If you observe a good teacher working with an elementary or middle school class, you’ll very likely notice something striking. I’ve seen it often — and so has Soryu Forall, director of the Burlington, Vermont-based Center for Mindful Learning.
“By and large, teachers teach the same two points most often,” Forall writes on the nonprofit’s "Modern Mindfulness for Schools" blog. “They ask the students to focus, and they ask the student to relax. ... ‘Pay attention,’ ‘Let’s begin,’ ‘Eyes on me’ ... ‘Settle down,’ ‘Calm down,’ ‘It’s okay.’”
But even the best teachers don’t teach kids how to relax, or how to pay attention. If they knew how to teach that, wouldn’t they? “No teacher would merely tell their students to understand math,” Forall points out.
This gets to the gist of a growing movement that has just begun finding its way into a setting where it can do a whole lot of long-term good: the teaching and learning of mindfulness, the practicing of relaxed attention, within the school classroom.
Most of us have heard of mindfulness, especially lately. It grows out of the Buddhist meditation tradition, but it’s not religious in itself: it’s just learning to attend, to live in the present while letting go of the chatter and distraction that makes us tense up inside. This is a simple idea, though not so easy to practice; and it has been gaining a lot of attention, supported by a growing body of research whose findings are that mindfulness helps us manage stress, focus more, open to our creativity, and be more productive. (Visit this Trove.com page for a good selection of articles on research findings and adult applications.)
I live in Vermont and often visit schools — and it was from a middle-school librarian in Burlington that I learned this year about the locally based Center for Mindful Learning, one of a small array of initiatives that have begun bringing mindfulness techniques and practices into schools. Checking out the group’s modmind.org website, I was very startled — I bet you will be, too — by the initiative’s early results.
Forall and his small team, mostly volunteers, brought their Modern Mindfulness for Schools program into Smilie Memorial Elementary School in Waterbury, Vt., in the 2011-12 school year, and last year into John F. Kennedy Elementary School in Winooski, Vt. The program works online, with two goals: “it teaches teachers how to be mindfulness instructors, and guides their classes in mindfulness exercises until they are ready to do it themselves,” says modmind.org.
Some measured outcomes:
• At Smilie Elementary, the number of principal behavioral interventions declined from 125 in 2010-11, before the program began, to 42 in its first year and 20 in 2012-13. Between February 22 and May 20, 2013, there were zero principal interventions.
• Smilie report cards showed these improvements in learning skills: “works cooperatively,” up 31%. “Completes quality work independently,” up 21%. “Active listener,” up 19%.
• A pre- and post-program survey, completed by Smilie teachers, found these changes in student skills: “regularly or always set goals confidently,” from 10% to 50%. “Focus on listening,” from about 25% to almost 75%. “Easily relax,” from just under 25% to over 75%.
• At JFK Elementary, teachers and students were surveyed at the end of the program’s first year. Nearly 70% said disruptive classroom behaviors had been reduced; another 15% said they were greatly reduced. Eighty percent said student participation had improved; about 15% more said it had greatly improved.
“This program has been life-changing for my students and myself,” says Lisa Goetz, a third-grade teacher at JFK, on modmind.org — and last October, less than a year after the mindfulness training came to its elementary school, the City of Winooski began collaborating with the modmind people to bring mindfulness practices to the city as a whole. The Center for Mindful Learning is now working with the police department, the school district and an adolescent treatment center to build the “Mindful City Initiative,” offering mindfulness training to parents, businesses, community members, and core city institutions.
Meanwhile, more neighboring schools and teachers have begun bringing this surprisingly practical practice into classrooms. Burlington kindergarten teacher Liz Mariani has found that mindfulness activities, centered on very brief sessions of sitting and paying attention to the breath, “fit perfectly into other circle time activities,” she writes on the modmind.org blog.
“With each mindfulness activity, I stressed the importance of posture and breath. Sometimes we’d work on our breath separately before and after the sitting portion by encouraging children to stand and lift their arms to a T, inhaling and drop their arms to their sides slowly exhaling. I found that showing them the power they had to control the pace of their individual breaths worked.
“ ... These young children looked forward to their daily mindfulness activities,” Mariani concludes. “They expected it and talked about it. Many times, after a brief sitting session, I’d ask students, ‘Do you feel different? Do you feel better?’ Happy, affirmative nods would domino through the circle.”