Instead of punishing students, these schools teach them valuable lifelong skills

June 28, 2017 11:12 am Last Updated: June 28, 2017 11:12 am

An elementary school in Baltimore is finding that meditation, instead of punishment, is showing great results. And it’s not just Baltimore. It’s happening in many schools across the U.S. as part of the regular school curriculum. Robert Cole Elementary School principal in Baltimore, Carlita Smith, says meditation works very well. “It redirects the kids’ energy inward and allows them to learn,” she said.  And so the page turns to the latest phenomenon in educational trends that help our kids be better, happier learners.

Baltimore schools, like many others, have learned that breathing and stretching at least twice a day along with other meditation techniques is having a huge impact on their students, teachers, and schools as a whole. If students fight or misbehave at these schools, they are sent to the “Mindful me” room.

“Mindfulness is a particular way of paying attention. It is the mental faculty of purposefully bringing awareness to one’s experience. Mindfulness can be applied to sensory experience, thoughts, and emotions by using sustained attention and noticing our experience without reacting.”  – Mindful Schools

We talked with a Licensed Clinical School Social Worker (LCSW) Mary Theresa Schmitz to get a better understanding of how meditation and mindfulness is being used in schools. Schmitz works with schools in the Elk River School District, Minnesota, and teaches schools how to use mindfulness as a stress reduction tool. Prior that she worked as a school social worker for 20 years where she started to notice major changes in students that practiced mindfulness.

Schmitz integrated mindfulness into her practice in both small group and full classroom settings. She now teaches and trains other educators in her school district how to use and implement mindfulness with students, as well as the scientific explanations behind its intended potential benefits for students and teachers.

Q&A with Mary Theresa Schmitz

UnWind: Is this a trend in the American education system?

Schmitz: Mindfulness through meditation techniques is not new. It predates religion! And that statement alone should help one see that it’s definitely NOT just in America. The trend is how it is being used in schools.  In fact, America has only recently begun to integrate these means into medical culture via integrative and holistic medicine. We’ve added a tool that gives students a better chance to learn, cope, and remove stress barriers.

*The U.K. Parliament values the teaching and using of Mindfulness in every facet of life, not just in schools. The U.K.’s Mindfulness Initiative supports Mindfulness in their Health, Education, Workplace, and Criminal Justice systems.*

Mary T. Schmitz, MSW, LICSW  

UnWind: What is the biggest reason for educators, administrators, etc… to resist meditation in the schools?

Schmitz: Fear!  Fear of lawsuits, fear of change, fear of something different, and fear of resistance itself!  And, in my work, it’s typically from a lack of understanding and information or misinformation. Most resistance I’ve encountered, whether it’s from administrators, educators, or parents, has been rooted in two areas: religion and culture.

But parents and staff alike need to know that there is much about Mindfulness practices that we as educators would not teach in a public school setting. It’s not only against the law, it’s unethical and we just wouldn’t do it. Just as, I wouldn’t teach a student to pray!

If one Googles, “Yoga Calm,” which is a secular, yoga-based movement curriculum [that] addresses the movement, the breath, and social-emotional learning to be integrated into the daily curriculum in school and mental health settings, I know that can be taught in a public institution. It’s safe.

It’s about teaching students and staff life-long skills, affording ALL students 100% access to tools to help regulate emotions, manage behavior and support reflective rather than reactive choices….all hopefully leading to increased focus, learning, and improved relationships.

Teachers all around the world face many of the same challenges; students who are hungry, overloaded with activities and/or technology and media, pressures to succeed academically, or trauma (dynamics at home, peer pressure, bullying, etc…).

UnWind: What does the research say about meditation and kids?

Schmitz: Well, as an educator and mental health provider, and what we know about the brain, kids can’t learn if they are in a traumatic response. They can’t learn if they are steeped in an anxiety response or depressive cycle. The best curriculum and best-taught class by the best teacher fall on deaf ears.  Most of the research in this field has been on adults, given how new the practice is in a school setting.

I gathered data on the students I served. We practiced mindfulness daily. With our most emotionally and behaviorally unregulated students with special needs, we began each day on the mat: breathing, meditating, doing a yoga-based movement. It mattered.

Mindful Schools, one of the nation’s leading training institutes for mindfulness in schools, collects two types of survey data every year. They implement an Annual Graduate Survey to learn what impact our graduates are having when they return to their school districts, how the courses have affected them as educators, and how we can improve. They also conduct pre and post surveys for every course to test for validating significant improvements using specific methods of evaluating.

