulness-based stress reduction experienced reduced depression and anxiety and increased self-esteem….

Mindful Schools, a nonprofit provider of mindfulness education for teachers, conducted a study with the University of California, Davis, in 2011-12 that focused on three public elementary schools in Oakland, all located in high-crime neighborhoods. The study’s authors reported significant improvements in the behavior of children who practiced mindfulness compared with those who didn’t.

Religion in Disguise?

Not everyone likes the idea of meditation being taught in schools. Candy Gunther Brown, a religion professor at Indiana University, is one. Promoters of mindfulness programs are essentially taking Buddhist practices and “changing the vocabulary,” she says…. She teaches students about different religions and practices, including mindfulness, but “I do not have my students meditate,” says Ms. Brown, pointing to the Supreme Court ruling that gave schools permission to teach about religion but prohibited them from instilling religious practices.

Tina Olesen, a teacher at Westminster Classical Christian Academy in Toronto, say she became skeptical of mindfulness a few years ago for similar reasons while teaching at a public school in British Columbia. She believed that the mindfulness techniques the school counselors were teaching students were, in fact, Buddhist practices being presented as neuroscience. As a Christian, she found that troubling, she says, “since schools are supposed to be secular environments….”

In some cases, opposition has been so strong mindfulness programs were pulled from schools…. Resistance also can come from teachers, who question why another task is being added to their already full plates.

Chris McKenna, the program director at Mindful Schools, says mindfulness programs can’t succeed without buy-in from teachers, which is why they need to be kept “simple and doable.”

He also says interest in them has to happen organically—a position echoed by U.S. congressman Tim Ryan, an Ohio Democrat and mindfulness supporter.

“I don’t think we ever want to be in a position where we’re forcing [schools] to do this,” says Mr. Ryan, author of A Mindful Nation. The goal, he says, should be to create awareness of the different options that are available to support children.

See also in ClassWise:  “Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime”

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