News of Reidman’s positive experience spread to other classes at the school and helped launch Kaiser’s career as the founder and director of a new nonprofit organization: InnerKids. Funded through private grants, its mission is to teach mindful awareness practices to students in public and private schools for little or no cost. In the last five years, the organization has served hundreds of schools across the country and has grown to the point where there’s more demand for the program than Kaiser can handle alone. Recently, she retired from her successful law practice to devote herself fully to InnerKids. She’s now busy training new teachers. “Requests come from all over New York, California, the Midwest,” says Kaiser. “It’s really amazing how this has caught on.”
A 2004 survey of mindfulness programs by the Garrison Institute in New York an organization that studies and promotes mindfulness and meditation in education showed that many schools are adopting mindfulness trainings because the techniques are easy to learn and can help children become “more responsive and less reactive, more focused and less distracted, [and] more calm and less stressed.” While mindfulness can produce internal benefits to kids, the Garrison report also found that it can create a more positive learning environment, where kids are primed to pay attention.
InnerKids is one of several mindfulness education programs that have sprouted up around the country; others include the Impact Foundation in Colorado and the Lineage Project in New York City, which teaches mindfulness to at risk and incarcerated teenagers. Like these programs, Kaiser’s curriculum was inspired by the work of Jon Kabat Zinn, the founder of the Stress Reduction Program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Kabat Zinn was among the first scientists to recognize that mindfulness meditation might have healing benefits for adult patients suffering from chronic pain. He developed a secular version of the Buddhist practice, which he called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), and ran studies demonstrating its effectiveness. Now, with over a thousand studies published in peer review journals about it, Kabat Zinn’s MBSR program has been found to reduce not only chronic pain but also high blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Evidence also suggests MBSR can help improve one’s ability to handle stress and alleviate depression, anxiety, post traumatic stress, and eating disorders.
Despite the success of MBSR with adults, there has been little corresponding research on children, though that’s starting to change. At the University of British Columbia in Canada, psychologist Kimberly Schonert Reichl and a graduate student, Molly Stewart Lawlor, recently finished a pilot project on mindfulness in schools, with funding and teacher training provided by the Bright Lights Foundation (now called the Goldie Hawn Institute), an organization founded by actress and children’s advocate Goldie Hawn. Fourth through seventh graders in six Vancouver public schools were instructed in mindful awareness techniques and positive thinking skills, then tested for changes in their behavior, social and emotional competence, moral development, and mood.
The positive response to the program was almost immediate. “In one classroom, the children went from having the most behavioral problems in the school as measured by number of visits to the principal’s office to having zero behavioral problems, after only two to three weeks of instruction,” says Schonert Reichl. Her results also showed that these children were less aggressive, less oppositional toward teachers, and more attentive in class. Those who received the mindfulness training also reported feeling more positive emotion and optimism, and seemed more introspective than children who were on a waitlist for the training. “It’s important to do research like this because kids need something to cope with all the pressures at school,” says Schonert Reichl. “If we don’t find something to help them, there are going to be tremendous health costs for these kids down the road.”