It seems that much of American culture is captivated with the concept of mindfulness – various practices have permeated psychology, politics, the business world, and now education. Proponents of mindfulness in schools boast benefits ranging from reduced anxiety to improved interpersonal relationships – with growing research to back it up.
While not everyone defines it identically, mindfulness is a form of meditation in which a person actively focuses on the present moment in hopes of calming the mind and heightening awareness to their surroundings and emotions. To be mindful is to take every experience in and to be fully present in every situation.
Research from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science USA, PLoS One, The Journal of Applied School Psychology, and others reports myriad benefits from mindfulness training in schools. It can improve attention, emotional regulation, adaptability, compassion, calmness, and resilience.
Evidence suggests these behavioral changes are associated with physical changes to the brain, too. The amygdala, commonly aroused during times of strong emotions such as fear, is less activated following mindfulness training. The hippocampus, critical for learning and memory, is more active following mindfulness training. Finally, the part of the brain most associated with maturity and emotional regulation, the prefrontal cortex, also activates following mindfulness training.
Despite droves of supporters, there are still those who are critical of incorporating mindfulness into schools. These critics claim that it is religion in disguise or simply another way to control or discipline kids rather than providing them with stress relief.
Still, according to Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education and co-author of Overloaded and Underprepared: Strategies for Stronger Schools and Healthy, Successful Kids, “Mindfulness is a way to stop the bleeding, and sometimes a Band-Aid does help. This is something teachers can do immediately and isn’t that difficult to implement. You get a lot of bang for your buck, and anyone who is against it isn’t thinking clearly.”
The growing body of scientific evidence, backed by heaps of personal anecdotes and supporters, has fueled a new interest in incorporating mindfulness practices into many classrooms, including right here in Corvallis. Teaching partners Rachel Frazier and Marilyn Polo of Lincoln Elementary School have started implementing mindfulness training in their classrooms, with positive results.
Polo, a yoga instructor of 15 years, explained, “Based on my previous experiences with yoga and mindfulness, both in the classroom and school setting and out in the world, I expected to see students display a greater sense of mental focus, physical control, calmer body, and reduced stress behaviors overall.”
Exercises in her classroom range from a deep breathing technique known as “bunny breathing” to a guided relaxation of the body and yoga poses to guided visualizations of drinking hot cocoa.
Polo added, “What I’ve observed this year is that students have really taken a liking to mindfulness. Some children report practicing mindfulness to unwind before bedtime or while falling asleep. Others report doing it when they are upset or scared. Some simply enjoy practicing it because it feels good or very peaceful.”
If our kids, or any of us for that matter, can find ways to provoke feelings of goodness and calm – deep breath – I say, let’s go for it.
By Keely Corder