By Dr. Amy Saltzman
In the spring of 2010, when I spoke at the Mindfulness in Education Conference at Lesley University, I found myself repeatedly forming circles with both hands and moving them toward one another. Over and over, I spoke of circles beginning to converge. As a mindfulness educator, I continue to see a coalescing or “coming together” of this field’s previously “separate” parts, perspectives, approaches, and philosophies into a more unified and spacious whole. Below is a summary of my 2014 closing keynote for the Bridging and Minds of Youth Conference in San Diego describing of some of the many circles that are now converging as the field blossoms. For clarity and ease, the term “teachers” will refer to classroom teachers, and the term “educators” will refer to all of us involved in the shared work of bringing mindfulness into education.
Social Emotional Learning (SEL) and Mindfulness:
I began sharing mindfulness with children more than 14 years ago. The Association for Mindfulness in Education hosted the first large public dialogue on Mindfulness in K-12 with Jon Kabat-Zinn, eight years ago. In the early days, I experienced a confusing, and to me, false separation between proponents of Social Emotional Learning and Mindfulness. In 2004 the Garrison Institute, with support from the Fetzer and Impact Foundations, initiated the Contemplation in Education Mapping Project. In April of 2005, Garrison hosted a gathering of pioneers in the field. Per the final Mapping Report document, the purpose of the initiative was to collect information on the current status of programs utilizing contemplative techniques with mainstream student populations in K-12 educational settings. The Mapping Project sought to identify similarities and differences in program pedagogy and methodology. The Mapping Project also explored the degree to which such programs foster love and forgiveness among students.
Even now, I struggle to convey the palpable sense of separation rooted in misperception of the “other,” and the feelings of attachment and even righteousness about “our” way. We were all involved in the shared work of offering mindfulness and contemplative practices to enhance student’s social, emotional, and academic skills. Yet the language of the final report reflects subtle divisions of us and them.
This framework proposes that programs using contemplative techniques in mainstream educational settings seem to fall into one of two pedagogical categories. They are either essentially “contemplative programs,” or, as is the case with social and emotional learning programs, they use aspects of “contemplative techniques” but are not “contemplative programs.”
- Some contemplative programs use mindfulness and other complementary techniques to emphasize training attention thereby aiming initially to foster academic success and secondarily to promote emotional balance, foster pro-social behaviors and improve school climate.
- Other contemplative programs use mindfulness and complementary techniques to emphasize developing the skills for emotional balance aiming initially to teach the concept of mindful engagement with emotion, promote pro-social behaviors and improve the school’s social climate thereby creating conditions for academic success.
For me, the perception of mindfulness-based contemplative programs as emphasizing training attention, and primarily fostering academic success represented a frustrating misunderstanding of the practice of mindfulness, and a false division. Like an optical illusion once the wholeness and shared intention is has been seen, it is very difficult, if not impossible to see duality and separation.
When one reads CASEL’s (the Collaborative for Social, Emotional and Academic Learning) definition of social emotional learning, the overlap with mindfulness is apparent. Perhaps you can pause here and consider your working definition of mindfulness.
When I share mindfulness with school-age children I offer the following definition: “Mindfulness is paying attention here and now, with kindness and curiosity, so that we can choose our behavior.” Although mindfulness curricula vary in their format—15-minutes sessions three times a week for five weeks, half hour sessions twice a week for eight weeks, 45 minutes once a week for eight weeks – the content of the courses is fairly similar. Students learn to look inward and attend to the breath, the body, the five senses, thoughts, feelings and impulses. Additionally they are supported in looking outward and becoming aware of others’ thoughts, feelings, impulses, wants and needs. They practice cultivating an attitude of friendliness or loving kindness toward themselves and others. These skills are taught in combination to support students in developing the ability to respond (rather than react) to situations in daily life. Students are encouraged to respond to their own experience, and to the experience of their classmates, family members, and people in their communities with compassion and wisdom.
