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 Latino, 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 have 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.”