Mindfulness in Education
Proactive Measures Against Stress, Anxiety and Under-Productiveness on School Campuses
As schools increasingly emphasise cognitive intelligence, placing greater workloads, higher study expectations, and less free time on students shoulders, they should also take on the onus of mitigating any negative bearing these expectancies have on student welfare and non-cognitive intelligence.
Mental disorders are one of the biggest issues facing modern society, one of the biggest profit sources for Big Pharma, and one of the least openly discussed topics amongst people of any age. Some of the most present and ever developing challenges facing students in our high schools today are mental health and emotional resilience. In fact, according to a 2010 study by John Hopkins and the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health, almost one quarter of adolescents in the U.S.A. suffer from a mental disorder. In 2014, the Australian Department of Health reported 14% prevalence, with a 45% increase in adolescents accessing school and health services since 1998. The link between mental/emotional imbalance, and minimised prospects later in life, are well established and grounded in cyclical evidence. So how do our educational institutions become proactive, rather than reactive?
Many of the mental and emotional issues that high school students struggle with are mild to moderate level disorders related to anxiety, depression, or substance reliance. There are numerous services available to students both within their schools and in the public health industry, discussing, medicating and diagnosing youth mental health. The primary concern with most of these services, is that they respond once a student has reached a level at which they are not coping. As schools increasingly emphasise cognitive intelligence, placing greater workloads, higher study expectations, and less free time on students' shoulders, they should also take on the onus of mitigating any negative bearing these expediencies have on student welfare and non-cognitive intelligence. Physical well-being has long been addressed in health classes and open discussion within society; mental and emotional health, however, have not. As researchers and health professionals further explore mental health and emotional resilience, they are finding more and more that a possible solution has already been around for thousands of years.
The word meditation often conjures up the image of a Tibetan monk sitting on a rock in the centre of an icy pond in the Himalayas, or an Indian Yogi levitating to the sound of their own monotonous hum. Even in an educational context, the most common link made by many, is that quirky drama teacher in middle school who made you lie on your back, close your eyes and try and relax while smelly socks and body odour pervaded that carpeted sub-atmosphere from which you only wanted to escape. Call it what you will to avoid stigma: quiet time, you time, relaxation time, focus exercises, emotion identification development, or countless other titles; mindfulness is being used more and more in schools around the world to prevent student stress, and improve performance. And there is science behind it.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, a 70s biologist, was the first to coin the term ‘mindfulness’, and described it as a state of mind during which a person non-judgmentally pays attention on purpose. Since then, numerous studies have found the benefits of mindfulness for people of all ages. The most immediate effects of regular mindfulness is a physical change to the brain; a study presented in 2010 found that only 11 combined hours of meditation resulted in structural changes to the cingulate cortex, the part of the brain that manages focus and self control. Furthermore, multiple studies have found solid and verifiable evidence that mindfulness improves:
- Ability to concentrate under pressure
- Working memory
- Executive functions
- The ability to process visual information
- Problem solving
- Creativity and divergent thinking
- Control of the amygdala (fight or flight response)
- Increased activity in the prefrontal cortex (regulates emotions)
- Reduced anxiety levels
- Relationship satisfaction and autonomy
All of these benefits can lead to a more productive and resilient lifestyle and work ethic. The big challenge educators now face is implementing mindfulness effectively in schools, despite obstacles such as stigmas around meditation, already limited time to teach curriculum content, and teacher participation/training.
One school that has already successfully implemented such a program is Visitacion Valley Middle School, San Francisco, CA. In 2007 VVMS implemented “Quiet Time,” an optional stress reduction activity, conducted twice a day; 15 minutes in the morning, and again in the afternoon. The school experienced a 50% reduction in suspensions, a 65% reduction in truancy, and a .5 increase in overall grade point average. This is only a single example of how mindfulness is being implemented successfully in schools. Argos Gonzalez is a teacher at the Arturo A. Schomburg Satellite Academy, a transfer school in New York City; helping students who have dropped out of ordinary schooling. Some of the students here deal with gang warfare, abortions, drug abuse, and violence on a regular basis. Mindfulness is being used to help students at the school manage emotions, substance abuse, relationship difficulties, and many other social obstacles; as well as improve academic achievement. And they are having success.
Schools in the UK, Australia, North America, and India are having tremendous successes with mindfulness programs. The meditation curricula, however, is still not a part of the broader discussion around student well-being in many of these regions. There is sound evidence on which schools and education governmental bodies could begin to introduce mindfulness into the mainstream learning experience; but the dialogue around meditation and mental well-being need to change (i.e. merge together). Incorporating systems such as mindfulness training into teacher education and professional development, and slotting mindful moments into the school timetable, would begin the process by which the stigma around meditation and “paying attention on purpose” could become part of the proactive battle against youth mental health. Ask yourself, when was the last time you really stopped and gave your own mind a little space?
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