CASEL defines social emotional learning (SEL) as:
“…recognizing and managing our emotions, developing caring and concern for others, establishing positive relationships, making responsible decisions, and handling challenging situations constructively and ethically.”
Additionally, CASEL identifies many of the same desired outcomes that are targeted in mindfulness curricula:
“They are the skills that allow children to calm themselves when angry, make friends, resolve conflicts respectfully, and make ethical and safe choices.”
Finding common ground
Over the years, I believe proponents of various SEL and mindfulness curricula have grown into a deeper appreciation of each others’ strengths and our shared intentions. Those entering the dialogue through the doorway of SEL have come to understand that mindfulness provides a student with the foundational awareness of her internal and external experience, and the shared human experience. These “awarenesses” allow the child to choose to act with integrity, respect and compassion. Pamela Seigle, creator of the Open Circle SEL curricula told me that “incorporating mindfulness into my SEL curricula has greatly enhanced its effectiveness.”
At the same time those entering the dialogue through the doorway of mindfulness have come to a greater appreciation for the activities, skills and years of refinement offered in many of the SEL curricula. At the end of the mapping initiative meeting I noted (somewhat pleadingly) “We are all here, now, in the same room, working together to bring these valuable skills to children and adolescents, and it doesn’t matter which doorway we entered through.” Now, it is beginning to feel that as a field, we are more respectful of the wisdom various perspectives bring to the table, and more appreciative of our shared intentions.
Teaching to Students and Teaching to Teachers
Most individuals and organizations involved in offering mindfulness in educational settings have a primary focus, either offering training to students or to teachers. Regardless of whether a given program emphasizes teaching to students or to teachers, most educators recognize that the greatest benefits will be realized when both students and teachers share the practice of mindfulness. Thus, many programs that teach primarily to students offer in-services, or trainings for teachers. Many programs designed to reduce teacher stress, burnout, and compassion fatigue, and enhance teacher well-being, empathy and effectiveness include basic suggestions to support the teachers in sharing mindfulness practices with their students.
As programs develop, many are expanding their curricula, or partnering with sister programs to create mutually supportive interrelated offerings for students and teachers. Most mindfulness educators agree that the ideal situation is a school-wide program that offers the skills to the teachers, administrators, students and parents! Unfortunately, due the limitations of funding, staffing, scheduling, and expertise, this ideal has not yet been frequently realized. So currently most of us find our niche and teach what is truest for us, where we are invited.
Who teaches? Mindfulness practitioners or Classroom Teachers?
Most in the mindfulness field feel strongly that only those with an established long-term mindfulness practice should share the practices with K-12 students. Others feel equally strongly that only those with significant classroom teaching experience should share the practices with students. Given that currently, the number of classroom teachers with long-term mindfulness practice is relatively low compared with the number of classrooms across the country (and throughout the world), some middle path seems optimal. Almost all educators who have been doing this work for the 15 years agree that ideally, a classroom teacher would have an established personal practice before sharing the practice with her/his students; sharing the practice with students includes offering formal practices, games, songs, interactive exercises, encouraging students to use their developing mindfulness skills to respond with creativity and kindness to circumstances throughout the day. Perhaps most importantly, sharing the practice means to the best of one’s ability, being a living demonstration of how to apply mindfulness to events in daily life.
The question of how much practice is enough practice to begin offering age-adapted practices to children remains unanswered. Most would strongly recommend that at a bare minimum, a teacher will have participated in an 8-week mindfulness course and committed to daily practice, and preferably that a teacher would have a year or more of personal practice, including retreat experience. As a corollary, most mindfulness practitioners, who are not also classroom teachers, can benefit from formal instruction in “classroom management” and creating engaging learning environments.
