Earlier this month, The Toronto District School Board released the results of an extensive study into student mental health that revealed students are anxious, losing sleep and many "feel like crying." The survey made national headlines as the public and parents wondered how to address the latest crisis in our classrooms. Educators just nodded knowingly.
The escalating effect of stress on students is obvious to many teachers. It's a tough time to be a student: We see students struggle with poverty, shifting family dynamics, peer pressures and media influences. All of these factors can affect mental health.
Students' mental health can impact their learning, and many Canadian educators are asking "What can we do about it?" Increasingly, teachers are using the principles of mindfulness to help make the classroom a calmer place and to improve learning.
The concept of mindfulness originates in Buddhist and Hindu traditions and can be described as bringing one's complete attention to the present, on a moment-to-moment basis. Buddhist practice cultivates mindfulness and by noticing the breath and what's happening with our thoughts we can defuse the stress of our lives.
In the 1970s American doctor John Kabat-Zinn attended a meditation retreat lead by Vietnamese Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh and wondered if mindfulness could be used to help treat medical conditions. Dr. Kabat-Zinn established The Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program at the University of Massachusetts and through research discovered that mindfulness is effective in treating stress, anxiety, depression, eating disorders and addiction. Mindfulness is now commonly used in hospitals, in Fortune 500 companies such as Google and Monsanto and increasingly in classrooms.
How educators teach mindfulness depends on several factors. Teachers may hold daily sessions with students, use a prepared curriculum or become trained mindfulness facilitators.
In a typical mindfulness session, students sit quietly as a bell rings. They listen carefully, raising their hands when the sound dissipates, leaving only silence. Students then place their hand on their stomachs and feel the movement of their bodies as they breathe. Teachers help students to remain aware of the breath by reminding them to "breathe in…breathe out." This practice takes only a few minutes out of their lessons, but helps students relax and improves their focus for the learning ahead. In my own class we integrate mindfulness practice into our daily circle by pausing in silence, listening carefully to the sounds around us and noticing the how the body moves as we breathe. This helps students to listen to each other during our group discussion.
A common curriculum used to teach mindfulness in schools is MindUP, which was conceived in Vancouver and developed by The Hawn Foundation, based in California. The program is designed for students in pre-kindergarten to grade eight, with prepared lessons that teachers deliver. MindUP integrates learning about the brain with mindfulness practice so that students understand how mindfulness works. MindUP students sometimes explain that feeling the breath helps them make good choices because when calm they're using their prefrontal cortex instead of their amygdala. MindUP is currently used successfully in dozens of schools in British Columbia Mindfulness Without Borders, located in both San Francisco and Toronto, trains facilitators to deliver mindfulness programs in classrooms. Their program, "Mindfulness Ambassador Council," is currently used in 15 classes in The Toronto Catholic District School Board and the program is in its second year at Toronto's YMCA Academy and East York Collegiate Institute.
Does it work? There's lots of research that says it does. In one 2011 study, Dr. Kimberly Schonert-Reichl and Molly Lawlor, at the University of British Columbia, studied 246 Canadian students in 15 schools in B.C. Their research found that students who participated in MindUP showed significant increases in optimism, were better able to make themselves happy and were more likely to help others.
Of course, mindfulness practice can also help educators. Being responsible for students while following the curriculum, assessing and reporting can be stressful. When every student needs help and I may only have 15 minutes to get everything done, it's challenging to pay attention to everything that's going on. That's when my personal mindfulness practice is helpful. I've been learning about and practising mindfulness for over 10 years and it's part of my daily routine each morning. When I notice my attention is "narrowing" I pause and feel the breath. This slows down my thoughts and helps me to think clearly and be "present" to all my students.
Later this summer, educators will be able to learn more about the benefits and to practice mindfulness at a Mindfulness Retreat for Educators at Brock University which Thich Nhat Hahn will be leading.
The more teachers bring the principles of mindfulness into the classroom, the more seeds of change will be planted: a change that can help students to be less anxious and afraid. Through mindfulness we have the opportunity to teach students that, in the words of Thich Nhat Hahn, "the present moment is filled with joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it."
Andrew Campbell is a teacher at Major Ballachey Public School in Brantford, Ont., an educator for over 20 years and the father of three sons.
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