I’m visiting a special education class for children with autism spectrum disorders, many of whom have problems with their motor skills. The students are practicing an activity meant to foster concentration and mindful attention: Holding a small bell, they must walk around a table without making it ring.
Everyone is sitting quietly focused on one boy, who I’ll call “John,” as he carefully grasps the handle of the bell. “He can’t do it,” whispers one, shaking his head. “Give him a chance,” murmurs another.
Diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, John is plagued with severe motor tics. Despite this handicap, he walks slowly and deliberately, his eyes fixed on the bell, until he has made it all the way around the table. The bell never rings. “I did it!” he beams. The class applauds. Later his teacher tells me that this is the first time he’s been able to control the incessant tics that make it difficult for him to use a pencil.
Like John’s teacher, growing numbers of educators are exploring the use of mindfulness-based methods. Diverse contemplative traditions have long held that regular mindfulness practice increases awareness of one’s internal and external experience and promotes reflection, self-regulation, and caring for others—the very factors that studies have identified as important to learning, and to developing supportive relationships. A growing body of scientific research on adults suggests that mindfulness truly does strengthen these skills. But researchers and educators are still determining how best to adapt mindfulness techniques for children and adolescents—not an easy task, since their mind-body processes function very differently than adults’, depending upon their age and developmental stage.
During my 25 years as a teacher and teacher educator, I integrated mindfulness practices into my teaching. For instance, before recess, I invited my students to close their eyes and focus their attention on the chimes of a bell, then raise their hand when the ringing stopped. The room became silent in anticipation before they listened to the steadily quieting tone. Once everyone had raised their hands, I would whisper each child’s name to excuse them.
For the past three years, as the director of contemplation and education at the Garrison Institute, a non-profit organization that explores the intersection of contemplation and engaged action in the world, I’ve been working with researchers to investigate whether and how these practices can be applied to educational settings on a wider scale.
I’ve seen quite a few promising programs. In one of them, called MindUP, elementary students learn to be mindful of their breathing, senses, thoughts, and feelings. For example, during a mindful eating exercise, children slowly and deliberately focus their sight, smell, and taste on experiencing a raisin or a piece of chocolate. When Kimberly Schonert-Riechl, a professor of education at the University of British Columbia, compared students participating in the program with those who were not, she found that students in MindUP showed greater improvements in their reports of happiness, well-being, and mindful awareness. Teachers reported that these children significantly reduced their aggression and disruptive behavior, and showed significant improvements in their social skills and attention levels.
Trish Broderick, a professor in the department of health and the director of the Stress Reduction Center at West Chester University of Pennsylvania, has developed another program, a mindfulness-based health curriculum for teens called BREATHE. The program includes in-class mindfulness-practice, time for students to de-stress, and instruction on managing thoughts and feelings. Piloted among a group of 123 high school senior girls enrolled in a private parochial school outside of Philadelphia, results showed decreases in negative emotion, fewer somatic symptoms like aches and pains, less overtiredness, and a greater ability to relax, regulate their emotions, and let go of distressing thoughts.
Though we still need more research, these results so far suggest that the skills—and the benefits—of mindfulness can in fact be made widely available to kids of different ages and backgrounds. We’re seeing evidence that children have a natural capacity for quieting their mind and focusing their attention, skills that can build self-control and enhance their ability to learn. In the process, it may help kids like John achieve their highest potential—in school and in life.