Secular Mindfulness and Buddhism
Many of the compassionate teachers who are bringing Mindfulness practices into schools learned the practices in an overtly Buddhist context, reaped tremendous benefit, and identify as Buddhist. However, if we want to bring these practices into public school classrooms across the country it is essential that we – individually and collectively – offer the practices in ways that are completely universal, secular and accessible.
In public schools, separation of church and state requires that we teach foundational life skills independent of any religion, philosophy, or belief system. Some deeply immersed in this work occasionally forget that many people in the U.S. have tremendous fear of even basic well-proven aspects psychology and are terrified of “meditative” practices; these fears must be met with understanding, clarity, and reassurance. One frightened parent, teacher, or administrator can not only end a local program but also send a ripple of resistance through our increasingly interconnected/internet-connected field.
Yet even for those who learned mindfulness in a “secular” setting (such as an MBSR course), the lineage is often Buddhist. So how do we respond with integrity to the question “is mindfulness Buddhist?” My current answer is “mindfulness and compassion are innate human capacities; one does not need to be Buddhist to practice mindfulness and compassion any more than one needs to be Italian to enjoy pizza.” This statement acknowledges both the historical linage and the universality of the practice.
Hopefully inquisitive decision makers who ask “is Mindfulness Buddhist?”, will ask after we have offered a simple practice, which has allowed them to discover through their own direct experience, that they can practice just as they are, within the context of their current opinions, and beliefs – including religious, atheistic scientific, and agnostic paradigms. As the field continues to evolve, those who learned the practices in Buddhist settings are coming to understand the need to offer them in a secular accessible form. And those who learned the practices in more secular settings are discovering ways to honor the multifaceted origins of the practices with wisdom and integrity. As we move forward, it is essential that “secular” is not translated as “devoid of ethics,” and that we continue to emphasize that the intention mindfulness is to cultivate wise and compassionate ways of relating to ourselves and others in our fragile imperfect humanness.
Scientific (Quantitative) and Academic (Qualitative) Research
The secularization process has been supported by recent scientific and academic research. Using rigorous scientific methods, prestigious universities – such as Stanford, UCSF, UCLA, Columbia, Emory, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Penn State, and the University of Miami – have been documenting the measurable benefits of offering these practices for students, teachers, and parents.
Teachers who have been more inclined toward observational studies are beginning to understand the value of randomized double blind controlled trials (the scientific gold standard). In such studies, similar students or classrooms of students are randomly assigned to participate in a mindfulness program, or to be on a wait-list to participate at a later date. Then the results from the students who participate in the program are compared to the students who have not yet participated using specific statistical algorithms.
The questionnaires for assessing the constructs of mindfulness and compassion are being improved and correlated with clinical data like the Attention Network Task, EEG, and functional magnetic resonance imaging fMRI. Simultaneously, research scientists are acknowledging that, because many essential qualities of mindfulness and compassion are not well quantified by purely objective measures, there is value to including qualitative, descriptive, subjective measures. Together, quantitative and qualitative research are refining the way benefits of mindfulness are measured. (See callout box in blue below for a summary of recent research.)
Mindfulness and Yoga
Because children like and need to move, most mindfulness programs incorporate movement practices in their curricula. Many of the practices come from yoga traditions; others have been borrowed from dance and improvisational theater or created spontaneously. Because children also need stillness and quietness, many yoga and physical education programs are incorporating mindfulness.
As with SEL and mindfulness, some educators enter our “shared room” through the mind-door, and others enter through the body-door. However, most in the field recognize that the mind, body, and spirit are inseparable, and educators are actively incorporating best practices from multiple disciplines.
Flowering of the Field
My description of the ongoing emergence of a unified field details how far we have come in a very short time. Yet by writing my description in what some might still view as opposing pairs, I also show the shortening distance yet to be covered to create a truly unified field that is inclusive, non-dual, secular, accessible, rigorously researched, and which supports students’ and teachers’ social, emotional, and academic development.
