Technology and Teen Sleep Deprivation

Independent School Management

Vol. 16 No. 2 1/24/17

PSN eletter vol15 no2 slee

For the past few years, there has been notable research on how technology (e.g., digital devices, laptops, television) disrupts student sleep patterns—and student success (or not) in school. A recent meta-analysis of 20 studies, Association Between Portable Screen-Based Media Device Access or Use and Sleep Outcomes, published by JAMA Pediatrics, sheds more light on this “major public-health concern” for students. Attention-stealing devices like televisions, computers, MP3 players, and cell phones are largely to blame.

The study, covering more than 125,000 children, determined there was a “strong and consistent association between bedtime media-device use and inadequate sleep quantity, poor sleep quality, and excessive daytime sleepiness.” Almost 90% of teens have at least one device in their bedrooms, and most use those devices in the hour before going to bed. Such children are twice as likely to not sleep enough and 40% report poor sleep quality, compared to children who have no access to those devices at bedtime. Students who had access or used media devices before bedtime were also more than twice as likely to experience excessive sleepiness in school.

According to another study from the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), 95% of those surveyed reported using electronic devices just before sleep. People under the age of 30 are the worst offenders—especially teenagers aged 13 to 18. Texting an hour before sleeping is prevalent, for example. While Baby Boomers on average read, send, or receive five texts in the hour before sleep, Gen-Zers typically text 56 times in that hour. Many students feel a sense of attachment to their phones and other digital devices, and view technology as a lifeline that they can’t live without. Unfortunately, when using such devices disrupts their sleep, this leads to anxiety, depression, and other maladies.

Another problem reported by researches is that exposure late at night to the “blue light” created by computer and other screens causes sleep-phase delay. The lit screens impact (via the retina) the portion of the brain that controls the body’s circadian cycle, sending the message that it’s not time for sleep yet. A study in the Journal of Applied Physiology suggested that performing “exciting” computer activities, like a playing a video game, may suppress melatonin production, the so-called “sleep hormone.”

The NSF recommends that teens get 8.5 to 9.25 hours of sleep every night of the week. However, the average teen gets about 7.5 hours of sleep each night; 62% of 9th–12th graders report inadequate amounts of sleep.

Sleep deprivation is of particular concern to schools. As mentioned above, research shows that a lack of sleep leads to:

  • poorer school performance (lower grades),
  • inattention,
  • negative moods,
  • health risk behaviors (e.g., substance abuse, thoughts of suicide), and
  • increased incidents of adolescent-related car accidents.

Academic leaders must be aware of these problems and educate parents about the impact of sleep deprivation on their children.

The NSF and other sleep experts make the following recommendations for parents.

  • Take technology out of the bedroom. For example, mandate that all cell phones in the house are recharged at night in a room other than the bedroom. Don’t allow a TV, laptop, or other device in a teenager’s bedroom after a certain hour.
  • Reserve the last hour before bed for nighttime rituals like brushing teeth, showering, etc. Pleasure reading is also a wonderful way to unwind as well.
  • Make your child understand that the lack of sleep can cause them to be less creative, forgetful, do poorly on assignments, and fall asleep in the classroom. Sleep deprivation has also shown to cause acne, weight gain, and other health problems.
  • Establish a consistent sleep schedule, every day of the week. Don’t let teenagers stay up late nights or “sleep in” on the weekends.
  • Make sure your child gets enough exercise. An hour of playing tennis, for example, is far better than an hour in bed playing video games.
  • Monitor your child’s schedule. Is he or she overwhelmed with school responsibilities, sports, clubs, perhaps a part-time job at the expense of sleep? Perhaps lessening the number of these activities can rectify the situation.

The dynamics around sleep, student performance, student well-being, and the student’s evening time are complex. Talk with parents to ensure that your students receive an adequate amount of quality sleep—and a better experience at your school.

Why 70 percent of kids quit sports by age 13

The Washington Post

Posted on January 7, 2017

June 1, 2016

According to a poll from the National Alliance for Youth Sports, around 70 percent of kids in the United States stop playing organized sports by the age of 13 because “it’s just not fun anymore.” I have three kids, all of whom play sports, and my oldest is about to turn 13. I may not have understood why this was happening a few years ago, but sadly, knowing what I know now, the mass exodus of 13-year-olds from organized sports makes perfect sense to me.

“It’s not fun anymore” isn’t the problem; it’s a consequence of a number of cultural, economic and systemic issues that result in our kids turning away from organized sports at a time when they could benefit from them the most. Playing sports offers everything from physical activity, experiencing success and bouncing back from failure to taking calculated risks and dealing with the consequences to working as a team and getting away from the ubiquitous presence of screens. Our middle-schoolers need sports now more than ever.

