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Sign of the Times: mindfulness in schools

The New York Times reports on the adoption of Mindfulness-Based Education in schools to help children learn to pay attention and to handle their emotions.

“I was losing at baseball and I was about to throw a bat,” one student reported to his classmates the day after learning the technique. “The mindfulness really helped.”

Mindfulness-Based Education was featured in Wildmind’s first meditation news podcast, in which we interviewed Dr. Amy Salzman, who was also quoted in the Times article. A point she made in our interview was taken up by Philippe R. Goldin, a researcher at Stanford: “Parents and teachers tell kids 100 times a day to pay attention. But we never teach them how.”

Institutions like the psychology department at Stanford University and the Mindfulness Awareness Research Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, are trying to measure the effects as schools across the US train students in mindfulness.

Although mindfulness comes from a Buddhist context, it is not primarily a religious practice and involves focused attention, often centered on the breath, and awareness of the emotions combined with the cultivation of compassion. Because of its secular nature mindfulness has so far avoided the kinds of controversy in which Transcendental Meditation has become mired. Late last year plans to start a TM club in a California school were shelved after an outcry from parents.

Dr. Saltzman, co-director of the mindfulness study at Stanford, said the initial findings showed increased control of attention and “less negative internal chatter — what one girl described as ‘the gossip inside my head: I’m stupid, I’m fat or I’m going to fail math,’ ” Dr. Saltzman said.

According to the article a recent study of teenagers by Kaiser Permanente in San Jose, California, found that meditation techniques helped improve mood disorders, depression, and self-harming behaviors like anorexia and bulimia.

The Times article has a healthy skepticism about the notion of mindfulness as the answer to all of life’s problems, with a statements such as mindfulness is “not a magic bullet” being quoted from Diana Winston, director of mindfulness education at the U.C.L.A. Mindful Awareness Research Center, and a second grade teacher observing that “some students tapped pencils and drummed on desks instead of closing their eyes.”

Nevertheless, mindfulness in education is an idea whose time has surely come. Children today are massively overstimulated and living under greater levels of stress than their parents’ or grandparents’ generations. Tools for handling the stress of modern life as a child or teenager are urgently needed.

Bodhipaksa is the founder and director of Wildmind. His personal blog is called Bodhi Tree Swaying.

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Comment from sonia steiner
Time: June 23, 2007, 12:06 pm

I am a Phila school teacher and have quietly practiced meditation with my classes for years. It must be kept “quiet” lest the principal thinks that I am :”brainwashing my students” what a concept!!!

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: June 24, 2007, 11:58 am

Hi Sonia,

Good for you!

Since you’re a I teacher I thought you might be interested in the following post http://www.bloggernews.net/17843 which takes a very critical look at the teaching of meditation in schools. I’ve been thinking of writing a rebuttal but I’ve been busy preparing for some forthcoming classes (part of which involves teaching meditation to high school students).

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