By Marcy Stamper
A program intended to help students in the Methow Valley School District cope with stress and improve concentration was suspended after administrators determined the curriculum had not been adequately explained to teachers, school board directors, students and their families.
The 15-minute classes using the Mindful Schools curriculum were provided to several grades in both Methow Valley Elementary and Liberty Bell High schools for several weeks this fall before a dozen families called with questions or concerns about the program, according to Tom Venable, superintendent of the school district.
The Mindful Schools program was taught by Sharon Cohen, a community member who has been teaching mindfulness-based stress reduction to adults since 2011. At Liberty Bell, the mindfulness lessons were allocated 15 minutes a week as part of seventh- through 10th-grade science classes. Kindergarteners, first and second graders and one fourth-grade class also received 15 minutes of instruction.
The classes at Liberty Bell were supported by a grant from the local Public School Funding Alliance (PSFA), but Cohen was volunteering her time for the younger grades. She paid for her own training in the Mindful Schools curriculum.
The idea to introduce mindfulness to students grew out of several coincidental developments last spring. The school district mental health counselor had resigned and the School Health Advisory Council held a special meeting to respond to concerns about the level of stress in children’s lives, both in and outside school, said Venable and Cohen in separate interviews last week. Finding the funds to hire another mental health counselor remains one of the district’s top priorities, said Venable.
Several parents and teachers who had taken Cohen’s eight-week course in mindfulness-based stress reduction expressed interest in a similar program for children, and one person directed her to the Mindful Schools program, said Cohen.
Cohen was one of several mental health professionals and community members invited to the health council meeting. After the discussion about how to help students with stress and behavioral issues, Cohen suggested the Mindful Schools curriculum as one possible component of a strategy for meeting these needs.
The administration agreed to support her in applying to PSFA to pay for the Liberty Bell classes, said Cohen. The $800 grant was awarded in May for the fall semester. The school district did not contribute any money.
In the application to PSFA Cohen described the program as follows: “Mindfulness supports existing social-behavioral programs at Liberty Bell, such as character trait development, anti-bullying, and ongoing girls groups. … The benefits of mindfulness include all facets of life and learning including: improved concentration, decreased anxiety … empathy and understanding … conflict resolution and communication skills.”
Mindfulness in schools
The Mindful Schools curriculum originated in California six years ago and has been used in more than 50 schools across the country. It defines mindfulness as “a particular way of paying attention.”
Although mindfulness practice has become widespread across the country — used by individuals, corporations, and even the military — there are many ideas of what it entails.
The origins of mindfulness are in Buddhist psychology. A research biologist developed a secular application and introduced it to Western medicine in the 1970s, said Cohen. Peer-reviewed research has found it helpful in reducing chronic pain and psychological symptoms, according to the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
In her classes, Cohen asked students to listen to the sound of a bell and to noises in the room. The older students also focused on their breathing and watched a video about the anatomy of the brain, she said.
After a few lessons in October, the school principals and Venable began hearing from families with questions and concerns. The consistent theme was the lack of communication, but some believed it was instruction in religion and others objected to time being taken away from core subjects such as science, said Venable. Several families called it “mindful meditation” and believed it was a form of prayer, said Venable.
“Some objections were based on religious grounds, but the core was the lack of communication,” said Brian Patrick, principal of the elementary school.
The decision to put the program on hold is not based on anyone’s beliefs, but because the school board, staff and community had not been fully informed, said Venable. For something to become a regular part of instruction, it should undergo a formal curriculum-approval process, involving a review by staff, the school board, and interested families and community members, he said.
Venable could not say why that comprehensive review had not occurred last spring, but the district was in transition with the announced resignation of the former superintendent in March. Venable was hired in the summer.
“Training kids to focus or be in the moment is an important thing to teach kids. If they’re daydreaming when they’re supposed to be focusing on mathematics, that’s not good,” said Patrick. “But we should all be involved in making that decision.”
Several schools in Washington use informal applications of mindfulness training, including an elementary school in Tacoma and a high school in Seattle, according to Nathan Olson, communications manager for the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Olson said the programs are intended to help students increase self-regulation skills and focus on learning, particularly those experiencing challenges outside their control, such as abuse, mental health issues and extreme poverty. There has been resistance in districts around the state from people who believe mindfulness may be related to Eastern religious practices, he said.
Time for review
Venable, Cohen and Liberty Bell Principal Deborah DeKalb met last week to review the mindfulness program. After the winter break, they, along with the faculty, will look at the curriculum more closely and decide whether it should be considered further. Potential outcomes include a review by the school board or offering it as an extracurricular activity, said Venable.
“I personally share a strong interest in developing youth that have the skills and strategies necessary to contribute to a more peaceful and harmonious community locally and globally. … I believe our community shares this same interest as well,” wrote Venable in a letter to Cohen summarizing the meeting.
“As part of a transparent and inclusive decision-making process, a place to begin might include examining [other schools] who are having success with this model, why they chose the model, their decision-making process, and communications to families,” he wrote.
“We’ve not said ‘no’; we just need to take a closer look,” Venable said in an interview.