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{HeadLines} September 2014, Vol. 1 
A Mindful School

By Sarah Stewart


Margaret Meyers was in her first year as a language arts teacher at Chesapeake Bay Academy, an independent school for children with learning differences in Virginia Beach, VA, when she decided to try something different with her 5th grade class. Like many middle school students her children would rush into the class, full of energy, talking, messing with bags, and in general chaotic from the transition. Once the students were settled in their seats, she would greet them and tell them they were going to participate in a body scan.  

The body scan is not some sci-fi trick or airport security check, but a mental exercise that is part of the practice of mindfulness. Meyers would ask all the students to remain quiet and close their eyes. Then she would ask them to bring their awareness to their bodies, beginning with their feet and moving all the way up to their heads, paying special attention to any areas in which they may be carrying stress. Finally, she would ask them to be aware of their thoughts without judging them, reminding them that they are not their thoughts. The scan's purpose was to help the students make the connection between their thoughts and the physiological responses in their bodies. In addition, the scan helped Meyers and her students become fully present after the transition between classes, so that they were all focused and ready for class.  

Mindfulness is defined as “the intentional, accepting, and non-judgmental focus of one's attention on the emotions, thoughts, and sensations occurring in the present moment.” This practice is honed during sessions of meditation. Previously, experts believed people could only benefit from prolonged periods of meditation, but research is increasingly showing that a simple 5-minute body scan, like the one Meyers conducted with her class, can improve focus and calm the body and mind. “I could feel a shift in the energy in the classroom, when the students could stop, take a deep breath, calm their bodies down and be present. They even started to remind me to do it if I was busy and forgot,” said Meyers.

Historically, mindfulness is an essential element of Buddhist practice called anapanasati, which means “mindfulness of breathing.” The practice was popularized in the west by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Professor of Medicine Emeritus and creator of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program has been used in hospitals, prisons, and schools since the 1970s to alleviate mental and physical conditions, and give people greater control over their emotions. 

Due to its Buddhist roots, some people in the U.S., and the South especially, have previously rejected mindfulness, assuming it was a religious practice. However, in the last decade, it has gained a growing amount of attention due to mounting research supporting its effectiveness. Studies from Kabat-Zinn, psychologists, and sociologists dating to the early 1980s documented success stories. Prisons inmates who practiced mindfulness saw improved mood and self-esteem and a decrease in hostility. Patients in hospitals were better able to control chronic pain, hot flashes, or asthma. However the research began to explode in the early 2000s, with more universities and hospitals dedicating whole departments to the study and practice of mindfulness. 

New technologies in studying the brain also contributed to that growth, as neuroscientists saw positive effects on brain function, and even increased grey matter, via magnetic resonance imagining (MRI). Also, researchers are increasingly focused on the use of mindfulness in schools. Studies have shown that students participating in mindfulness programs saw significant gains in emotional awareness and regulation, as well as the ability to focus. Teachers who participated also saw improvements in their self-regulation, self-compassion, and empathy for their students and co-workers. 

Also, in 2013, the University of California, Davis released the findings from the largest randomized-controlled study to date, which it conducted with Mindful Schools, a provider of teacher training and mindfulness curriculum. In addition to the study’s size, the population of students was considered high-risk. The schools chosen were in an extremely poor community with 85 percent of the students qualifying for reduced or free lunch programs. Students participated in six weeks of mindfulness training, with staff from Mindful Schools leading them in 15 minutes of meditation twice or more a week. Meanwhile, teachers received six weeks of training and leading mindfulness, so they could continue the practice. The overall study was conducted over five months. Results from the study showed significant improvements in students’ ability to pay attention, their self-care and preparation for class, and their empathy. Moreover, those gains were even larger in boys. 

The need for ways to help students focus and cope with stress is real. The digital era has put life on a perpetual fast forward, as we increasingly multitask duties and activities– walking, talking, texting, driving, emailing, tweeting, calling, and surfing through each day. The ability to focus has always been a skill that can be honed with discipline, but never were there so many things vying for our attention. Kids are stressed out, and some surveys say even more than their parents.  A 2013 survey from the American Psychological Association found that teens reported they had more stress than they could handle, and much of that stress revolved around school. Around 37 percent of girls said they were depressed because of stress. Also, the majority of boys and girls did not recognize the potential impact on their mental or physical health, and only 50 percent felt confident they could cope.

Dr. JoAnn Deak is an internationally recognized expert on child development, psychology, and neurology. She has spent more than 30 years working with schools and families, and is the author of four books including the Fantastic Elastic Brain and How Girls Thrive. Deak says the research strongly supports the use of mindfulness practices to help students focus and learn. “A variety of things can interfere with learning: attention issues, stress, and anything that causes emotions, so approaches with mindfulness, it helps with settling down all three of those areas.”