The educators who have taken these courses to bring back to their schools have, to date, reported:

  • 82% say they connect better with students
  • 80% say they deliver curriculum with greater ease
  • 77% are more satisfied with their jobs
  • 98% would recommend that their colleagues take the course

Teachers who are using to learn mindfulness with their students are reporting some mind-boggling statistics.

  • 83% say they see improved focus
  • 89% see improved emotional control
  • 76% see improved compassion toward other students
  • 79% report noticing an improved student engagement

In the world of education, stats like that come rarely from one single change made to the curriculum, so you can file this innovative technique under “very successful” and “long overdue.”

Students not only found their calm, they found community. They found healing. They were able to transition back into their classrooms and learn. AND, they were able to bring this learning to their classmates! That’s right, they would then be asked to teach their classmates and LEAD these yoga-based practices in front of their classes, so everyone else could settle too. Then, I would get pulled into classrooms, and more and more classes and students would benefit. Then, other schools would come observe what was happening and would replicate the practices to fit their specific needs and goals.

It’s really about reducing stress. Stress impedes learning and mindfulness neutralize stress – it’s really that simple.

UnWind: Do kids easily accept this practice?

Schmitz: They are wide open. I believe they are wide open because they just want to feel better! And, in all my years, working with the “naughtiest of the naughty,” I’ve never once met a kid that didn’t want his or her teacher to like him or her. Every kid wants to be liked by his teacher. Even the ones who throw their chairs and leave. They want to feel better, and they want to learn. They’d rather be naughty than feel stupid! These practices heal. Kids embody them. They might resist them, just like they resist paper and pencil. But we stay with it, we don’t demand or force, and we don’t micromanage or hover. We just notice. Notice with care and compassion.

Reduce the stress and teach it as a lifelong habit to children when they are young, and you have empowered them to be more focused, less reactive, compassionate, kind, and more apt to learn.

UnWind: Is this implemented daily, weekly, in a unit?

Schmitz: This really varies by class, group, staff, and needs… Whenever you deliver it to students authentically – that’s the best time! I first introduced it to students identified on Individual Education Plans (IEP’s) for Emotional Behavioral Disorders or who were on the Autism Spectrum, and both the certified staff and the paraprofessionals began every morning with that group of students in a circle, on the yoga mat doing a breath awareness practice, meditating, setting an intention…

 

UnWind: Can you explain the components of meditation and how they are used with kids?

Schmitz: Noticing the breath, the inhale, perhaps the vibration of the breath as it enters the nostrils, now following the breath as if it were a wave, riding it to the top of the wave. Pausing at the top of the wave. Noticing the stillness. Pausing here. Watching as the breath begins to leave the body, completely exhaling…

Noticing that space just before the exhale. Now exhaling. Noticing as the wave comes toward the land as if you were riding that wave back toward the beach. Then notice the breath completely emptying the body. Then see if you can notice the space just before the next sip of air.

The breath is what we anchor our attention to, the inhale and the exhale. And the space just before the inhale and just prior to the exhale. The mind wanders, then bring it back, without judgment, to the inhale and the exhale.

 

Just as the breath can be the anchor, so can the body. Body Scan is an awesome practice and quite frankly, a practice of choice for many many students, regardless of age! If your body is sleep deprived, or needs to be rested, it might fall into resting or sleep. We’ll just notice it and then, we’ll take care of getting you into wakefulness, because at school, we need to be awake to be learning… This is the practice that I will have students and parents alike report to me that they have ended up teaching others because it helped them fall into sleep or improved their ability to focus at school or take tests or be able to give a speech or perform and compete.

Mindfulness of Emotions is just a “here and now” presence to one’s emotions. Noticing what emotions is or are showing up, without judgment. Just noticing “anger” as “anger” or “happiness” as “happiness”… neither good nor bad, it just is what it is!

Development of the heart, heartfulness, gratitude along with mindful listening, compassion is meditation where you send love, care, kindness and compassion to self, others, including those who have mentored you, supported you and those that have hurt or insulted you as well as others that are just part of your community. Heartfulness is in the language as a secular practice. These mindfulness practices have been around for hundreds of years.

 

Source: This school replaced detention with meditation, and the results were incredible: by Opposing View on Facebook and How meditation is making a “huge difference” in one Baltimore school by CBS Sunday Morning Video on CBS This Morning and Facebook. Also, Mindfulness In Education and interview with MaryTheresa Schmitz by Billy Soden from UnWind. And HEALTHY HABITS OF MIND by personafilmdk on YouTube.