12/27/2011 10:34 am ET Updated Feb 26, 2012

Thoughts on Mindful Awareness Practices in Education

My last three articles dealt with a burgeoning phenomenon -- mindful awareness -- which has been gaining popularity among public and private school administrators, as a method to help kids relax, become more attentive and less aggressive at school. In this concluding piece, I present thoughts from established mindfulness practitioners who discuss the state of mindfulness research, from its practice pitfalls and nuanced lexicon, to its necessity in today's complex world.

Mindfulness -- the practice of cultivating awareness, attention, acceptance and non-judgement -- was originally designed for adults and brought into the American mainstream in the 1970s by Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the Stress Reduction Program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He developed a standardized teaching method called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) that introduced multitudes of adults to mindfulness meditation and yoga as a way to improve their capacity to deal with stress, chronic pain and illness. Various clinical studies have shown MBSR to have beneficial results in reducing high blood pressure, serum cholesterol, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress and eating disorders.

While popular with adults, the practice of applying mindfulness to education is not a recent phenomenon. Its principles can be found in the work of 20th century educators like Maria Montessori, Rudolf Steiner and Jiddu Krishnamurti, who all talked about bringing depth and contemplation into teaching and education.

With children, mindful awareness has to be structured differently. Dr. Patricia Jennings -- director of contemplative education at the Garrison Institute, a research institute for contemplative practices -- says successful practices like MBSR cannot be applied to kids as their minds and brains are wired differently. "The best practices to stimulate mindfulness awareness in kids are sensory activities that involve focused attention on something concrete, like listening and looking or movement activities that involve yoga or martial arts," said Jennings.

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.

Research at the University of Wisconsin demonstrated that master meditators have increased activity in the left pre-frontal cortex, the area associated with emotional well-being. Although these studies have not been replicated in children, Yi-Yuan Tang and others at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that college undergraduates who underwent 30 minutes of daily relaxation training exercises for a month, including body relaxation and mindfulness, had positive effects on brain functions related to self regulation.

These results are promising but Jennings is skeptical and believes they are at best, preliminary. "There is a tendency for people to get very hyperbolic about these results, but we don't have a lot of it," said Jennings. "Most data is anecdotal and I have read every article there is on the issue. There is a lot of extremely promising research on adults but not on children."

Jennings believes good scientific research will positively affect the traction and sustainability of mindfulness practice in education. "American education has a history of faddism; some good idea comes into the mainstream, they don't see immediate results and then it's dropped," said Jennings. In addition, she is worried that the lack of research could present a backlash from religious groups who believe meditation is a religious practice.

Linda Lantieri, director of the Inner Resilience Program, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the inner lives of teachers and children, believes that when mindfulness is connected to Social and Emotional Learning, it has a higher chance of being accepted into K to 12 education. Currently, Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has a bill in Congress to pass SEL legislation that would make it a part of every school's curriculum.

While Trinity's administrators and parents are happy with its mindfulness practice, Susan Kaiser Greenland, founder of the Inner Kids Foundation and author of The Mindful Child, believes that the practice has a few shortcomings.

First, the objective of mindfulness should become broader. Greenland, a lawyer and one of the earliest mindfulness practitioners, believes that when mindfulness is used just as a calming activity or to quiet an unruly class, its aim is limited. "The classical mindfulness practice is to learn to be with what is; to tolerate uncertainty whether pleasant or unpleasant and be in the center of it, a quality all great leaders have," said Greenland, in a telephone interview.

Second, Greenland underscores the importance of practitioner training. "When people start teaching mindfulness, they are very enthusiastic, but are surprised when a parent or teacher says it doesn't work," said Greenland. "Very frequently, and often misunderstood with kids, is that mindfulness is a calming activity. But when people start, sometimes minds don't calm down, it can get even more agitated, because their awareness is heightened."

This phenomenon, called "flooding," can occur in extreme cases when children relive experiences that are too difficult to tolerate or hold and can occur particularly in underserved populations where there could be trauma or other things going on at home.

"People will not think of hiring a piano teacher who does not know how to play the piano, but anyone can go in and teach mindfulness," said Greenland.

And third, the variant lexicon of mindfulness -- mindful awareness, MindUP and contemplative education -- can be confusing. These terms have become popular among educators that the question being asked today is: Are all these educators really talking about the same thing anymore? Especially considering the dearth of guidelines or set of practices. If we use Jon Kabat-Zinn's definition of being present in the moment without judgment, then all these practitioners are doing mindfulness in some form or another.

"It's an evolving field, filed with a lot of great work, and we have a lot of optimism, but it's anything but mature," said Greenland.

Irrespective of scientific research, the field is mushrooming in various adolescent settings throughout the world. Lantieri, Jennings and Greenland frequently travel abroad as speakers and mindfulness experts, a testimonial to its importance in todays fast-paced world.

Jennings says the current educational climate requiring standardized testing, has put tremendous stress on schools, and that programs like MindUP could create a calmer, grounded approach to teaching and learning. "If we don't take the time to help kids, they fail school," said Jennings. "Without a feeling of safety and community, these kids cannot get their pre-frontal cortexes engaged in learning. Their limbic system is constantly on high alert because they are threatened. To help them learn, we have to provide a safe and calm atmosphere and the emotional support to learn."

Adele Diamond, neuroscientist, seconds Jennings' feelings and strongly believes that the current educational philosophy of increasing academic time by eliminating recess, is counterintuitive in the long run. "In fact if you spend less time on academics and devote time to to being physically fit, less stressed, to doing things that bring joy; you actually do better," says Diamond.

Regardless of all these issues, when mindfulness works and children benefit, it can be a beautiful thing as demonstrated by Michael Delaney, a Trinity school third grader. He says things have definitely changed for the better since he's started practicing and has had innumerable experiences of using it in his life. Michael related one recent experience with his older brother, Jack. "When my brother wants to play on the Kinect Xbox 360 game when I am already playing on it, he gets angry," Michael says. "Then I'll either do tense and release or do sighing breath in my room. I may feel a bit angry but a bit calmer. If I don't do it we get into fights."