Under Stress, Students in New York Schools Find Calm in Meditation

10/26/2015  The New York Times 

By ELIZABETH A. HARRIS

On the first day of the new school year, the schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, stood in an elementary school classroom in Queens beaming at a hushed room full of fourth-grade children sitting cross-legged on the floor. “Please let your eyes close,” said a small boy named Davinder, from his spot on the linoleum. Davinder gently struck a shallow bronze bowl. Gong! “Take three mindful breaths,” he said, and the room fell silent. “Do you do personal visits?” Ms. Fariña asked after the exercise was over. “Like to offices?”

In schools in New York City and in pockets around the country, the use of inward-looking practices like mindfulness and meditation is starting to grow. Though evidence is thin on how well they might work in the classroom, proponents say they can help students focus and cope with stress.

At the Brooklyn Urban Garden Charter School in Windsor Terrace, 15 minutes are set aside at the beginning and end of every school day, when students must either meditate or sit quietly at their desks.

“It’s built into the schedule,” said Linda Rosenbury, founding principal at Brooklyn Urban Garden, a middle school. “Everyone clears off their desks. They shouldn’t be chewing gum, but if they are, they spit it out. Their hands are free. We ring a bell.” A building full of preteens and teenagers goes quiet, she said.

“It used to be that you wouldn’t say ‘meditation’ in polite company,” said Bob Roth, executive director of the David Lynch Foundation, a charitable foundation founded by the director of “Blue Velvet,” that promotes and teaches Transcendental Meditation to adults and children, including those at Brooklyn Urban Garden. “Now we’re working with all the large banks, we’re working with hedge funds, we’re working with media companies. People are having us come in as part of their wellness programs, and that wasn’t the case even two years ago.”

While Transcendental Meditation entails silent inward repetition of a mantra, a mindfulness exercise might ask children to focus on breathing in and out. In a classroom, both activities have similar goals; the idea, practitioners say, is to get students into the habit of calming themselves and clearing their minds so they can better focus on the day’s lesson.

“We’re putting it in a lot of our schools,” Ms. Fariña said about mindfulness, on the first day of school, “because kids are under a lot of stress.” The Department of Education does not keep track of how many schools have mindfulness programs, but a spokeswoman said that grants and professional development seminars have provided some training to school staff members.

The city’s Move to Improve program has also taught nearly 8,000 elementary school teachers how to use activities in the classroom that can include things like mindfulness, balance exercises and stretching.

In many cases, schools are finding their own way. To mindfulness, in particular. At Public School 212 in Jackson Heights, Queens, the school Ms. Fariña visited on the first day of classes, a literacy coach named Danielle Mahoney began doing regular mindfulness exercises with some classes the year before last, while taking a one-year certification course.

Last year, the school converted a large closet in a subbasement into a room devoted to mindfulness, complete with dim illumination and a string of rainbow Christmas-tree lights, allowing users to switch off the harsh fluorescent light overhead. This sort of homegrown effort has created a patchwork effect; “mindfulness” might look a little different in every school.

“It’s a bottom-up process,” said Mark T. Greenberg, a professor of human development and psychology at Penn State. “You have very early adopters who are very interested in the ideas, and they are trying out different ideas and venues.”

Some districts, however, are experimenting with a more holistic approach. In Mamaroneck, N.Y., in Westchester County, the district has funded mindfulness training for teachers and parents in each of its six schools, and is encouraging the use of mindfulness exercises as part of an effort to address the social and emotional needs of students.

In Louisville, Ky., more than half of the city’s public elementary schools are expected to participate in a randomized study next year that will teach mindfulness exercises to some students as part of a so-called health and wellness curriculum.

Donna Hargens, the superintendent of the Louisville district of Jefferson County’s public school system, said that in classrooms a teacher’s reflex is to say, “ ‘Focus! Why aren’t you focusing?’ But what does that really mean, and have we given them any tools to help them do that?”

Research in a classroom setting appears to be picking up steam. In Britain, researchers from Oxford and University College London are studying whether teaching mindfulness in schools can improve the mental health of students, and some studies have shown benefits for many adults. Still, little is truly known about how, or even whether, children benefit from the practice in an academic setting.

“It definitely doesn’t address poverty, and it may not work for everybody,” said Patricia Jennings, an associate professor at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia and the author of a book called “Mindfulness for Teachers.”

Mr. Greenberg of Penn State cautioned that even if the practice does provide benefits for students, the research has yet to explain how. A version of this article appears in print on October 24, 2015, on page A20 of the New York edition with the headline: City Classrooms Give Pupils a Moment to Turn Inward . © 2015 The New York Times Company

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