Mindful Schools

Mindfulness goes to school

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Dr. Susan Mathison, Inforum:

Our kids are back to the routine of school. The energy is high as we walk through the hallways, with lots of chatter and sharing events from the prior day. But high energy doesn’t always translate well to listening and focusing on tasks at hand in the classroom. Some schools around the country are turning to mindfulness as a strategy for improving attention and helping kids make better choices.

Mindfulness was a term first used in the 1970s by Jon Kabat-Zinn, and is defined by him as paying attention on purpose to the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations. It has some roots in Buddhist meditation traditions but is now used in medical and therapeutic settings around the world.

Mindfulness is being used in the workplace (Google and more), in the U.S. military, in professional sports, and even on Capitol Hill, where Congressman Tim Ryan used mindfulness techniques during weekly staff meetings.

Studies show promising effects of mindfulness training on mental health and well-being: improved attention, reduced stress, and better emotional regulation and an improved capacity for compassion and empathy. It’s no wonder that mindfulness has fans in education.

Since England led the way in 2007 by adding mindfulness instruction, many similar programs have started in the U.S. to train teachers in mindfulness curricula. Among the largest is Mindful Schools. Mindful Schools has found that not only do students benefit, but teachers also benefit with lowered stress, more connection with students and higher job satisfaction.

California educator and author of “The Joy Plan,” Kaia Roman, uses the following exercises with students:

The Bell Listening Exercise

Ring a bell and ask the kids to listen closely to the vibration of the ringing sound. Tell them to remain silent and raise their hands when they no longer hear the sound of the bell. Then tell them to remain silent for one minute and pay close attention to the other sounds they hear once the ringing has stopped. After, go around in a circle and ask the kids to tell you every sound they noticed during that minute. This exercise is fun and gets kids interested in sharing their experiences.

Breathing Buddies

Hand out a stuffed animal (or another small object) to each child. If room allows, have the children lie down on the floor and place the stuffed animals on their bellies. Tell them to breathe in silence for one minute and notice how their Breathing Buddy moves up and down, and any other sensations that they notice. Tell them to imagine that the thoughts that come into their minds turn into bubbles and float away. The presence of the Breathing Buddy makes the meditation a little friendlier, and allows the kids to see how a playful activity doesn’t necessarily have to be rowdy.

The Squish and Relax Meditation

While the kids are lying down with their eyes closed, have them squish and squeeze every muscle in their bodies as tightly as they can. Tell them to squish their toes and feet, tighten the muscles in their legs all the way up to their hips, suck in their bellies, squeeze their hands into fists and raise their shoulders up to their heads. Have them hold themselves in their squished-up positions for a few seconds, then fully release and relax. This is a great, fun activity for “loosening up” the body and mind, and is a totally accessible way to get the kids to understand the art of “being present.”

The Heartbeat Exercise

Have the kids jump up and down in place for one minute. Then have them sit back down and place their hands on their hearts. Tell them to close their eyes and feel their heartbeats, their breath, and see what else they notice about their bodies.

Mountain Breath

This can be done sitting or standing. It is good to have the leader do this, too! As you inhale through your nose, raise your arms as high as you can and bring your palms together high over the top of your head. Imagine you are as tall as a mountain. As you exhale through your mouth, bring your palms together in front of your chest.

The class curriculum may already be set for this year, but these may be fun activities that can be done at home, too. My son has long been a fan of deep-breathing exercises. Usually it’s something I suggest if he’s feeling antsy, but on a few occasions, he’s thought to do them himself.

There are lots of great resources available. Harvard clinician Dr. Christopher Willard has several books, including “Growing Up Mindful.” Amazon of full of great resources. I bought a CD called Indigo Ocean Dreams for my son. It has some peaceful stories about bubbles, ocean waves and breathing. Also check out websites like MindfulTeachers.org and CalmerChoice.org.

Just breathe and be present. It’s good for kids, teachers and parents.

Dr. Susan Mathison founded Catalyst Medical Center in Fargo.

Original article no longer available »

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“Room to Breathe” — A documentary film about mindfulness in a troubled middle school

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Room to Breathe documentary

Room to Breathe is a documentary about teaching mindfulness to students of the troubled Marina Middle School in San Francisco, which tops its district for disciplinary suspensions, and has overcrowded classrooms creating an environment in which it’s almost impossible for learning to take place. As assistant principal Anthony Braxton explains near the opening of the film, a significant number of students at Marina “don’t do school” — they don’t see school as being for them.

In the class of Seventh Grade teacher Tom Ehnle, we see kids who are unable to stay on task or to pay attention. They seem to be in a constant state of fidgeting, wrestling with each other, carrying on side-conversations, and throwing objects around the room. One time we see one student pursuing another around — and outside of — the classroom while the teacher looks on helplessly. There’s no way of knowing if this is a constant state of affairs, whether we’re seeing edited highlights of bad behavior, or whether the kids were acting up for the camera, but it’s clear that there are behavior issues going on that are serious enough to make learning all but impossible. It seems that a minority of students in the class are unable to focus, and drag the entire class into a state of mayhem.

As Ling Busche, a seventh Grade counselor at the school points out, the students are consumed by the drama of Facebook and the school yard, and the classroom is simply another place to continue those dramas. Some of the drama and disruption goes well beyond the normal “who is going out with whom.” One student, Omar, has lost a brother and a friend to gun violence. We learn such details — and more about the stressful circumstances of the students — as we cut from the classroom to students’ family lives, in particular focusing on four kids — Omar, Lesly, Jacqueline, and Gerardo.

With suspensions, punishments, and other attempts to modify behavior failing, it’s clearly time to try something new at Marina Middle School. So when a therapist suggested going into the classroom to teach meditative strategies to reduce conflict and improve focus, the school jumped at the opportunity.