I do not mean to suggest that the desired end point is the coalescing of the various viewpoints into one homogeneous circle or blob. Rather, I recommend that we continue to strive mindfully to appreciate the distinct gifts of each perspective and remain grounded in our shared intention to bring these essential life skills to young people. We are all in the same room, blossoming together with a shared commitment to relieving suffering, enhancing compassion, and creating peace.
Mindfulness in K-12: New Research
Researchers in the newly emerging discipline of Mindfulness in K-12 education are actively investigating whether offering mindfulness to children and adolescence enhances attention, executive function, and learning, and promotes pro-social behavior and general well-being. The preliminary data are encouraging. Below are summaries of four recent studies that demonstrate the benefits of offering mindfulness across the K-12 age spectrum.
- In a study of a twelve-week mindfulness-based cognitive therapy intervention, twenty-five clinic-referred nine- to twelve-year-olds experienced significant reductions in attention problems; those with elevated anxiety at pretest had decreased anxiety. Parents noted reductions in behavioral and anger management problems (Lee, Semple, Rosa, & Miller, 2008).
- A pilot study compared a control group of twenty-four sixth graders to twenty-eight fifth graders in public schools in Madison, Wisconsin. The fifth graders received the mindfulness-based Learning to BREATHE (L2B) program. Students in one of the fifth grade L2B classes were primarily Spanish-speaking. The L2B students’ performance on a computerized task of spatial working memory showed statistically significant improvements in strategy use and reductions in error rate. The L2B students also demonstrated fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety and a greater internal locus of control after program completion.
- Qualitative reports from teachers indicated that the L2B students were more focused and better able to deal with stressful situations. The reports indicated improvements in social competence, noting that the students learned to pause, if only briefly, and “acknowledge their thoughts and feelings, something that set L2B apart from most social skills programs.” Students became more aware of helpful and unhelpful thoughts and actions. The classroom environment was more relaxed and less stressful. Overall, the mindfulness lessons had a strong impact on the classroom climate and individual students stress levels (Broderick, 2011).
- A wait-list controlled study of fourth- through sixth-graders and their parents, which I conducted in collaboration with the Department of Psychology at Stanford, showed that the thirty-one children who participated in seventy-five minutes of mindfulness training for eight consecutive weeks had decreased anxiety. Further, their written narratives indicated they experienced decreased emotional reactivity, increased focus, and ability to deal with challenges (Goldin, Saltzman, & Jha, 2008).
- In a wait-list controlled study, students in six elementary classrooms received a mindfulness education training consisting of four teacher-delivered components: quieting the mind, mindful attention (mindfulness of sensation, thoughts, and feelings), managing negative emotions and thinking, and acknowledgment of self and others. Students in the ME classrooms reported increased optimism, but not improvements in self-concept or affect. Teachers reported improvements in teacher-rated behavior and social competence (Schonert-Reichl & Lawlor, 2010).
- In a randomized controlled trail with thirty-two second and third graders who engaged in Mindfulness Awareness Practices for thirty minutes twice a week for eight weeks, Lisa Flook, PhD, and her colleagues at the Mindfulness Awareness Research Center at UCLA documented that children who began the study with poor executive function had gains in behavioral regulation, metacognition, and overall global executive control. Analyses also showed significant effects for specific executive function capacities, such as attention shifting, monitoring, and initiating. These results demonstrate that Mindfulness Awareness Practice training benefits children with poor executive function (Flook, 2010).
- In a randomized controlled trial conducted by Maria Napoli, PhD, 194 first, second, and third graders who participated in a biweekly, twelve-session mindfulness and relaxation program showed significant increases in attention and social skills and decreases in test anxiety and ADHD behaviors (Napoli, 2005). (Note: decreased ADHD behaviors basically translate into increased executive function.)
- A randomized controlled trial of the Mindful Schools curriculum to 915 elementary school children in the high-crime areas of Oakland found that after four hours of mindfulness training the students demonstrated an increase in their abilities to pay attention and self-calm, and show care for others, as well as an increase in social compliance (Mindful Schools, n.d.).
