Bringing "Mindfulness" to Students to Lower Stress and Boost Learning
A philanthropic foundation is offering to subsidize a “Mindfulness” program for Northeast Ohio schools. This practice of daily meditation is already being used in a few area schools and backers say the simple bit of self-reflection has been improving behaviors and test scores.
Congressman Tim Ryan has been such a fan of mindfulness that he wrote a book about it. The Democrat says the deep breathing exercises that he does every day are not about religion.
“These are basic techniques that marines are using, police officers are using, athletes have been using it,” says Ryan. “You don’t have to change any of your beliefs, you don’t have to join a church, you don’t have to do anything. You know, I’m still Catholic.”
“Is it getting more difficult for you to calm down in Congress these days?”
“Ha ha ha well it’s been a very helpful technique to have with everything going on, yeah.”
Ryan came to Cleveland with members of a Massachusetts company called Inner Explorer to promote mindfulness in schools. The non-profit organization produces a 10 minute exercise that students listen to online each day as school starts.
“Taking deep breaths is a great way to calm down when you’re angry or upset. ….. It even helps when you’re about to take a test… play a sport…. or play a musical instrument.”
At the end of each exercise pupils write in a journal.
Inner Explorer co-founder Laura Bakosh says relieving stress can help kids learn and she cites brain research from the University of Wisconsin.
“Stress inhibits learning so there’s neuro-scientific research stress inhibits learning, poverty inhibits learning,” says Bakosh. “And we have more than half of our children are in high poverty environments. So 51% of our kids are in those environments that have such significant stressors that they struggle with learning.”
The Cleveland-based DBJ Foundation, named for David and Barbara Jacobs, is a supporter of mindfulness based relaxation and wants to spread the practice.
“We're working really specifically to allow Northeast Ohio to have the benefit of this program so we’re paying for half the cost of any classroom who wants to be involved in Northeast Ohio,” says DBJ Managing Director Joe Hudson. “So that’s our commitment.”
The total cost for the daily lesson is $450 a year for one school.
The foundation has been underwriting such lessons for three years at Melrose Elementary among Wooster City Schools.
Two 3rd grade teachers there, Ashley Tomassetti and Amber Cupples, swear by it. They team teach a class that includes kids with emotional disabilities. They call the improvement in behavior they saw in the first year of the mindfulness program “incredible.”
“I would say their attention is definitely what was improving their emotion,” says Tomassetti.
“And emotional awareness, then using the practices at home with their siblings, trying to go to sleep at night,” says Cupples
“Being able to de-escalate themselves. If they’re crying or upset they’re able to de-escalate without an adult,” Tomassetti adds.
Each teacher got choked up when recalling specific cases where children with problems at home would come to school and ask to do the mindfulness exercises.
Tomassetti mentioned one boy whose mother had been taken to jail the night before. At school he asked his teacher to help him breathe.
“He wanted to do it on his own with us there with him. And he journaled,” says Tomassetti. “He was able to get it all out. And that was huge because we teach 3rd grade. And so for an 8 year old boy to go through that and come out successful at the end of the day, get through everything, that was huge for us. And that’s when we realized the impact this program had on our students.”
And that, says Tomassetti, has meant much less time spent on behavioral problems.
Congressman Ryan says Warren City Schools, using another version of Mindfulness exercises, saw out-of-school suspensions five years ago drop from 250 to 14 last year.
He notes that the Marines and Army use a similar program for soldiers returning from the stress of combat and says it’s not surprising that stress keeps kids from learning.
“Of course your brain is not going to work properly if you have domestic violence in your home or you have a tough neighborhood or gangs or whatever. Your brain’s not going to function properly,” says Ryan.
But there has been pushback in Ohio. Educators at Warstler Elementary in North Canton say they got good results using mindfulness in 2012 but the program was shut down when parents feared meditation may have religious connotations.
The teachers in Wooster say they’ve had zero complaints because they made the recordings available to all the parents.
Still, supporting meditation or mindfulness could have political repercussions for Representative Ryan. A conservative blogger has already mocked him as “Congressman Moonbeam.” The Democrat laughs it off . . .
“People will say what they want but again I would have a couple vets around me to make sure everybody knew how helpful this was.”
The Inner Explorer organization is now offering the exercises in over 900 schools in 44 states. It plans a pilot program at Cleveland’s Campus International School.