Is mindfulness practice doing schoolchildren more harm than good?

Ruth Whippman seems to think so. In a recent New York Times opinion piece (“Actually, Let’s Not Be in the Moment”), the journalist and author of America the Anxious: How our Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks, questions the very efficacy of the practice and wonders whether its broader applications are misguided. Of teaching it in the schools, she writes, “It is, of course, easier and cheaper to blame the individual for thinking the wrong thoughts than it is to tackle the thorny causes of his unhappiness. So we give inner-city schoolchildren mindfulness classes rather than engage with education inequality.” 

Addressing education inequality is no doubt essential, but it is not incompatible with teaching students to be present, focused, and open. In fact, mindfulness may be one way to level the playing field, to give all children tools that rely on nothing but the body, breath, and mind.

As a physical education instructor, I often see students at their least attentive—virtually bouncing off the walls. And I often see them at their most attentive—after a cool-down at the end of class, the kids are sometimes so calm and present that I hesitate to break the silence at all. In the absence of the sort of action Whippman implicitly calls for, while not a replacement, mindfulness practice is a good start.

Though I regularly write about the intersection of education and practice, I have no formal training in teaching mindfulness to children. So I spoke with Sandra Delaney to gain a better understanding of what mindfulness education in schools entails. Delaney is a former assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction in public school districts in Massachusetts. She has also undergone training at Mindful Schools in Oakland, California, and has been using mindfulness in education for more than a decade.

What is your personal background with meditation and how did you start teaching mindfulness to children? I began meditation practice in the mid-1970s in the Zen tradition with a local Catholic group called Ruah, which is the Hebrew word for breath. I switched to nonsectarian Vipassana meditation soon thereafter and have stuck with that tradition. As a classroom teacher, I wanted to know how to support children in self-regulation and nonjudgmental reflection on their actions.

One summer in the late 90s, I saw a notice in the newsletter from my local center, Cambridge Insight Meditation Center, that the Insight Meditation Society, in Barre, Massachusetts, was looking to staff their annual weeklong summer family retreat. I volunteered and eventually became the children’s program coordinator for the retreat, serving in that role until the program ended three years ago. During that time, we volunteers successfully worked with children and families from ages 3 to 14 to integrate mindfulness practice into their busy daily lives. After family retreat ended, I saw that Mindful Schools was facilitating training for teachers to work with children, and I signed up.

How can mindfulness be beneficial to children? As a parent and educator, I know from experience that children become aware of their bodies and sensations at birth. As they learn language and cultural norms, children accordingly learn to make their own choices about how to respond to their sensations and thoughts. With practice and guidance, children learn to toilet train themselves, feed themselves, walk upright, and so on. Children like to be in control of their bodies and to understand what certain sensations mean and to choose how to respond. They quickly realize that there are many possible choices and that each one has an effect. Self-reflection, if possible, allows children to watch what happens as they respond to their sensations in overwhelming and confusing situations. Mindfulness is another way to support children in becoming more aware of body sensations and remembering that they can choose to respond to a situation in ways that are helpful, like asking an adult to step in, or stopping and slowing down their breathing until the mind clears. Children can learn to use their awareness to make considered choices and to avoid knee-jerk reactions that may not be how they actually wish to respond.

Mindfulness practice engenders lifelong skills that can lead to a more balanced and happy life. Mindfulness training is a matter of helping children become self-aware and clear about their behavior so that they can choose kindness for themselves and others whenever possible. This is a foundational goal that most educators and parents agree on and aspire to for all children.

What are some methods you use to teach these skills? I use various nonsectarian techniques from meditation practice to support students in being more thoughtful and aware. We work on watching our breath, slow and purposeful walking, sitting still and listening with closed eyes, or holding a still posture in order to slow down our thoughts and to become more centered in our bodies. These are short, three- to five-minute activities that allow students to make successful transitions to a new activity or to become more tuned in to the work at hand. Pausing and reflecting before acting impulsively is helpful for any activity.

There was a middle school student I once taught in a skills class. The school psychologist and I worked with her to teach her to be aware of what was happening in her body when she had a racing monkey mind. We had an app that you put your finger on that shows you your pulse, and so she learned to be able to bring her heartbeat down with breathing. She learned that “Oh wow, I can bring myself right back to my normal pulse.”

Is mindfulness training a Band-Aid that fails to address the root causes of unhappiness? Mindfulness can appear to be a Band-Aid if it is not properly supported with ongoing practice and training. Practice makes all the difference. Support from educated adults like the school psychologist and trained teachers and other educators working as a team make all the difference in getting to the root causes of issues. Of course, some children may require more direct support, such as therapy, but for most children regular mindfulness practice with peers in the classroom works well.

Mindfulness is not a quick fix or a one-shot practice. It has to be sustained and reinforced to stay viable in daily life. The earlier children learn to be mindful, the sooner they can enjoy its benefits and be happier. The outcomes of such work are tangible, lifelong coping skills that support all children and adults to have a more fulfilling life.

In her article, Whippman writes, “[Mindfulness] is a philosophy likely to be more rewarding for those whose lives contain more privileged moments than grinding, humiliating, or exhausting ones.” Do you feel that there is an inherent class bias in mindfulness training? I have used mindfulness teaching across the socioeconomic spectrum of private and public school children in grades pre-K through 12, and I have found it to be beneficial to children and educators in all environments. Supporting young children early on in recognizing bodily sensations in reaction to their environment allows them to more carefully choose their response. Young children who feel sad and crushed because they do not have their own special friend do not need to be overwhelmed and frustrated; instead they can feel upset and realize that they are going through an emotion. They can pause, breathe deeply as they calm down, and use their words to get adult support. Middle school students practicing mindfulness learn to be empathetic. By learning to notice the selectivity of their clique, they can recognize others who are excluded and even begin to be more inclusive.

Stopping and pausing to acknowledge what is happening, to realize how one is physically reacting—whether through rapid breathing, clenched teeth, or feeling overwhelmed—allows one to stop and choose how to respond, to see the big picture. Stress and anxiety are not limited to any one social class but rather are pervasive emotional markers present across the spectrum from privilege to poverty.

Read more from Alex Tzelnic

Read “Does Mindfulness Belong in Public Schools: Two views from Saki Santorelli and Candy Gunther Brown” 

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