Megan Cowan, co-founder of an organization called Mindful Schools, arrives in Ehnle’s class to lead 15 brief (20 to 30 minute) sessions of mindfulness. The kids are at first skeptical, and are unable or unwilling to sit still even for a two minute exercise of “mindful posture.”

But mindfulness is just what these students need. As Cowan explains, mindfulness gives impulse control, so that we have more choice over our actions. These students are not, on the whole, able to control themselves at all.

Early on, Cowan is understandably frustrated. She describes her encounter with the students as being like hitting a brick wall. The defiance is deliberate, the disruption too great, the class size (35!) too large. In one incident which is on the trailer but not in the version of the film I saw, she angrily orders a disruptive student from the classroom. She wants to reach the students, but can’t, and doesn’t know where to go next. Even though Mindful Schools’ policy is to keep even the most disruptive kids in the class, since those are the ones who most need mindfulness, it’s clearly not working in this case, and four particularly disruptive students are removed. (It’s not clear what they end up doing instead.)

Almost immediately, it seems, things change in the classroom, although it’s at this point that Cowan does two things: she has the kids take turns leading mindfulness, and she introduces a simple form of self-metta practice (developing lovingkindness for oneself) in the form of repeating phrases like, “I wish for myself to be happy.” I get the sense that this is the first time the kids have thought in this way.

Cowan teaches the students that they are their minds are the biggest influence in their own lives, bringing to mind the Dhammapada verses,

Whatever harm an enemy may do to an enemy, or a hater to a hater, an ill-directed mind inflicts on oneself a greater harm.

Neither mother, father, nor any other relative can do one greater good than one’s own well-directed mind.

It’s inspiring to see the students settle down. They become more still during meditation sessions. They spontaneously start to practice mindfulness outside of the classroom. “We were outside in the yard, and then some girl just made me mad. I just felt like pulling her hair out and dropping to the floor and choke her. I used mindfulness to calm down and not do nothing. I’m, like, ‘no’ because there’s consequences for that,” one student recounts.

“You have a tool now that you can use for the rest of your life” is the final message Cowan leaves the class with.

Room to Breathe is an inspiring documentary. It’s all too easy to write off kids like Omar, Lesly, Jacqueline, and Gerardo. It’s all too easy to brand them as being inherently unable to learn or incapable of controlling themselves. It’s all too easy to label kids like this as “bad.” But what they are is kids who have never learned the tools that allow of self-control and impulse control. They have no real freedom.

I can’t help thinking, if mindfulness can work in this school, it can work anywhere.

Room to Breathe was published on September 7, 2012. It is available on DVD from The Video Project, and you can read more about the film at roomtobreathe.com. Screening packages are available for people who want to host their own screenings of Room to Breathe, both to raise awareness about the benefits of mindfulness in the classroom and to begin brainstorming ways to implement mindfulness programs.

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Bringing mindfulness to children and schools: an interview with Holistic Life Foundation

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D., Psych.Central: Our kids are our future and nowadays we are seeing them in them higher states of anxiety, impulsivity and other behavioral problems. In recent years mindfulness has been shown as an effective approach for children in lower stress and anxiety and even increasing states of feeling well. Susan Kaiser Greenland wrote The Mindful Child, I did an interview with Meg Cowan on her work with Mindful Schools, and Goldie Hawn has successfully started and organization called Mind Up. There is another very special organization started by two brothers Ali and Atman Smith and their friend Andres Gonzalez called Holistic …

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Room to Breathe: The official trailer

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Room to Breathe is a surprising story of transformation as struggling kids in a San Francisco public middle school are introduced to the practice of mindfulness. Topping the district in disciplinary suspensions, and with overcrowded classrooms creating a nearly impossible learning environment, overwhelmed administrators are left with stark choices. Do they repeat the cycle of forcing tuned-out children to listen, or experiment with a set of age-old inner practices that may provide them with the social, emotional, and attentional skills that they need to succeed?

Even just this brief extract of the film is powerfully moving. I can’t wait to see the whole thing.

Here’s some more background information from the film’s website:

The film begins in the halls of Marina Middle School in San Francisco – kids pouring out of classrooms, shouting to each other as they sweep down the stairwells into a concrete schoolyard that lies outside of the massive art deco building that is the weekday home to almost 1,000 children. The tough language and raw physicality suggests the underlying violence to which these kids are exposed.

Topping the San Francisco school district in disciplinary suspensions, and with overcrowded classrooms creating a nearly impossible learning environment, overwhelmed administrators are left with stark choices. Do they repeat the cycle of forcing tuned-out children to listen, or experiment with a set of age-old inner practices that may provide them with the social and emotional skills that they need to succeed?

We are introduced to Omar, a troubled African American boy with a love for playing basketball, partly to forget his brother’s murder in an unsolved crime in 2007; Lesly, a highly social girl with no interest in academics, whose hard-working parents immigrated from Mexico; Lesly’s friend Jacqueline, a tough and disruptive girl who is frequently in trouble with school administrators; and Gerardo, a winsome but defiant boy who sees himself as unfairly persecuted by his primary teacher and other school officials.

Room to Breathe has two primary adult figures — Ling Busche, an overworked young Asian-American counselor helping seventh graders deal with what they perceive as a hostile school or home environments, and Megan Cowan, a buoyant 30-something Executive Director of a growing mindfulness-in-education organization. The first question is whether it’s already too late for these kids. Confronted by defiance, contempt for authority figures, poor discipline, and more interest in “social” than learning, their young meditation teacher runs into unexpected trouble in the classroom. Will she succeed in overcoming street-hardened defiance to open their minds and hearts? Under Megan’s guidance, our characters and their peers slowly start to take greater control over themselves, and a new sense of calm begins to permeate their worlds, in class and at home.

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