Bringing Mindfulness to Our Public Schools | Omega

Is mindfulness in education just a well-meaning, do-gooder, tree-hugger approach to teaching? U.S. Congressman Tim Ryan says no. It's proven to give children tools to help them cultivate inner resilience, and the unions that can make teaching those tools in public schools a widespread reality.

Should every school district teach mindfulness—which uses simple, universal techniques to cultivate natural qualities of the heart, mind, and body—to every student in the country? It seems so simple and inexpensive, and its effectiveness is backed by scientific research. What would it look like if we created a curriculum around this research? In fact, several organizations around the country have developed curricula for teaching mindfulness and what is called Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). Social and emotional learning focuses on developing emotional resilience skills that, when lacking, can cause poor education outcomes and disrupt the school environment. A student who is bullying, being bullied, or having regular tantrums is not going to get a good education.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) out of Chicago is one of the leading organizations promoting SEL and forms of education that promote resilience in children. The Hawn Foundation is another, and Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education (CARE) at the Garrison Institute in upstate New York, is yet another. These initiatives have produced very encouraging results with teachers and students. Their programs focus on developing self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making.

One of the topics the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Jon Kabat-Zinn, and I have discussed in depth is parenting and education. Jon and his wife, Myla, wrote a book on mindful parenting called Everyday Blessings, since the education and upbringing of children are a significant interest for them. Jon told me that one of the leading figures in the area of mindfulness and schools is Linda Lantieri, who has been an educator in New York City for 40 years. She is one of the most influential people in CASEL. Jon also gave me the book Linda wrote together with Daniel Goleman, Building Emotional Intelligence: Techniques to Cultivate Inner Strength in Children. After reading just a few pages, as a member of a House subcommittee that deals with education, I knew I had to meet Linda.

Linda was asked by the September 11th Fund to help the schools at Ground Zero recover from the trauma of the event. She decided to integrate the teaching of mindfulness practices with SEL, which was already happening in many of the schools, and give these skills first to the teachers and parents, and then to the students. One can only imagine the trauma a child would have experienced being close to the twin towers on that fateful day. Linda understands that many children experience traumas in their daily lives that are almost as intense. They grow up in low-income, high-crime areas. They often live in households that have experienced job loss or in which one or both parents are abusive. Over time these stressors have a debilitating effect. These children see so much bad that their brains are in a constant state of anxiety. The stress for many children is constant, and it is often intensified through physical abuse. Based on her experience with the Ground Zero project, Linda decided to start the Inner Resilience Program. 

According to Linda, the Inner Resilience Program is about cultivating the inner lives of students, teachers, and schools by integrating social and emotional learning with mindfulness practice. This is a program not only for the disadvantaged; it’s for all children—every child in America in the 21st century lives with lots of pressures. I had all the advantages in school and in life, and yet stress made it hard for me to read, too. No one ever presented an alternative. Linda and her colleagues are committed to giving our children tools that help them find inner resilience and thrive amidst these pressures.

I was so impressed with Linda Lantieri’s work that I invited her to testify before our House Appropriations Subcommittee on Education. After learning more from her about what SEL combined with mindfulness practice can do for children, my committee directed almost $1 million in federal money to two school districts to implement mindfulness and SEL, and evaluate its effectiveness. Linda is currently working in the Youngstown and Warren city schools in Ohio, and I predict we will see a transformational shift in these schools. Why do I feel that way? Because I’ve been seeing firsthand what this program can do.

I attended the fourth day of a 5-day training that Linda was giving to the teachers in our Youngstown and Warren program. I’ll never forget walking into the hotel conference room that day. Linda asked me to stop by and say hello. I must admit I was a bit apprehensive. The SEL and mindfulness program for these schools had been completely my idea. I had talked the superintendents into doing it. Now I had to go and see if the teachers were actually responding to it. I was concerned some of the teachers would view this as a well-meaning, do-gooder, tree-hugger approach to teaching that would never work in the heart of inner city Youngstown. I also worried that the Warren teachers didn’t have time to incorporate this teaching in their already overburdened schedules.

As I noticed these thoughts, I started to do a little walking meditation. I focused on my breath and feet as they touched the ground. I focused on not bringing my insecurities to this moment and on just dealing with the situation as it presented itself. I was glad I did, because what I saw inspired me and opened my heart.

As I entered the conference room I could feel a palpable sense of calm. The teachers were on a break and it was quiet. There was not the kind of chatter one would normally hear at a conference coffee break. No one was looking at their watch or the clock. I saw Linda and asked her how it was going.

“Amazing,” she said. The training really resonated with the teachers. I asked a few of the other trainers, and they all said the same thing. Then Linda introduced me to share a few words, which I did briefly.

As I finished up, Linda asked me to stay for one of the exercises. She pulled out a large stuffed globe. Next she asked the teachers to raise their hands and share with the group of 60 teachers, and me, an awareness they discovered during the week of training.

Teacher after teacher stood up, held the globe, and poured their heart out. One said, “I’ve already started treating my own children differently.”

Another said, “I’ve been looking for something like this for 30 years.”

Yet another said she finally realized her problem was that she never took time to care for herself, so how could she possibly be there for her kids? She was excited to start school the next week. Another said she felt reborn as a teacher, returning to why she got into the profession in the first place.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I had a huge lump in my throat thinking about how this training can transform our schools and community. Then one of the three male teachers held the globe. I braced for some criticism and my neck stiffened. Maybe this did not touch the men in the room the way it did the women. I was wrong. He talked about going to his son’s soccer game the night before, and he said that he was actually at the soccer game. His mind was not somewhere else. He was with his son. He said he looked at the beautiful sky and the clover grass and found a real sense of peace. It hit me how potent SEL and mindfulness are. They even resonate with ordinary American guys like me and the male teachers I met in Warren, Ohio.

We couldn’t get these kinds of results without lots of local support, and when it comes to public education, union support is vital. Two of the biggest advocates for our local SEL and mindfulness program are the head of the teacher’s union in Youngstown, Will Bagnola, and his wife, Lori. Youngstown has a long history of union membership. As the industrialization of this country grew in the steel belt, unions protected and empowered workers, and made the workplace safer and more humane. The unions were made up of hard-nosed, hardworking people who were willing to fight, and even die, for social justice, fair wages, and safe working conditions. Why is a 50-year-old lifelong union man like Will Bagnola so high on SEL and mindfulness? Because he carries within him the heart of the industrial union movement—a deep desire for better lives for everyone. Will agrees with me that SEL and mindfulness make the workplace a safer and more humane place. The face of the union movement is changing, and I believe Will is going to be lauded as one of the most progressive leaders because of his support and advocacy of SEL and mindfulness. And other unions will follow Youngstown’s lead. Eventually, unions will be negotiating for SEL and mindfulness teacher training throughout the country.

Excerpted from A Mindful Nation by Tim Ryan. Copyright ©2012 by Hay House.

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