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The Mindful Classroom 

Meditation as a teaching tool.

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The Dalai Lama has famously remarked that if every eight-year-old in the world were taught meditation, we would eliminate violence from the world within one generation. Some have called that an oversimplification, and it's undeniable that getting it to happen in the first place would be tough. But thanks to a blend of advances in neuroscience, creativity among educators, and sheer desperation, a movement toward mindful education is growing steadily—and the results are looking promising indeed.

Those of us who survived elementary school probably remember exasperated teachers snapping, "Put your heads down on your desks and close your eyes NOW!" when things got heated. It was usually a punitive move, commanded when the classroom was spinning out of control. Nonetheless, that moment of silence often worked to reset the tone and calm things down, which is probably why all our teachers did it.

Moments of Silence

In recent years, many factors—high-stakes testing, reductions in recess and gym class, traumatized students—mean that teachers are confronted with that spinning-out feeling on a regular basis. A 2008 study indicated that one-third of all new teachers lasted only three years and 46 percent left within five years. The old "everybody put your head down" hasn't been cutting it, nor have the stimulants prescribed to millions of children proven miraculous. Zero-tolerance discipline policies have likewise failed to terrorize disruptive youth into receptive, attentive silence.

Mindful education, by contrast, is reaping great results. Teachers who institute a simple contemplative procedure into daily classroom routine report that kids rapidly come to love it and make the skill of centering their own, leading to improved academic performance and fewer disciplinary issues.

"I started reading about people doing a moment of silence and focus in classrooms maybe four years ago," says Laura Graceffa, middle school dean at Poughkeepsie Day School. "One of the teachers knew about Goldie Hawn's MindUP work and turned me on to her book [10 Mindful Minutes], and it turned out I knew the consulting neurologist who wrote some of the brain science material. It seemed like a winner to me—and when we tried it with middle school kids, the evidence was right there. I'm a science teacher, and I'm a skeptic. I like empiricism and facts. If this didn't work, we wouldn't be doing it."

"Teachers have always asked the question, 'How do I get students to slow down so they can learn?' It's really hard for anyone outside you to slow down your brain, but it turns out they can learn to do that for themselves very well. This is something we need to be aware of and teach to all kids; after all, we work with their brains all day long. And anything you teach kids about the brain, at any age, they are fascinated by, so right off they are inclined to buy in."

At Poughkeepsie Day, children either close their eyes or simply gaze downward as a bell is rung, and listen to the sound of the bell until they can no longer hear it. "We start with a very brief period of silence, maybe 10 seconds," says Graceffa, "and work up, with the sixth graders, to one minute, which is longer than you think in a room full of 12-year-olds. Then we ring the bell again and when they can't hear it anymore, they open their eyes or look up but stay silent, come out of it gently.

"The results are amazing. In less than two minutes, you've hit the reset button. I think it could work anywhere—as long as the adult truly buys in, takes it seriously, and practices it too."

Teaching the Teachers

That last bit of truth has led advocates for mindful classroom practice to focus on getting the adults trained first, not just so that they can pass the knowledge along but because it helps them just as much as it does the kids. "Some of my colleagues deal with stress outside of school—special needs kids, eldercare—and the great thing is, you can take this with you wherever go," says Lynne Ogren, who teaches Spanish to fifth- and sixth-graders at Sand Creek Middle School in the South Colonie School District near Albany. "People who are unfamiliar think you have to meditate for hours to get results, but even taking a minute for a deep breath helps."

Ogren found her way to mindful classroom practice through personal experience; a yoga teacher outside of school, her two worlds converged after a transfer from high school to middle school led her to seek fresh coping strategies. It's worked. "I like to start the school year with a simple explanation of brain anatomy and function, so they understand how the activities fit in," she says. "It becomes our go-to before tests and at any other stressful moment. Now, some will even request it, which gets me excited."

The Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education (CARE) program designed at the Garrison Institute offers four-day workshops, five-day retreats, and ongoing support for educators seeking to access the benefits of the contemplative approach. Having completed a pilot study with promising results, Garrison is partnering with the Penn State University Prevention Research Center on a $3.5 million multi-site randomized control trial in elementary classrooms in New York City.

"Garrison started mapping what was going on with this about 10 years ago," says initiative director Adi Flesher, "and it became clear that it's great stuff to teach kids, but unless the adults own and practice it long-term success is unlikely. There's a lot of research out of the social emotional learning world that demonstrates good results, but if people aren't trained and embodying these competencies, it doesn't work.

"We seem to keep thinking of education in a very linear way: standards, new curricula, break down a math lesson into 45 steps and sell it. There's been very little emphasis on the relationship piece, but it's undeniable that people transmit emotions to one another, students and teachers included. Many students have a hard time regulating emotionally for a wide range of reasons. And as this is happening, teachers are dealing with extra layers of bureaucracy, making them less capable of helping students. CARE is proving powerful because it was developed by and for teachers, and because it's evidence-based, it has a chance to move the conversation beyond people who already share our core assumptions."

"A lot of programs for students, like Responsive Classroom, left the teacher out of the equation," says Valerie Lovelace, executive director of the Greater Capitol Region Teachers Center for Effective Teaching in Albany. "We've gotten savvy since. This is the missing link. In terms of equity in education, emotional literacy is taught by those around you or it's not. Mindfulness is almost a magic ingredient for developing the positive, pro-social relationships that foster a positive environment, which creates a safe space for learning."

Lovelace and Ogren co-facilitate CARE workshops through the Center, and Lovelace says the results speak for themselves, even in a climate of reduced funding that calls for meticulous vetting of all programs. "We looked at what would ultimately have the most impact on kids, and this is it," Lovelace says. "We've worked with an extremely high-impact population and seen high gains. One service we provide regionally is special education support to the Capital District BOCES (Bureau of Cooperative Educational Service). Financial constraints have forced school districts to take back as many special needs students as they could and support them in traditional classrooms, which left BOCES with just the most challenging cases; the environment there got incredibly challenging.

"We brought those teachers through the full CARE process, at Mabee Farm [a bucolic setting in Rotterdam Junction]. You want to get out of the school environment if at all possible, to a pleasant space where they won't have the familiar defenses up. We asked them to talk about all different subjects and emotions, break through some taboos, and offer intensive training in mindfulness technique with lots of opportunity to practice. After they have had a chance to go away and think it over and implement it in their own lives, we bring them back for a booster session. It went so well! Myriad things happened. People were so impacted that they wanted to run right out and share with others immediately. We want them to take time to truly absorb it all."

The Fourth "R"

The mindfulness movement is broad-based and grass roots; experts are careful to avoid religious connotations that could result in pushback. The website for MindUP describes the program in very specific neuroscience terminology, with not a whiff of the Dalai Lama visible. The focus is on mindful practice as a simple owner's manual for the frontal cortex and its executive functions and the salutary effects of that on everything from math scores to getting along better and helping each other out.

In Encinitas, California, where the program is specifically billed as Ashtanga yoga, a lawsuit claiming it was a violation of the separation doctrine was settled in favor of the school district. Extreme fundamentalists fear the idea of individual access to a source of peace and bliss; tight schedules and budgets make relaxation as the fourth "R" a hard sell in some settings.

Those with direct experience, though, feel that the evidence continues to mount on their side.

"We're not the only ones doing this," says Flesher. "Different ways are effective in different settings. The reason that mindfulness has gotten ahead is that it's something can be studied with control group and clear protocol. And I think when this next batch of trials is done, it will change the conversation even more."

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