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Mindfulness and Meditation in Schools: Mindful Kids, Peaceful Schools

Mind­ful Kids, Peace­ful Schools

With eyes closed and deep breaths, stu­dents are learn­ing a new method to reduce anx­i­ety, con­flict, and atten­tion dis­or­ders. But don’t call it meditation.

— By Jill Suttie

At Toluca Lake ele­men­tary school in Los Ange­les, a cyclone fence encloses the asphalt black­top, which is teem­ing with kids. It’s recess time and the kids, who are mostly mindfulness exercises for teenagersLatino, are play­ing tag, yelling, throw­ing balls, and jump­ing rope. When the bell rings, they reluc­tantly stop and head back to their class­rooms except for Daniel Murphy’s sec­ond grade class.

Murphy’s stu­dents file into the school audi­to­rium, each car­ry­ing a round blue pil­low dec­o­rated with white stars. They enter gig­gling and chat­ting, but soon they are seated in a cir­cle on their cush­ions, eyes closed, quiet and con­cen­trat­ing. Two teach­ers give the chil­dren instruc­tions on how to pay atten­tion to their breath­ing, telling them to notice the rise and fall of their bel­lies and chests, the pas­sage of air in and out of their noses. Though the room is chilly the heat­ing sys­tem broke down ear­lier that day the chil­dren appear com­fort­able, many with Mona Lisa smiles on their faces.

What did you notice about your breath this morn­ing?” one teacher asks.

Mine was like a dragon,” says Michael, a child to the teacher’s right. Albert, another child, adds, “Yeah, I could see mine. It was like smoke.”

The teach­ers lead the chil­dren through 45 min­utes of exer­cises focused on breath­ing, lis­ten­ing, move­ment, and reflec­tion. At dif­fer­ent points, the kids are asked to gauge their feel­ings calm, neu­tral, or rest­less. There are no right or wrong answers, just obser­va­tion. The ses­sion ends with the chil­dren lying qui­etly on their backs, stuffed ani­mals ris­ing and falling on their stom­achs, as they con­tem­plate peace within them­selves and in their com­mu­nity. Later, seven–year–old Emily sums up her expe­ri­ence. “I like the class because it makes me calm and soft inside. It makes me feel good.”

Toluca Lake is one of a grow­ing num­ber of schools that are using “mind­ful­ness train­ings” in an effort to com­bat increas­ing lev­els of anx­i­ety, social con­flict, and atten­tion dis­or­der among chil­dren. Once a week for 10 to 12 weeks, the stu­dents at Toluca take time out from their nor­mal cur­ricu­lum to learn tech­niques that draw on the Bud­dhist med­i­ta­tive prac­tice of mind­ful­ness, which is meant to pro­mote greater aware­ness of one’s self and one’s envi­ron­ment. Accord­ing to mind­ful­ness edu­ca­tor Susan Kaiser, bring­ing this prac­tice into schools is “really about teach­ing kids how to be in a state of atten­tion, where they can per­ceive thoughts, phys­i­cal sen­sa­tions, and emo­tions with­out judg­ment and with curios­ity and an open state of mind.”

That such an uncon­ven­tional prac­tice with its roots in a reli­gious tra­di­tion, no less has made its way into pub­lic schools may come as a sur­prise to many peo­ple. But schools Yoga school studentshave been turn­ing to mind­ful­ness for very prac­ti­cal rea­sons that don’t con­cern reli­gion, and their efforts have been sup­ported by a recent wave of sci­en­tific results.

Steve Rei­d­man first intro­duced mind­ful­ness prac­tices to Toluca Lake about six years ago. Rei­d­man, a fourth grade teacher at the school, had been expe­ri­enc­ing prob­lems with class­room man­age­ment first for him, after many years of teach­ing. Con­flicts on the play­ground were esca­lat­ing and affect­ing his stu­dents’ abil­ity to set­tle down and con­cen­trate in class. When he con­fided his prob­lems to Kaiser, a per­sonal friend, she offered to come to his class to teach mind­ful­ness, a tech­nique she’d taught to kids as a vol­un­teer at a local boys and girls club.

I noticed a dif­fer­ence right away,” says Rei­d­man. “There was less con­flict on the play­ground, less test anx­i­ety just the way the kids walked into the class­room was dif­fer­ent. Our state test scores also went up that year, which I’d like to attribute to my teach­ing but I think had more to do with the breath­ing they did right before they took the test.”

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