The Mindful Education Revolution
With attention spans waning and stress on the rise, many teachers are looking for new ways to help students concentrate, learn, and thrive. Daniel Rechtschaffen explains how mindful education can be the key to their success.
Sitting on his bunk bed, locked behind juvenile detention bars, 17-year-old Damon feels his breath softly rising and falling. As another angry thought surfaces, he remembers his mindfulness lesson and notices the tension in his body. He smiles at the passing thought and feels his whole body relax. He notices an inner spaciousness and a sense of freedom that he’s not sure he’s felt before.
Across town, eight-year-old Susan walks to the peace corner in her classroom. She is aware of anxious sensations in her heart and throat—the same feelings she has every time she takes a test. She sits on a comfy cushion, closes her eyes, and imagines she is getting a big hug. The tightness loosens, and a warmth spreads through her body.
As Susan’s teacher, Nia, walks into a meeting with the school’s vice principal, she uses mindful breathing to stay centered and calm amid the swirling thoughts and feelings as she remembers their past disagreements about discipline and punishment. This time, to her surprise, the vice principal is asking for advice. How is it that Nia’s class has gotten the best test scores and yet is the only one that doesn’t seem stressed? “Is it this mindfulness thing? Can you teach the rest of us how to do it?”
As you read these words, students from Rwanda to Israel to Jamaica and throughout the United States and Canada are exercising their attention muscles. They are opening their hearts to gratitude and forgiveness. They are learning to relax and to love themselves. Meanwhile teachers are getting the inner resources they desperately need, learning self-compassion, stress-relief, and invaluable lessons to teach their students. They are gaining the inner calm and compassionate attention that can make teaching the passionate profession that originally inspired them. This movement begins within each of our hearts and can transform the entire world.
Doesn’t every one of us—teachers, parents, and children—want to feel relaxed rather than stressed, happy rather than depressed, attentive rather than distracted? Don’t we want to feel balanced in our mind, hearts, and bodies? Of course we do. It feels better that way.
Students are told to pay attention a thousand times in school, but rarely are they taught how. We tell our kids to be nice to each other again and again, without ever teaching them the incredibly accessible exercises that cultivate empathy and forgiveness. We tell students not to be so reactive and even put them in juvenile detention centers all because they can’t regulate the disturbances within their own bodies. There are methods for teaching impulse control, attention, and empathy, but young people have rarely been taught them. Mindfulness has been effectively training these qualities for millennia, and there is a mounting research base that backs up its immense health benefits.
Can Mindfulness Make a Difference?
Many in the education field are now looking to mindfulness as an antidote to the escalating dysregulation of the youth in our society. The statistics are disturbing, and they validate the concerns of teachers and parents alike. The rates of severe psychological disorders have spiked at younger and younger ages. The National Institute of Mental Health reports, “Approximately one in every four to five youth in the U.S. meets criteria for a mental disorder with severe impairment across their lifetime." We can look at health factors in nearly every arena and see the same accelerating imbalance. Obesity, autism, attention deficit disorder, anxiety, depression, bullying—whether it is social, psychological, or physical, the trends are moving in an unsettling direction.
We can listen to experts in the fields of education, developmental psychology, and neuroscience, but the most important people we need to listen to are our children. Our kids are the canaries in the coalmine, the most vulnerable members of our society, responding to the stressors of our world. What is unaddressed in adult society rears its head in the sandbox games our children play. When I work with young children in my therapy practice, I invite them to play with a vast assortment of little figurines in a sand tray. Invariably the worlds and scenarios the children create represent the unresolved emotional experiences of their lives. A child of domestic violence puts a baby in a crib surrounded by wolves; a child whose parents are getting divorced chooses two houses and places a wall between them. The children represent their inner emotional state in symbols and then play with them to try to find resolution. The stressors children are raised with form the architecture of their very brains and bodies, influencing who they will be for the rest of their lives.
