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Mindful Awareness Practices in Private Schools

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In the fall of 2010 Trinity School in Manhattan presented its theme for the week's lower school chapel. At the sound of piano music, about 300 children from grades K to four, quietly filed into designated pews in the school's refurbished, stark white chapel.

Tim Morehouse, the school chaplain, walked to the podium, offered greetings and said, "Children, today's chapel will be on mindfulness. I want you all to forget about the past and what is going to happen next but to be present in the moment." A small hand-held Tibetan singing bowl is rung by a student using a wooden striker and a few moments of silence are observed.

A screen, with a picture of a beautiful azure sky filled with puffy clouds, slowly descended. On it are the words, 'Mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment.' Teachers take turns reading verses by the Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, about slow breathing and 'to look at each day of our lives as a glowing diamond.' The children, wearing collared shirts and dresses with the school's insignia, sit silent, although some cannot resist fidgeting and whispering with neighbors.

Mindful awareness - the practice of cultivating awareness, attention, acceptance and non-judgement - has recently become popular among public and private schools and among adolescents in youth detention centers. Educators and parents are attracted to this practice for a number of reasons, some stemming from the fact that: Children now live in a over-stimulated, fast-paced digital era that's void of mundane forms of relaxation; The 'No Child Left Behind' Act, has put enormous stress on teachers and children to perform at consistent high levels academically, leaving little time for counterbalancing activities like recess and play; And finally, teachers are looking for methods to create a calm, safe classroom atmosphere that fosters learning.

Trinity, a private prep school founded in 1709, prides itself as being one of the oldest schools in the country and last year was accoladed the status of, 'Best Private School' by Forbes magazine. The school sprawls a whole block on Manhattan's Upper West Side and charges an annual tuition of approximately $38,000. One of the reasons for introducing mindfulness into Trinity's lower school chapel and curriculum, according to Rosemary Milliman, principal of Trinity's lower school, was to mitigate stress and distraction - a by product of incessant technology use - and increase attention.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, kids between 8 and18 spend an average of seven hours and 38 minutes a day on digital technology -- computers, video games, TV, cellphones and other hand held devices. And since they are adept at media multitasking, they actually manage to pack a total of 10 hours and 45 minutes of media use into those hours.

Maggie Jackson, journalist and author of Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, endorsed Milliman's perceptions. In a telephone interview, Jackson described how search engines, instant messaging and smart phones, combined with the addictive allure of digital multitasking, have together eroded our capacity for deep perceptive attention.

"Kids these days are able to collect information and surf but not wrestle with or evaluate information deeply," Jackson said. "It's paramount for society to teach kids methods to focus in the 21st century. I don't know any other method, apart from mindfulness, that teaches kids how to focus." Jackson believes educators gravitate to mindfulness training for controlling behavior; to help kids self regulate, so they don't get into altercations.

In 2009, Trinity decided to try out mindfulness classes in two grades: six lessons in kindness and compassion for sixth graders and 26 lessons for third graders in memory, awareness and emotional self regulation. The results were startling, said John Evans, Trinity's third grade teacher. "My kids scored better on memory tests and I was able to accomplish most of my math and writing curriculum before the end of the year," said Evans. He believes this was due to their ability to concentrate and focus better. The success of the pilot program led Trinity to incorporate mindfulness into its second and third grade curriculum as well as make it a theme for the year's lower school chapel: 'Making the most of each day.'

Parents as well as teachers are enthusiasm about the program. Wendy Delany who has three children at Trinity said, "I think this is fantastic; the third grade is an entirely different place. It's teaching them a lot of things about themselves: to respect their friends and teacher and makes them more aware of living."

Watching her son play soccer at Randalls Island, Wendy Delaney, narrated one of the Mindfulness exercises her son Michael does in class, called Mind-in-a-jar. "It's a jar that's on every child's desk, filled with water," said Delaney. "The children are given different colored sand, each to represent one emotion like happiness, anger, joy, fear and so on; they are advised to put as much of that emotion (i.e sand) into the jar and add glitter; then they shake the bottle. The sand settles but not the glitter, representing our magical thoughts and the universe which keeps going."

Michael has even brought some of his lessons home. On one occasion when Delany was stressed with holiday preparations, Michael told her, "I think you can use a mindfulness lesson right now. Do you want me to teach you something?" They lay down on the floor and Michael instructed her to clench her fist and release, signifying letting go of stress.

"He took what he learned and applied it to me," Delaney said, amused. "I believe Trinity is a better place, because of this."

Delaney's son Michael, a precocious nine-year-old says he's learned two important exercises in Trinity's third grade: 'tense and release,' the one he taught his mother, and 'sighing breath,' requiring slow inhalation through the nose and exhalation through the mouth.

"Everybody in third grade does it," said Michael, going on to describe his class. "At the beginning of the year, they were a tiny bit crazy, now we have calmed down a bit. You can definitely see it. If you took a tape recorder and paused it and re-recorded it five months later, it would be like BLA, BLA, BLA." He makes many incomprehensible loud noises that later turn soft. "They would be loud at first and then calm."