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Kids in Groundbreaking 'Kindness Curriculum' Get Better Grades

02/26/2015 02:14 pm ET | Updated Apr 28, 2015

For all those tiger moms who grill their children on the multiplication table as they scramble their eggs each morning, it may be time to focus on another kind of knowledge.

Like learning to contemplate the simple act of breathing. Paying attention to the present moment. Becoming less reactive and more compassionate.

Such mental exercises used to cultivate mindfulness in children may have more to do with academic achievement, and success in life, than another quiz on world capitals or verb conjugation.

A groundbreaking 12-week mindfulness-based curriculum developed by a team at the University of Madison-Wisconsin centered on self-regulation and kindness has been shown to improve academic performance in preschoolers. What's even more exciting is that the findings, just published in the journal Developmental Psychology, suggest these skills critical to future success can be learned.

But don't get the idea that this is merely a shrewd plan to keep the peace in preschool. The dramatic results from a study published in 2011, which followed 1,000 children from birth to age 32, demonstrate that those who had mastered self-control in childhood had more financial success, better health and were less likely to smoke, abuse drugs and commit crimes than those who did not. Self-control, in fact, was a better indicator for success than higher IQ and greater family wealth.

Armed with these findings, the UW-Madison team set out to design a curriculum to promote mindfulness, compassion and self-control. The team was led by neuroscientist Richard Davidson, named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine in 2006, whose "kindness curriculum" covered a number of topics. The curriculum uses hands-on activities involving music, books and movement to teach children how to be more aware of themselves and others through practices that encouraged them to pay attention to present-moment experiences.

One popular activity among the kids was "belly buddies," where they learned belly breathing by lying with a small stone on their stomachs and watching their bellies rise and fall. But it was the response to another intervention that stunned the researchers: They had the teacher ring a bell and instruct the children to raise their hands when they no longer heard anything. In a classroom of 20 preschoolers, there was "stillness, complete and total stillness," Davidson said. "They can taste what it means to settle."

When tested at the end of year, the pupils in the kindness curriculum earned higher academic marks than those who didn't receive the training.

Mindfulness therapy for children builds on years of interventions with adults that have proven enormously effective in the treatment of mental health issues. As a physician who treats addiction, I have seen firsthand how the practice of mindfulness can help addicts create a life that is both drug-free and deeply fulfilling. But if we can cultivate mindfulness in early life, providing young people with coping tools to draw on when things feel out of control, we can prevent them from ever turning to drugs in the first place.

The UW-Madison researchers have gotten that ball rolling.

And with any luck, the children taking part in the kindness curriculum will bring their lessons home, because the messages they're hearing from their parents can be downright harmful. According to a recent national survey by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, a very high percentage of teenagers said their achievement was more important to their parents than concern for others.

Harvard's report suggested that, through the guidance of adults, children need to practice caring and helpfulness as well as learn to manage destructive feelings.

This can begin by simply teaching them to take a deep breath. The multiplication table can wait.

Jason Powers, MD, is chief medical officer at Promises Austin drug rehabilitation center and The Right Step network of addiction treatment programs in Texas. He is the pioneer of Positive Recovery, an approach to addiction treatment that helps people discover meaning and purpose in their lives, and is an expert blogger on Addiction.com.