As children overhear the daily news of school shootings, wars, and ocean levels rising, their minds and bodies are developing amid this myriad of stressors. When the stress levels are high, children sound an alarm with their dysregulation. I hear this alarm in the serious depression and anxiety in my young psychotherapy clients. I heard this alarm loud and clear froma roaring applause in a recent mindfulness assembly I was leading for 150 high school seniors. What about mindfulness, you may ask, would elicit a standing ovation from teenagers?
After a 10-minute silent breathing practice, a young woman in the assembly audience asked an important question. “As I was sitting, I was almost falling asleep. What do I do about that?”
“Are you tired?” I asked.
“Whenever I stop doing stuff, I crash,” she said.
When I asked what she was so busy doing, she gave me an exasperated laundry list of classwork, extracurricular activities, and family and social engagements. I responded, “We all have so much we are doing—for school, for our parents, to look cool with our friends—that deep down we are bone tired. It’s not that mindfulness makes us tired, it’s that mindfulness shows us how tired we actually are.” The whole room seemed to be nodding in unison. “Perhaps we should reinstitute nap time from preschool into every grade,” I suggested.
Big smiles appeared on the students’ faces and then clapping, hooting, and eventually the standing ovation. A standing ovation for nap time? These students, and other students around the world, are profoundly stressed. Whether it is in the impoverished Oakland schools where I work or in progressive prep schools, students are crying out for calm. They need an environment in which their nervous systems can relax and feel nourished. In my psychotherapy practice and in my travels to schools around the world I always ask kids if they enjoy being in school. Sadly, the majority of them look at me quizzically, as if the possibility of enjoying school never occurred to them.
Fostering Mindfulness in Students
As an adult, I still sometimes awaken from terrified dreams about being back in school, unprepared for a test. When our nervous systems are on high alert, or when we are flushed with self-critical thoughts, then our working memories function poorly, our creative juices do not flow, and our collaborative capacities are stymied. The premise of mindful education is that all human beings are born with the seeds of the most beneficial universal qualities, such as compassion, creativity, integrity, and wisdom. From this perspective, the ideal of education is to teach in such a way that fosters these beautiful latent qualities. Instead of creating an atmosphere of stress, competition, and punishment, we create an atmosphere of acceptance, care, and encouragement. We start by honoring children exactly as they are; when they receive this type of attention, children can grow to their fullest human potential. As any teacher knows, when a student feels safe, relaxed, and attentive, learning comes naturally.
When the teenagers were applauding for nap time, I thought of the movement in high school education to push the start of the school day a bit later. It turns out that biologically it is healthier for teens to wake up later. It's not that they are lazy and obstinate; rather, they are answering an inner biological call. With this in mind, two schools in Minnesota agreed to push the school day back, and there was a significant reduction in school dropout rates, less depression, and higher grades. Any teenager in the world could tell you that they naturally need to go to sleep later and wake up later. All we had to do was ask.
When we don’t listen to our students, we are in a perpetual battle against them. When we don’t honor the amount of physical movement kids need, we have to fight them or medicate them into sitting at a desk all day. When we don’t offer students a healthy way to express difficult emotions, we end up being perpetually frustrated by their behaviors. When we don’t teach them how to pay attention, we end up yelling at them when they are distracted. So many teachers have expressed grief to me because they feel as if they are in a war with the very kids they want to help.
Year after year I have watched schoolteachers entering the classroom on the first day as hopeful and inspired as a child taking its first steps. But sadly, by the end of the year, the teacher is often beleaguered, crawling toward the final day. The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future reports that 46 percent of all new teachers in the United States leave the profession within five years. They report, “In 1987–88 the typical teacher had 15 years of experience, but by 2007–08 the typical teacher had just 1 to 2 years of experience." The teacher dropout rate is worse than the dropout rate for children. Before any good teaching and learning can happen, we need to cultivate environments where children and teachers aren’t running for the exits. We need to nourish the inner lives of our students and teachers.