By Sharon Cohen
A good deal of controversy has surrounded the introduction of the Mindful Schools curriculum in Methow Valley schools. This is understandable since many are not familiar with mindfulness and associate it with religion or a particular philosophy of life. Actually, it is neither.
Mindfulness is about paying attention — no doctrine or belief is included with this practice. Additionally, mindfulness can be used as a secular, non-religious meditation technique.
Practitioners sit or walk quietly, paying close attention to their experience; they are not instructed to “open their mind” (as feared by some parents). It is well documented that mindfulness practice calms the nerves, lowers blood pressure, eases chronic pain, reduces anger and hostility, and generally creates a sense of goodwill and empathy, all virtues we admire and hope to instill in our children.
Why is the curriculum offered to kids?
According to a 2010 American Psychological Association survey, many children from 8 to 17 worry about doing well in school, getting into college, and their family’s finances. Their worry often causes them to suffer from headaches, sleeplessness and upset stomachs. Parents are largely unaware of how stressed their kids are.
Mindfulness gives kids tools to cope with stress
A kindergarten teacher praised the curriculum on a mindful schools website, saying it “opens the mind to noticing, without judgment, how you feel, think, and interact with the world. My students have become grounded in a way I have never seen before. Their empathy for each other, kindness toward their world, and ability to focus is rarely seen in kindergarteners; but as we continue our mindful practice, these qualities grow more and more concrete.”
So what is mindfulness?
The widely accepted definition of mindfulness is to pay attention on purpose, non-judgmentally, to the unfolding moment-to-moment experience.
Mindfulness for stress reduction was introduced in 1979 by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, at the University of Massachusetts. It successfully helped patients suffering from chronic pain. Kabat-Zinn’s work spread, and gathered a great deal of supporting scientific evidence. Today mindfulness is integrated in medicine, psychology, neuroscience, education, sports and corporate training. It is researched and taught in universities worldwide, including Oxford, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, UCLA, the University of Massachusetts, Duke, Emory and others. It is taught in medical schools to providers, and in hospitals to patients. It is taught in the U.S. military, professional sports and business schools. It is taught in public schools in the United States, Canada, England, Australia and Europe. And, it is taught to staff and executives at General Mills, Ford Motors, Google and NASA.
Researchers now know a great deal about the brain, and brain chemistry. Thoughts which fire together, wire together. Recurring thoughts form habits because neurons in our brains (think of them as the wires that conduct thoughts) become densely connected. Negative thoughts produce more negative thoughts. Psychologists know this can be a cause for serious depression.
Mindfulness practice promotes brain health by activating the executive functioning part of the brain that manages impulse control, decision-making and conscious reasoning. It also strengthens brain regions associated with memory, sensory awareness and self-regulation.
Stress is especially harmful to the developing brains of children and adolescents. Not surprisingly, mindfulness can help.
A national study found that a young learner’s ability to focus is more predictive of adult financial success and health than his/her IQ. The inability to sustain focus is why kids with ADHD struggle so hard in school and in life. Mindfulness practice has been shown to ease the symptoms of ADHD.
Nationally, mindful schools students self-reported an increased ability to focus on schoolwork, to calm themselves down, and felt they made better decisions.
Six-term U.S. Congressman Tim Ryan, a lifelong Catholic, wrote Mindful Nation, describing his vision for mindfulness in leadership and education. Ryan helped bring mindfulness into two Ohio schools.
We have an opportunity to introduce this valuable curriculum to our schools. School officials will soon be deciding how mindfulness will be offered to Methow Valley students.
I urge everyone who is part of this conversation to familiarize yourself with the proposed curriculum, talk to those who practice Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, the source of the curriculum, and make an informed decision.
Methow Valley teens report high levels of stress. They deserve access to the same tools that are making a difference in the lives of NASA scientists, academics and professional athletes.
Sharon Cohen trained with Jon Kabat-Zinn and teaches Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction at Winthrop Fitness. She can be reached at email@example.com.