Here are the reasons I think it’s become less fun for kids to play sports, and why they are taking an early retirement.

It’s not fun anymore because it’s not designed to be. As children get closer to high school, the system of youth sports is geared toward meeting the needs of more competitive players, and the expectations placed on them increase. Often the mentality is that most of the kids who quit at 13 are the ones who wouldn’t make a varsity team in high school anyway. Those who stick around find that being on a team means a greater commitment of time and effort. It also means being surrounded by people who care very much about the outcome. This, consequently, brings with it the potential for experiencing disappointment or being the cause of it. There is nothing wrong with any of that, and it can teach incredibly important lessons about hard work, resiliency and character — but it’s not for everyone.

Our culture no longer supports older kids playing for the fun of it. The pressure to raise “successful” kids means that we expect them to be the best. If they’re not, they’re encouraged to cut their losses and focus on areas where they can excel. We see it in middle school orchestra, where a kid who doesn’t make first chair wonders if it’s worth continuing to play. If a seventh-grader doesn’t make a select team for soccer, she starts to wonder if maybe it’s time to quit altogether, thinking that if she’s not hitting that highest level, it might not be worth doing?

For the small minority of kids who are playing a sport at an elite level and loving it, the idea of quitting in middle school is probably unthinkable. But for everyone else, there are fewer opportunities to play, a more competitive and less developmental environment in which to participate, and lots of other things competing for their time after school.

There is a clear push for kids to specialize and achieve at the highest possible level. Increasingly kids are pressured to “find their passion” and excel in that area (be it music, arts, sports, etc.). There are certainly kids for whom this is true, but it is not the norm (despite the expectations of college admissions officers). For many, there’s a strong argument against this trend, because the message is essentially to pick one thing and specialize in it (to the exclusion of pursuing other interests). For young athletes, early specialization can be harmful in terms of long-term injuries, and it does little to increase one’s overall the chances of later collegiate or professional success.

Perhaps more importantly, the underlying message that “I have to be the best or I’ve failed” is deeply harmful to kids. This is absolutely mirrored and reinforced in school, where the environment is increasingly test and outcome-driven. Sports could be pivotal in teaching kids how to fail and recover, something that educators and parents see as being desperately needed. In privileged Washington, D.C., suburbs such as Fairfax and Montgomery counties (and in others like them, across the country), teenagers find themselves stressed to the point of developing anxiety and depression. We see unhealthy coping behaviors and increased rates of self-harm and suicide. This is not a sports problem, it’s a culture problem.

There is a cost to be competitive and not everyone is willing or able to pay it. For kids, playing at a more competitive level can mean having to prioritize their commitments and interests and work tirelessly. It also means they have to be able to deal with the pressure of participating at a higher level. These can be positive things — provided the environment they’re playing in is a healthy one. But there are other factors that contribute to a young athlete’s ability not just to compete, but to be seen as competitive, and I question how healthy these things are for families.

Training year-round, expensive equipment, individual coaching, camps, tournaments and participation on travel and select teams in many places are no longer really considered “optional” for success in youth sports, at least not heading into high school. The investment of time and money that these things require is substantial. That contributes to an environment where kids of lower-income or single-parent families are simply shut out of the game.

And, of course, it’s just the age. At 13, kids generally find themselves with more (and more challenging) school work. Most are also encouraged to start choosing what interests them the most and what they’re best at. There’s no longer time for them to do as much they did in elementary school.

Some of the major social and emotional changes that 13-year-olds experience also predispose them to making decisions such as quitting sports, especially as that environment becomes more competitive. The CDC describes it on its developmental milestones page as a “focus on themselves… going back and forth between high expectations and lack of confidence.” Kids become more focused on — and influenced by — their friends, many of whom are also walking away from organized youth sports.

Any discussion about being 13 also needs to include social media, smartphones and the Internet. According to the Pew Center’s Internet Research Study, most U.S. kids receive their first cellphone or wireless device by the age of 12. Between the ages of 13 and 17, 92 percent of teens report being online every day, and 24 percent are online “almost constantly.” As kids become teenagers, their priorities change. How they socialize, study and spend their time changes with them.

These things collectively represent a perfect storm. There are no easy answers here. The system of youth sports is set up to cater to more elite players as they approach high school, leaving average kids with fewer opportunities. Our culture encourages specialization and achievement, which actively discourages kids from trying new things or just playing for fun. And all of this converges at a time when they’re going through major physical, emotional and social changes as well as facing pressure to pare down their interests and focus on school.

So why do 70 percent of kids quit organized sports at 13 and what can we do about it? I would argue that most kids leave because we haven’t given them a way to stay. And perhaps more importantly, until we dismantle the parenting culture that emphasizes achievement and success over healthy, happy kids, we don’t stand a chance of solving this problem.

