“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
-Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD. (founding Director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.)
As a middle school teacher one of my favorite activities was from the Project Learning Tree program, which employs the outdoors to enhance learning experiences. In a forested area behind our school I asked the students to find separate trees that appealed to them, sit quietly for 10 minutes, and just think about what it would be like to be that tree. They then sketched the tree and wrote a paragraph or poem to express their thoughts. During that exercise it was not unusual to find students with tears in their eyes or to be told by various participants, “I really need to talk to you later about something that has been bothering me.” Their writings were deeper and more meaningful than any prior assignment, often giving me a glimpse into their inner thoughts and struggles. Generally their treatment of one another seemed markedly improved for at least a little while. I remember wondering if there were something magical about being outside and being with nature. As Richard Louv points out in his book, Last Child in the Woods, there seems to be an ever-widening gap between modern kids and the natural world, so perhaps it was the novelty of being outdoors that brought on the profound results.
Today I believe it was more than just being outside. In light of the plethora of emerging research on executive brain functioning, self-regulation, and self-efficacy I reflect on that particular activity as one that offered my students an atypical chance to just be still and listen to their own thoughts. Whereas most of my classroom time was centered around group experiences, hands-on activities, and a rather frenzied pace to “get it all done” in their 47-minute class period, the tree observation activity allowed them time to disconnect from our fast-paced classroom with all its distractions and demands and literally “hear themselves think.” Without consciously doing it I gave students an opportunity to be mindful.
I am intrigued by this past decade’s close examination of how important it is for learners to be not only allocated quiet time to think deeply, but also to be taught the specific steps for becoming aware of one’s thoughts and directing them in a purposeful way. The concept of mindfulness is gaining recognition not only in the fields of neuroscience and psychology, but also with educators and parents as a way to help learners grow and control their brains in a particular way. Mindfulness is way of learning to be fully present in the moment without being distracted by past anxiety or future uncertainties. It is a way to calm the emotional center of the brain through non-judgmental and non-reactive awareness.
Mindfulness is not new. Generally it is acknowledged as being based on age-old practices from the time of the Buddha, but some scholars also believe that similar practices were advocated as well in Christian, Jewish, and Muslim teachings. It is based on religious practices, however most of today’s researchers and practitioners are focused on the more secular applications of its short-term effect on self-regulation and its long- term impact on the neuroplasticity of the brain. Yoga, Tai Chi, and Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of flow are based on some of the same tenets of focused attention. Mindfulness as taught in schools usually focuses on concentrating, breathing, and making conscious choices. There has been some pushback from religious organizations and parents who object to mindfulness being taught in their schools. Their apprehension generally comes from a misunderstanding of its purpose and a lack of knowledge about the overwhelming positive results mindfulness programs are bringing about.
Studies demonstrate that the benefits of mindfulness include better focus and concentration, increased self-awareness, stronger impulse control and feelings of calm, reduced aggression and violent behavior, stress, and loneliness, and increased empathy and understanding of others. (Retrieved from: http://www.roomtobreathefilm.com/about-mindfulness/index.html)
A survey of recent journal articles reveals that studies on the benefits of mindfulness are rapidly increasing in the several fields including psychology, medicine, and education.
While trying to learn more about mindfulness I watched the movie Room to Breathe about troubled students at Marina Middle School in San Francisco, CA (PBS World Channel, 2013). The film presents a true story of the surprising transformation of struggling seventh graders in a school that has a high rate of disciplinary suspensions, overcrowded classrooms, and a markedly negative learning environment. One classroom of students is introduced to the practice of mindfulness meditation in an effort to provide them with social, emotional, and attentional skills they need to succeed. A teacher from the Mindful School organization persists in introducing them to mindfulness in spite of their initial resistance and markedly unenthusiastic response. She meets with the students for thirty minutes a week over a six-week period. Her first goal is to get students to become still and quiet when they hear a chime. Even that simple task seems to be at first unachievable for some. By the end of the program she has the students applying the breathing techniques they learn in class to situations both inside and outside the school. At the end of the training these same students report they are better able to control their anger, more focused on schoolwork, more tolerant of each other, and feel more in control of their futures
Similar results are being reported from mindfulness programs all over the world. Dr. Ronal D. Siegel, psychologist and Harvard professor, wrote a book for the Great Courses series entitled The Science of Mindfulness: A Research-Based Path to Well-Being. In this curriculum he cites study after study of hard science that supports the benefits to individuals (including children) who are being taught the practice of learning to pause and reflect before acting. He and other researchers have found that mindfulness practice over time actually changes the way the brain is formed. His catch line is, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” In other words, people can actually help their prefrontal cortex to function more effectively over time with intentional practice of mindfulness.
While listening to the audio presentation of Dr. Siegel’s course I thought about how few instances I practiced mindfulness as a classroom teacher. The fact that the tree observation stands out so clearly in memory is evidence of how unique that was in my general practice. As a result of my recent research, I immediately began trying to get mindful in my present life, but I found it is not that easy. Mindfulness takes much practice and a commitment to slow down. The irony of trying to write about mindfulness is that one probably needs to be functional in it to be effective in expressing its merits. I will confess that I am a neophyte, and I have many hours of practice ahead of me before I feel comfortable in teaching it to anyone else.
As my middle school students sat quietly focused on a tree they were able to become still enough to experience feelings they had been holding just beneath the surface. They needed a trusted adult to hear their concerns. And although I felt comfortable helping them work through their new insights, I did not recognize the opportunity I had to extend this purposeful, meaningful kind of experience to a regular occurrence. Students are often hyper- stimulated and hyper-connected for most of their waking hours. The simple act of pausing to connect with one’s thoughts in a focused, nonjudgmental setting can yield remarkable feelings of awareness and control. Simply being able to label feelings and realize one has a conscious choice about whether or not to act on those feelings is empowering.
Even though I am a novice to mindfulness, I am persuaded by the abundance of hard evidence from the scientific community about the benefits of learning to stop, breathe, and be aware of the world around me. The anecdotal evidence from student interviews, teacher reports, films, and the like is also convincing. I have always believed in being fully present when I am with students, and mindfulness seems to be a way I can get better at that. Hopefully schools will also embrace this relatively cost-free means of helping teachers and students develop positive, life-changing ways to think, to relate to each other, and to act in ways that help them thrive.
Kabat-Zinn, J.(1994). Wherever you go, there you are. New York, NY: Hyperion Books.
Louv, R.(2008). Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books.
Mindful Schools. http://www.mindfulschools.org/about/our-story/
Room to Breathe.(2013). Documentary Drama. ZAP Zoetrope Aubry Productions.
Siegel, R.D.(2014). The science of mindfulness: A research-based path to well-being. Chantilly, VA: The Great Courses.