Changing the Face of Education with the Daily Practice of Mindfulness in School

So many live with a belief that learning is an external process. We tend to focus on that which is outside ourselves and work to “internalize” the lessons. Too often, we forget the most important things we learn are already inside of us. We just haven’t tapped into our greatest gifts that allow us to reach our highest potential.

Imagine sitting quietly and doing nothing but simply observing what is happening within yourself. By doing this every day, shifting into silence, you gradually coming into direct contact with your core values of compassion, gratitude, joyfulness, empathy and more. This process connects you, it allows you to focus on yourself and quiet the internal voices that bring stress, discomfort and negativity to your world. The potential for internal peace, balance and even happiness can arise from this process. This is the potential that comes from a daily practice of mindfulness.

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Mindfulness is paying attention, non-judgmentally in the present moment. When we bring mindfulness into the classroom we are giving a gift to teachers and students by allowing them to take time to not only give them pause but to also help students better regulate behaviors which will allow teachers to have the time to complete that day’s curriculum. What this ultimately means is having students ‘ready to learn’. Readiness to learn is a precursor to social emotional learning. Social emotional expert Linda Lantieri has said that SEL works from the outside in and mindfulness works from the inside out. When combined, the effects are powerful; each makes the other stronger.

There is a boy, let’s call him Robert, in Cleveland, Ohio. He, his mom and sister were once homeless and had just moved into an apartment. Mom rented a car to move and that night the car was the target of a drive-by shooting and damaged. Fortunately, no one was in the car at the time.

Robert’s mom reported the shooting to cover her on the rental insurance. The next day, Robert and his sister came home from school and their mother was not there. She was in the emergency room, recovering. She had been assaulted by those involved in the drive by shooting. That group of people decided to pay Robert’s mom a visit for reporting the incident and smashed a bottle over her head to the point of unconsciousness.

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The next day, Robert still went to school and took a science test. Given the circumstances, his teacher did not expect him to do well on the test. When he did pass, the teacher asked him how he was able to do so well on his exam with all the trouble at home. Robert told her mindfulness helped him calm down and focus on the test.

This is not a miracle pill, but a skill that Robert had practiced, enabling him to move beyond the stress and do well, academically. Let’s face it, all the caring and sharing in the world, although very important, may not be able to cognitively improve grades. Yet, mindfulness in school can. Studies show average GPA across a class improved 7-15% more over a control group in 3 different trials, as shown in figure 1.

There is a simple reason for this. When our cognitive resources are limited due to stress, anxiety or other outside factors like mobile phones, tablets and more, the higher-order cognitive functions in the prefrontal cortex (critical thinking, focus, managing emotions) tends to shut down and our lower-order cognitive functions in the limbic system (fight-or-flight responses) start to take over.

Our limbic system is extremely important for emergency situations yet, it can prune out the pathways to our prefrontal cortex if it is constantly engaged. Like muscle tissue, the function of the prefrontal cortex a “use it or lose it” situation. Continuous stimulation of the limbic leaves us with an inability to focus and pay attention, instead we react and act out.

Daily mindfulness practices offer a pathway to foster harmony and balance. Teachers and students are under more stress than ever before, especially those in difficult districts. Issues outside the classroom directly impact a student’s ability to learn and a teacher’s ability to engage and inspire a classroom.

Studies have proven taking 10 minutes out of the day, every day, to bring about academic and behavioral changes in a classroom is a strong benefit. Daily practice helps teachers and students achieve academic success, reduce stress and enhance their general wellbeing. The practice of mindfulness in school provides a strong foundation for learning, allowing students to focus and engage in the process of learning and employ their own critical thinking skills.

These are transportable skills that build beyond the classroom, creating generations of people with greater compassion, gratitude and empathy. This will allow us to build a world in which people work together, take time to understand each other and process our emotions in positive, generative ways. It is a winning combination for us all.

William James, the Father of Modern Psychology, said that “the faculty of bringing back a wandering mind over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character and will. An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.”

 

Author: Janice Houlihan

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