Is Mindfulness Right for your School?

This weekend I have the privilege to attend and present at the 2014 Annual SAIS Conference. I am live blogging this event, so please be lenient on spelling errors and composition! The first session I’m attending is about Mindfulness and I’m excited to learn about the role of Mindfulness and meditation led by Patrick Cook-Deegan and Lee Hark, the Assistant Head of School from Durham Academy.

Students practicing mindfulness, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Students practicing mindfulness, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The presenters point out that the key element of “mindfulness” is simply paying attention. It’s important to be aware of when we’re paying attention and when we zone out. This is key element in my role of tech director, as technology is often used to “multi-task,” in spite of the fact that we are notoriously bad at it!

The goal of this workshop is to demystify mindfulness and look at the science behind it. Additionally to look at the good and bad of implementing mindfulness programs.

Mindfulness: paying attention to the present moment on purpose without judgment and with kindness and compassion.

While mindfulness is often associated with hippy/new-agery, it has a strong grounding in science. In fact, NIH is the primary researcher of the impact of Mindfulness on chronic illness and pain.

We participated in a meditation exercise; a simple practice of focusing on our breathing and focus. Patrick then explains that this practice impacts the

Prefrontal cortex

Prefrontal cortex

fight or flight”  part of your brain by shifting your brain’s focus. In a school, students can use this exercise to shift a student’s mind frame when they are experiencing a high stress event, like a bad test grade. Before engaging students in a discussion, engaging in a mindfulness exercise can help a student return to the present and focus on the discussion at hand rather than reacting to the high stress event. Mindfulness shifts the focus of your brain activity to the Prefrontal cortex, which allows you to respond in a more thoughtful manner. In teenagers, these practices can help students to develop their prefrontal cortex thinking.

People who regularly practice meditation develop better memory and develop empathy while decreasing their stress and anxiety. Mindfulness practices can physically change your brain in a relatively short period of time. If this is done regularly during adolescence (the period of most rapid change in cognitive development), the impact can be profound and enduring.

When implementing in a classroom, there is a 9 week high school curriculum that Patrick uses:

  1. Paying Attention
  2. Cultivating Curiosity and Kindness
  3. Recognizing Worry
  4. From Reacting to Responding
  5. Mindful Movement
  6. Watching through Patterns
  7. Dealing with Difficult Emotions

Most Independent schools have students who are regularly stressed out and they are required to take in information all day. At the same time, we don’t teach them how to pay attention! This is a good inclusion within a mind/body health curriculum. The primary benefits to students are attention and emotional regulation (the key behavioral problems for children and adolescents). The research has demonstrated that in Elementary and Middle School students is: increased attention, self-control, more classroom participation, and more respect for others. In High School, the benefits are: decreased depression, less stress, and greater well-being.

Lee next talks about the implementation of a Mindfulness Program at a school, including some of the failings of implementing a program at Durham Academy. I always appreciate honesty when discussing new programs. It’s effective to learn from the successes and failures from others. As a result of two major tragedies at Durham Academy, the school looked at exploring stress reduction programs at their school. Durham Academy sought out several firms, some that worked well with their school’s culture and others that did not. It seems that picking that right organization that works with your school’s environment is key. Otherwise, you won’t have buy in from faculty, parents, and students and some serious push back from your community. Any program that is a dramatic shift should be implemented slowly and whoever you bring in to your school should be working off of a research based platform and program. Durham found that partnering with an academic institution brought more legitimacy to the program and stripped away the “hippy baggage” and “quasi-religious” elements of a Mindfulness Program. A great example of implementation is at Middlesex. And if anyone wants to challenge the “wimpiness” aspect of meditation, you can point out that the Seattle Seahawks used it during their Super Bowl season.

They end their talk sharing a number of resources, including Patrick’s firm, for Mindfulness programs. My big take aways from this is that a Mindfulness program needs to be implemented in a way keeping with your school’s culture, focusing on the needs of your faculty, students, and parents.

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