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Doug Worthen guided his small class of ninth graders at Middlesex School through an exercise designed to focus their attention. On his screen, he saw the students sitting outside or at desks and lounging across their beds as they joined their weekly mindfulness class online. One by one the students clicked off their cameras, each square became a white and gray icon and Worthen began the meditation.
“Notice where your attention is,” he said, prompting them to guide their attention back to their “home base” — the sounds around them or body sensations — when it drifted.
At the end of the meditation, the students were guided to open their eyes. They turned their screens back on and Worthen posed a question to the group. “I learned that my attention isn’t very stable,” a student said. She estimated that her attention was focused on her home base 14 percent of the time.
In this required 12-week “Introduction to Mindfulness” course taught by Worthen, a full-time mindfulness instructor, students at the private boarding school in Concord, Massachusetts, will learn how to develop awareness of their thoughts and body sensations, sit with difficult emotions and direct their attention to the present moment.
Mindfulness, an umbrella term for a range of practices, is about observing your emotions and state of mind, without judgment. This can be done during sitting meditation, walking meditation, activities such as yoga and even while eating.
Though few public schools have the budget to hire a full-time mindfulness teacher like Worthen, many have been introducing mindfulness in the classroom since the coronavirus pandemic shuttered buildings and thrust children into their at times stressful and chaotic home environments.Some teachers are integrating discussions about emotions into daily lessons or starting class with a short mindfulness practice to help everyone feel centered and prepared to learn, while others are sharing mindfulness apps and using online mindfulness videos.
The depression rate for K-12 students was already on the rise before the coronavirus pandemic brought increased financial stress, sickness and death into the lives of thousands of American families. In a survey, since the start of the pandemic, 50 percent of students reported worsened mental health, 35 percent said their family relationships were worse and a majority reported feeling “lonely” and “anxious.” In another survey, 50 percent or more of the students said they were worried about losing connections with friends, missing out on scholarship and job opportunities and how Covid-19 would affect their future employment and college plans.
Megan Sweet is the senior director of program and impact at Mindful Schools, a nonprofit organization that trains educators to teach mindfulness in the classroom. During the coronavirus pandemic, she said, “this idea of tending to the emotional well-being and support of staff and students has gone from something that was a backburner item to something that is in front-of-mind for educators and school leaders.”
In late March, Mindful Schools created a free mindfulness series for kids, in response to Covid-19, which was shared 87,000 times on social media, a record for them. Additionally, they offered an online event to address educator burnout and highlight the benefits of self-compassion. They noted that it drew 10 times the organization’s usual number of attendees. The Holistic Life Foundation, a 20-year-old nonprofit in Baltimore that teaches mindfulness to kids, said that they extended their reach by a factor of 10, from 10,000 in 2019 to over 100,000 students this fall. Similarly, the mindfulness app Headspace for Educators reported that they experienced a 77 percent increase in teacher sign-ups from mid-March to now.
Mindfulness school programs have been shown to improve young people’s emotional well-being, academic performance and relationships. In one study in Chicago of almost 200 elementary public school students, listening to 10 minutes of audio-recorded mindfulness daily for eight weeks improved students’ grades in reading and science. In a survey of sixth grade Boston charter school students by researchers at MIT, the students self-reported less stress and fewer feelings of sadness and anger after eight weeks of in-person guided mindfulness. The MIT researchers also found that students’ brain imaging showed less reactivity to negative images, compared to before they started the mindfulness program. (More brain reactivity to negative events and images is associated with increased risk for depression.) In a review of 61 studies, researchers found that mindfulness in schools resulted in improved cognitive and social-emotional functioning.
But experts also caution that the science supporting mindfulness in the classroom is not yet conclusive, largely because the wide variety in how it’s taught can make it difficult to track its effectiveness. Mindfulness programs can vary widely from school to school —- from audio recordings of meditation instruction played a few minutes each day, to entire classes for mindfulness and anything in between. “There’s a lot of ambiguity about which specific programs work, and who they work for,” said Michael Mrazek, director of research at the Center for Mindfulness and Human Potential at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
“Interventions that might work in one setting, as they get scaled up and get delivered to other schools and in other states, don’t necessarily maintain that same level of effectiveness,” Mrazek said.
At Middlesex, a college-preparatory school that attracts students hailing from across the country, there was a large shift in the school’s culture after introducing mindfulness classes. Worthen said, “You would notice there was a general decline in disciplinary issues. We see kids not staying up as late, getting better sleep.” The students agreed it was working as well. In a survey, they said the practice helped them cope with stress and could be applied in their daily lives, and that they would continue using it in the future.
Ben Painter, a Middlesex graduate, took Worthen’s class in 2012 following a concussion. He said the class not only helped him with what he expected it to — memory and focus — but also aided his communication and emotional awareness. He said the biggest impact was “the hope it gave me for what the world could look like,” having experienced a loving community built around mindfulness and compassion. The Middlesex mindfulness program was so impactful on him, in fact, that he is now a director at The Mindfulness Director Initiative — an organization that works to make mindfulness instruction accessible in schools across the country.
What works at a small private boarding school in the Northeast certainly may not work everywhere, but school leaders in very different settings are implementing mindfulness with students experiencing crisis and trauma — and the educators are seeing even more profound effects.
In 2001, brothers Atman and Ali Smith, who grew up learning mindfulness from their parents, and Andres Gonzalez, all recent college graduates, volunteered to teach mindfulness to a group of 10 to 20 students at Windsor Hills Elementary, a small Baltimore City public school. Their goal was to restore a sense of community and mentorship in their neighborhood. In the early days, they broke up a lot of fights. Before they could start class, Ali Smith said, “We had to go pick up half the kids from detention.”
