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Meditation Creates a Little Breathing Space for San Francisco Students

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There are two jobs that have become a lot more difficult in recent years. One is being a teacher, which was never easy at the best of times. But in an age of virtually unlimited opportunities for distraction and rapidly shrinking attention spans getting kids to focus on their schoolwork can be (with apologies to dentists) like pulling teeth. 

I know: As a former school aide working with young children, it was often all that I could manage just to break up fights and keep the decibel level below that at an international airport. Any "education" that actually took place in such an environment was a small miracle.

The other job that has become a whole lot harder, of course, is being a student. Believe me, I sympathize with their plight too! Today's kids are weaned on electronic devices where they move between one website, text-message, or video game and the next at lightning speed. Where does a child learn how to direct their attention to just one math problem or reading assignment when there are so many distractions a click away?

Yet recently I watched a deeply moving and inspiring film that gave me hope. Room to Breath, by director Russell Long was filmed in a public school in San Francisco. The Marina Middle School with 900 students is one of the largest in the Bay Area, and it has the dubious distinction of having the highest suspension rate in the city.

We see why in the opening shots of pencil throwing kids, schoolyard squabbles and frenetic hallways. Children fail, we are told in a voice over by guidance counselor Ling Busche, not because they are stupid, but because they are unable to focus: "There is this sense of nonstop entertainment and whatever is happening in the lesson often becomes secondary."

So it is more than a little surprising, given this chaotic atmosphere, that Mr. Ehnle's homeroom has been chosen for a innovative new program in self-reflection called "mindfulness."

Actually mindfulness is not "new" at all. It originated over 2,000 years ago in the jungle monasteries of South Asia. This form of bare-bones meditation in which attention is focused on bodily sensations is now being introduced to classrooms in San Francisco, Philadelphia and scores of other cities nationwide less as a path toward enlightenment than a practical method to help kids to settle down and learn. 

The idea, according to Megan Cowan, the instructor from the group Mindful Schools who worked with Ehnle's class is to give students "tools and skills" to tame the disorder within their own minds.

A tall order, as Cowan herself discovers when her efforts to get the kids to sit still and focus on their breath are greeted with wisecracks and expressions of boredom. When she wants to move these disruptive ones out of the classroom for the duration of the mindfulness exercises, the assistant principal reminds her that in public education nobody is excluded.

So Cowan soldiers on with the full class and, surprisingly, by the end of the film some of her "toughest cases" have come to value what these simple techniques offer them. 

For example, Omar, whose older brother has been killed in gang violence, testifies that mindfulness has taught him to step back from potential fight situations without reacting. Jacqueline's mom says on camera that her daughter has become more respectful of others and now gets better grades. And Gerardo, an aspiring artist, tells us that he uses mindfulness to concentrate better when he paints and draws.

These modest "success stories" are backed up by a growing body of research. In one of the largest studies to date, 2nd and 3rd graders in a low-income school experienced significant improvements in concentration, academic performance and social skills which were sustained more than three months after the end of their mindfulness program.

Research has also shown that exercises like listening to ambient sounds and focusing attention on the breath have a profound effect on human physiology, slowing respiration lowering blood pressure levels and reducing harmful levels of stress.  

The practice is not a panacea. Clearly lots of kids need more than a few quiet moments in their day to calm them down. But for many who took part in the training at Marina Middle School it was a revelation. It showed the teens for the first time that they need not be puppets dangling on the strings of their own over-active minds. On the contrary, they can make choices about where to direct their thoughts and how to respond to their own emotions. 

This is something that adults too need to learn! An estimated 10 million Americans have some form of meditation practice, according to Psychology Today. Mindfulness programs are increasingly being introduced into hospitals, drug treatment programs and even corporate boardrooms across the nation. 

"Mindfulness does not make problems go away," says Megan Cowan. "But the way that you are meeting your experiences changes to allow more lightness and happiness." 

And kids who are calm and happy are disproportionately the ones who learn. Let's hope that mindfulness training spreads to more of our nation's embattled schools, where teachers and students alike nowadays can use all the help they can get!