Deak also says the current trend of multitasking is not only detrimental to learning, but can have long-lasting effects on students’ developing brains. “We ask kids to multitask frequently and new research is showing that the more the developing brain multitasks the poorer it functions in general,” she said. “The more kids are multitasking: listening to music, doing homework, eating, it scatters the brain like a shot gun. And the more it gets used to working that way, the harder it is to have a single-minded deep focus.”

At CBA, Meyers had great success with her body scans. A lot of the students also suffered from test anxiety, so Meyers helped them practice exercises to calm themselves and focus before an assessment. “It gave them personal power to know that whether they were in my class or elsewhere, they had could access that inner calm,” Meyers said. “That’s what mindfulness is all about: self-regulation and personal empowerment, so that people understand that they are in control of their responses.” CBA decided to formalize the practice of mindfulness by adding a mindfulness curriculum. Called Learning to Breathe, the curriculum offers age-appropriate lessons with discussion topics, activities, and opportunities to practice mindfulness skills. 

CBA Head of School Judy Jankowski is a strong supporter. Certified in learning disabilities and social/emotional disorders, Jankowski worked in the public school system for many years, before becoming the Director of Admissions at McLean School in Maryland, and now the Head at CBA. Her first encounter with mindfulness was at McLean where a parent of a student with ADD piloted a program. She also believes the practice of mindfulness aligns with brain-based research about neuroplasticity, and how people can actively rewire the way their brains work. 

“When I first started in education 30 years ago, they thought you have to get everything into a child’s brain by the time they were five,” she said. “But what we know now is that the human brain is not fully developed until the late 20s, and for some, their 30s. And that whole understanding of how to rewire the brain, for my population of learners, is an incredible opportunity.”

Based on that concept, Jankowski says teachers can not only teach dyslexic students strategies, but also employ cognitive interventions that rewire the dyslexic’s brain. Likewise, with mindfulness students are training to be more reflective, more aware, more empathetic, and more attentive to the present and their emotional state.

"One key to implementing a mindfulness program is sufficient planning and buy-in. It’s not just running a drill with the kids." said Jankowski. The teachers have to be trained and understand and practice mindfulness themselves. The school leaders also have to be sensitive to the process of training teachers and building consensus. 

It’s also important that the school gains the support of its parents. Located in Durham, NC, Durham Academy serves around 1,100 students, K through 12th grade. The school considered offering transcendental meditation (TM) to students in the early 2000s to help them deal with stress. TM originated in India and was popularized in the 1950s by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Like mindfulness, the practice has gained popularity and been used in schools, as well as other institutions, to reduce stress and improve well-being. However, in North Carolina it was viewed as a religious and even cultish practice. There was a strong backlash among parents, so the school abandoned the idea.

In 2013, the school learned about the current mindfulness programs available through Patrick Cook-Deegan, an educator and human rights activist who spoke at the school. Cook-Deegan completed a 2,800 solo bike ride through Southeast Asia, as well as trips to the Congo, North Korea, and Rwanda. While completing his undergraduate degree at Brown University, he also helped launch the Brown Social Innovation Initiative, a leading social change incubator on college campuses. Despite his successes, Cook-Deegan struggled with a sense of loneliness, anger, and frustration with the world. At a friend’s recommendation, he took a 10-day meditation retreat to Cambodia, an experience that changed his life. He became increasingly involved with Inward Bound Mindfulness Education, an organization that leads mindfulness retreats for students. Today Cook-Deegan leads workshops and retreats for students and schools, teaching them the benefits of mindfulness, as well as connecting with nature, and pursing service projects. Cook-Deegan was extremely popular with DA’s students. He also talked to DA’s leaders about how the school could start a mindfulness program. DA is still investigating how it will incorporate the practice, but Hark says that students definitely need more ways to deal with stress. 

Also, based on the experience with TM, Hark recommends that schools are careful to explain that the practice is not affiliated with any religion and is backed by research. “In presenting it to parents, you need to focus on the need for it, and this is no surprise to anyone,” Hark said. “Parents see the amount of stress ratcheting up on their kids, and it doesn’t seem to be abating, certainly not in competitive independent schools. So you talk about how it can satisfy that need, the science behind it, and what the students will experience. You cover what mindfulness practice looks like; what it is and what it isn’t.”

Hark and Cook-Deegan will be speaking at the upcoming SAIS Annual Conference in Atlanta, October 18-20. Their session Is Mindfulness Right for Your School? will take place at 10:00 AM on Sunday, October 19. Check out the conference schedule and register at To continue this conversation on Twitter: @SAISnews, #saisac.


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