- In a feasibility study, which offered mindful awareness practices and psychoeducation to a mixed group of adults and adolescents with ADHD, combined population findings included improvements in self-reported ADHD symptoms, anxiety, depressive symptoms, and working memory (Zylowska et al., 2008).
- In a study of thirty-two adolescents with learning disabilities (LD) at a private residential school, participants were led in mindfulness meditation for five to ten minutes at the beginning of each class period, five days per week, for five consecutive weeks, by two classroom teachers. Students’ self-reports revealed decreased state (short-term) and trait (long-term) anxiety. Teacher ratings showed improvements of students’ social skills and academics, and decreases in problem behaviors (Beauchemin, Hutchins, & Patterson, 2008).
- A study using mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) with a clinical population of fourteen adolescents, eleven to eighteen years of age, found improvements in sustained attention, self-reported behavior, personal goals, subjective happiness, and mindful awareness (Bogels, Hoogstad, van Dun, De Shutter, & Restifo, 2008).
- In a study of a nine-week MBSR program for thirty-three urban youth, age thirteen to twenty-one, 79 percent of the youth attended the majority of the MBSR sessions and were considered “program completers.” Among program completers, eleven were HIV-infected, 77 percent were female, and all were African American. Quantitative data show that, following the MBSR program, participants had a significant reduction in hostility, general discomfort, and emotional discomfort. Qualitative data show perceived improvements in interpersonal relationships (including less conflict), school achievement, physical health, and reduced stress. Interview data from an HIV-infected sub-group revealed improved attitude, behavior, and self-care (including medication adherence), and decreased reactivity (Sibinga et al., 2008), with transformative experiences of variable levels described by all participants (Kerrigan et al, 2011).
- A six-session intervention, which included MBSR, insomnia treatment, and cognitive therapy for fifty-five substance abusers, thirteen to nineteen years of age, with current sleep disturbances found improvements in sleep and reduced worry and mental distress (Bootzin & Stevens, 2005).
- When compared to 30 control students, 120 senior high school girls who participated in the mindfulness curriculum, Learning to BREATHE (L2B mentioned previously) experienced reductions in negative affect, tiredness, aches and pains and increases in emotion regulation, feelings of calmness, relaxation, and self-acceptance. The students who participated in L2B were more able to recognize their emotions and more able to label them. They reported that the greatest overall advantage for them was the ability to let go of distressing thoughts and feelings. (Broderick & Metz, 2009).
- In a randomized controlled trial, 102 adolescents participated in a mindfulness course for two hours a week for eight weeks. The teens reported reductions in perceived stress; symptoms of anxiety, depression, and somatic (physical) distress and interpersonal problems; and increased self-esteem and sleep quality. Independent clinicians documented a higher percentage of diagnostic improvement and significant increases in global assessment of functioning scores in the mindfulness group (versus the control group). In layperson’s terms, this means that adolescents who were initially diagnosed as clinically depressed and anxious no longer met clinical criteria for depression or anxiety (Biegel, 2009). Further analysis found that statistically significant increases in mindfulness were present and were significantly related to positive changes in mental health (Brown, 2011).
- Before a randomized controlled trial with 400 students in five middle schools in Flanders, Belgium, both the mindfulness group (21%) and the control group (24%) had a similar percentage of students reporting evidence of depression. After the eight weekly 100-minute mindfulness sessions, the number of students with symptoms of depression was significantly lower in the mindfulness group: 15% versus 27% in the control group. This difference persisted six months after the training, when 16% of the intervention group versus 31% of the control group reported evidence of depression. The results suggest that mindfulness can lead to a decrease in symptoms associated with depression and, moreover, that it protects against the later development of depression-like symptoms (Raes, Griffith, Van der Gucht, & Williams, 2013).
The results are encouraging, yet the field is young and more research is needed.