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Ramaa Reddy Raghavan

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Private School Children Learn Skills to Manage in a Complex World

Posted: 12/12/11 02:11 PM ET

At 8:05 a.m., children between the grades of nursery to 8th grade file into Brown School's large gymnasium in Schenectady, New York, to observe community time. They walk in chatting with friends and sit in small groups on the floor. Soon the place is enveloped in a cacophony of youthful sounds.

Slowly, a slim middle-schooler walks to the front of the gym and makes a few school announcements and then strikes a small hand held chime. Immediately the children become silent for about a minute. Some close their eyes, others look at their feet or hands. When the chime sounds again, the children disperse into their classrooms.

This ritual marks the beginning of every school day at Brown which resides on a quiet residential street lined by deciduous trees. Founded in 1893, it is one of the few private schools to integrate mindfulness -- the practice of cultivating awareness, attention, acceptance and non-judgement -- into its entire school curriculum. Children are completely aware of the phrase: Are you being mindful? A question bandied about often by teachers during the day.

Unlike Trinity School in Manhattan, which recently started a mindfulness practice in its lower school, Brown's practice is well established. The school's lexicon is MindUP, a complete school curricula developed with the help of neuroscientists, psychologists and educators aimed at fostering mindful focussed awareness activities in children that promote positive human qualities such as empathy, perspective-taking, helpfulness and kindness. These are believed to increase optimism, well being and foster a cohesive, caring climate that enhances learning. The program weighs heavily on Social and Emotional Learning (SEL), a practice that teaches self-awareness and management of one's feelings while being empathetic to others.

MindUP has enjoyed popularity in Vancouver, British Columbia, where it's been incorporated into about a quarter of the public school classrooms, according to neuroscientist, Adele Diamond. In America, MindUP's founder and promoter has been Goldie Hawn. Scholastic, the global children's publication, education and research company, has endorsed and promoted MindUP curricula for Pre-K to eighth grade students. This has been a boost and selling point for MindUP.

Over a makeshift lunch, Patti Vitale, Brown's principal, recounted an incident that occurred last December when she decided to conduct a workshop on MindUP aimed at helping parents deal with the busy holiday season. Unbeknownst to her, one parent called the local TV station, which was enthusiastic to air portions of the workshop. "When I heard that reporters were coming and the room was near empty, I went into panic, flight mode," she says. "Talk about your amygdala taking over! I couldn't remember phone numbers, looked at my iPhone and couldn't work it. Then someone told me to just take a breath. It worked!"

Vitale, a veteran educator, is passionate about the necessity for programs like MindUP in today's world. "My uncle taunts me by saying he grew up in the depression without all this and he's just fine," she says. "But there was no TV, no cell phone, no Fisher Price mobile in the crib that flashed bright lights and music. What came natural to him, those quiet times, are not available to kids today. Kids don't know how to quiet themselves, they can't sleep without noise."

She believes these principles can help correct some of the education problems in this country. "When we put too much emphasis on grades, kids are not learning how to learn on their own," she says. Pointing to last year's Fortune magazine's issue on 'The 50 Most Powerful Women,' Vitale says, "I am surprised that none of them are educators."

Every academic lesson on Vitale's radar is an opportunity for a MindUP session. During a science class on water, her students tasted different kinds of water, listened to sounds of water and talked about water scarcity in Africa. This led to a MindUP lesson in gratitude. A class discussion on last year's Rutger's University suicide, led to a lesson on perspective. "Were the social and emotional needs of the child who killed himself addressed?" she asks. But the most substantive lesson taught during the day is mindful breathing, which is practiced three times each school day: in the morning, at lunch and at the end of the day. " Breathing is to get them centered and refocussed," says Vitale. "I get everyone's attention after that."

At lunch in the cafeteria where the selection is salads, meatloaf, boiled vegetables or pizza, Miles Smachlo, a seventh grader, in an Andover hoodie helps himself to a slice of pizza. "The morning breathing makes me feel calm," says Smachlo. "I like swimming and use breathing before I swim in races. I calm myself by slowing down my breathing. When I get disappointed by a race, I can figure out why I did badly."

Lisa Collins, whose daughter attends 8th grade, says Ruby transferred into Brown in middle school after a traumatic public school experience involving mean girls. Collins believes that the optimistic, positive approach her daughter has learned at Brown have contributed to her current academic success. "I see her thinking when she is in a bind with a friend; she knows she has options, so the thoughtfulness is great," says Collins. "She can externalize and understand her emotions. She'll go so far by knowing these things about herself, things I knew only in my 30s."

MindUP lessons are most effective with kids in younger grades says middle school science teacher, Teresa Burke. For middle schoolers, it can be a hard sell. "We have to do a lot of creative masking," says Burke, sitting in her math class. "It's hard to deliver the message, to turn every activity into a MindUP lesson. For example optimism - we cannot call it that, it's not cool for the kids." The lesson most applicable for this age group has been breathing. "During test taking we use breathing. It helps. They know how to relax themselves."

In a British Columbia study, published last year in the Mindfulness Journal, Dr. Kimberly Schonert-Reichl found that middle schoolers exposed to a range of mindful education exercises -- breathing, attention, emotional control and self acknowledgment -- showed significant improvements in attention, concentration, empathy and compassion.

Last year, in an effort to improve educational practices in a troubled city, Mayor Cory Booker with Hawn's help, instituted MindUP programs in five Newark public schools to be followed by another 12 this year; the goal being for 20 percent of Newark public school students to practice some form of mindfulness.

Leonard Kopack, Special Assistant for Innovation and Change, Newark public schools, hopes that MindUP will decrease acting out, enhance self awareness and social awareness, improve social skills, and promote sharing and cooperation. Kopack was floored to see what kids do in the morning. "300 students from K to five in the Harriet Tubman school, get together to say the Pledge of Allegiance," he says. "They close their eyes, focus on breathing and listen to the chime and hopefully take that focus into the classroom. Long term focus is needed to change the behaviors of kids."

When Kopack asked one of the kids, 'Who's the most important person you think about?' The child answered, 'The person next to me.' "So it's not all about me, what can I do to help others? This is a powerful statement to make," Kopack says. "Even as adults if we stopped thinking about ourselves and thought about another, what a beautiful place this world would be!"