But over time the disciplinary problems decreased, and as they expanded the program to other schools, principals and staff kept asking them to come back.
“That’s when we first knew,” he said, “this stuff actually really does work. The kids were learning to self-regulate.” Four years in, they received a grant from the Family League of Baltimore City to pay themselves for their teaching.
By the fall of 2020, the nonprofit they created, the Holistic Life Foundation (HLF), had reached 100,000 students across the Baltimore City and County public and private schools and other schools across the country. In an independent study of middle school students that participated in HLF’s programming, a team of researchers found that HLF’s students had improved impulse control and emotional regulation. A second study found that HLF’s mindfulness lessons decreased rumination and unwanted thoughts and increased students’ emotional stability.
One of the schools they work with, Robert W. Coleman Elementary, hasn’t had a suspension in six years, according to the principal. Another school they consistently work with, Patterson High School, has had suspensions decrease “dramatically.”
Many of their students experience high levels of trauma, and the Foundation has tailored their mindfulness program to deal with that context. Baltimore, a majority Black city, experiences five times the national rate of violence and two times the national poverty rate along with ongoing issues of systemic racism. Coleman Elementary is located in the heart of the area where protests over the death of Freddie Gray took place in 2015.
To customize the mindfulness curriculum for children here, the Foundation takes a trauma-informed approach.
“We do a lot of movement first to make the kids safe in their bodies,” said Ali Smith. “You can’t ask a kid who’s been through heavy amounts of trauma to be alone with their thoughts if they don’t even feel safe in their body first.”
Smith and others guide the students through yoga and tai chi exercises before instructing them in a breathing exercise. The students sit on the floor, with their legs folded underneath them, and close their eyes. They are instructed to focus on their breath, and when their attention strays from the breath, to bring it back gently, without judgment of themselves for getting distracted. Then the students participate in discussion and end with another meditation.
The Holistic Life Foundation in Baltimore uses a “reciprocal teaching model” in which the students eventually teach the practice themselves, which encourages them to use it in their daily lives. “We also make sure the kids have fun,” Ali Smith said, by incorporating movement and pop culture, such as celebrities’ testimonials about mindfulness, and by being excited about mindfulness themselves. “The kids can feel that,” he said.
“When you’re dealing with heavy amounts of trauma, heavy amounts of stress and hopelessness, it can become overwhelming,” said Ali Smith. “You can’t physically get out of where you are, but you can mentally get some space,” he said.
A trauma-informed approach is just one of the best practices that’s recommended for educators teaching mindfulness in the classroom.
“To be really impactful about teaching mindfulness to kids, you need to practice yourself,” said Sweet, of Mindful Schools. Educators are recommended to have a personal mindfulness practice for at least six months before taking their training, and then spend 300 hours learning how to teach mindfulness to students. Like math or science, mindfulness is a subject best taught by someone who knows the material. “It’s more effective, and safer,” Sweet said.
Patricia Jennings, professor of education at the University of Virginia, says mindfulness should never be used as a disciplinary response, because of the negative association students may develop with it. Instead, she recommends integrating mindfulness into behavioral response programs, by teaching students emotional awareness and helping them feel empowered to respond to challenges.
For schools that want to offer mindfulness but don’t have the money or resources to hire someone or provide training, digital programs with recordings may be helpful, and can offer customization for students. Some apps ask the students a series of questions about how they’re feeling and what they want to focus on, for example, and provide a specific meditation based on their responses.
Regardless of the specifics, experts agree that mindfulness in schools should always be optional. While Worthen’s mindfulness class is required, he said, “The invitation is always there for them to not participate.”
Mindfulness could be a valuable tool for schools as they try to help students navigate the traumatic effects of the Covid-19 crisis. But what works in the classroom doesn’t always translate to online.
Typically, in a class taught by the Holistic Life Foundation, the students are spread out on yoga mats across a classroom or gym. During the pandemic, it’s all virtual.
Trying to meditate at home with siblings who are also learning online and parents who are working from home might seem difficult. But ultimately, Smith said, the goal of his organization is for students to learn how to use mindfulness at home as a way to help with the other challenges they face in their daily lives. “They still have to be able to incorporate the practice at home no matter what’s going on there,” Smith said.
At Middlesex, Worthen said the home practice environment has mostly been a positive for his students, who often feel more comfortable fully participating in the mindfulness exercises at home: “They’re in a space where they can feel really safe and can drop in to a level that might be harder in a classroom,” he said, because, in school, “they want to look cool, or they’re a little guarded around closing their eyes and meditating.”
But as he guided his online class, many of the students seemed distracted during the discussions. Some talked to others in the room with them and some peered downward, as if they were looking at their phones. Only one student unmuted herself to share her experience while the rest opted to participate via chat.
“It’s harder for people to share,” Worthen said. It can be hard enough to get students to participate in nonvirtual classes, he said; online, students have to unmute themselves to speak up, a process which can deter them from participating.
Another downside of remote instruction is that it’s difficult for Worthen to know how his students are doing. “It’s harder to attune to what’s coming up for people,” he said.
Sweet, at Mindful Schools, has heard the same concerns from many teachers she works with. “A lot of kids have their cameras off,” she said. “A lot of those nonverbal cues that educators rely on to get a sense of how students are doing, and informal conversations, those aren’t happening.” To better adapt mindfulness instruction for online, the group is working with educators to improve their online support and presentation styles and developing creative ways to check in with students, like asking students to use weather words such as sunny and cloudy to describe how they’re feeling and encouraging different ways of sharing, like using the chat box or giving a thumbs up.
But the main strategy is to help educators feel calmer, which helps students feel calmer.
Just seeing their teachers breathing with them online and being fully present with them, she said, “does still help to regulate the kids and make them feel more grounded, and stable.”
This story about mindfulness in the classroom was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.