Julianna W. Miner has three kids and lives in suburban Washington, D.C. She teaches Public Health at a college she couldn’t have gotten into because she made bad choices in high school. She writes the award-winning humor blog  Rants from Mommyland and spends too much time on the Facebook.

The Teenage Brain: Stress, Coping, and Natural Highs

Edutopia

During a workshop that I was facilitating on marijuana and the teen brain, a high school sophomore said to me, “I take Ritalin on weekdays for attention, but go off it on the weekends because that’s when I smoke weed.” I asked him, “Are you saying that you’ve got a mind-altering substance in your brain every day?” He answered with a concerned look, “Do you think I should get off the Ritalin?”

It’s no surprise that young people are taking more psychoactive chemicals for psychological problems, such as poor attention, anxiety, and depression. In many cases, like the student above, they choose to self-medicate in addition to using a prescription drug. In some schools, I’ve been told that as many as 25-40% of their students are on medication for psychological and behavioral problems, and that does not include recreational use. In addition, when I meet with teens as part of my work speaking at schools across the country, the vast majority of them report that they have stress, anxiety, and trouble paying attention in class. Medication can save lives for those with severe and debilitating conditions, but for everyone else, I believe we can do better.

In order to foster a sense of resilience and encourage healthier ways to cope with life, we need to educate young people about natural highs. Over the past decade, neuroscience research has shown that exercise, meditation, positive social support, laughing, and many other factors can elevate mood and improve brain functioning. These activities don’t require putting a chemical into your body, but they do take time and effort to have an impact.

The Teen Brain vs. the Adult Brain

Teenagers have lots of reasons for being more anxious, stressed, and distracted than adults. They deal with high expectations from parents, social pressure from friends, and the constant fear that their smartphone will go dead and totally ruin their life. To make things worse, the teenage brain is generally more anxious than the adult brain. This may be due to the rapid development of the amygdala, a brain structure involved in emotional expression, compared to the slower development of brain areas involved in decision making and reasoning. Also, the teen brain has a larger pleasure center than adults, which means that rewards feel — well, more rewarding. This is particularly true of risks taken in unsupervised settings with their peers. As a result, the teenage brain is a contradiction of epically exhausting proportions, both more anxious and more thrill seeking than its adult counterpart.

Teenage angst is nothing new, but using natural highs to alleviate it might be novel. One of the best-studied natural highs is running or any form of cardio exercise. My wife loves running. She even runs when it snows. I always tell her, “If you get lost, I’m not coming to get you.” When I ask her why she runs, she says, “It makes me feel better, even when I’m tired. It also helps me focus at work.” It turns out that there’s a lot of research backing her up. Thirty minutes of any physical activity that elevates the heart rate helps to release endorphins and improve mood and cognitive functioning. Regular running has also been shown to increase the volume of the hippocampus, the most important brain structure for memory. It doesn’t have to be intense physical activity, either. Taking a walk in the woods has shown benefits for memory, mood, and attention.

In my case, I love meditation, despite having been a skeptic for many years. Meditation has proven to be a powerful stress reliever for me, particularly at night. Students report some of the highest levels of stress during the evening hours when they’re tired but expected to finish homework and fight off distractions. Meditation is like a cell phone charger for the brain. I encourage students to start out with 5-10 minutes in the late afternoon, before dinner, to test it out. The goal is to practice calming the mind. Nodding off is fine, even welcomed. I’ve presented this to students and staff for over a year, and the response has been tremendous. They are in a better mood after the meditation and report experiencing greater productivity that doesn’t interfere with their sleep.

Exploring Your Own Natural High

Whether you love surfing, biking, cooking, or gardening, consider your favorite pursuits as means to your own natural high. Invite young people to experiment with perceiving the activities that make them happy through the lens of a natural high, and then report back to you about how it made them feel. This can be a great bonding experience for the classroom and teach skills for dealing with stress for years to come. Check out yoga and meditation classes in your community — some might even be free. Visit websites such as Inward Bound or Guided Mindfulness Meditation, along with meditation apps that you can download. For the classroom, check out Natural High, an online source of free videos and curriculum for teachers to help youth identify and cultivate their passions.

Does your school have a dialogue with students about recognizing stress and exploring the best means of coping with it? What does that look like? Please share your thoughts in the comments section of this post.

Supporting Transgender Students in Single Sex Schools

NAIS

All-girls and all-boys independent schools face a unique moment of reflection as they consider policies to support openly transgender students. How might girls’ and boys’ schools stay true to their gender-specific missions while supporting students for whom that binary no longer applies? Join this online conversation with girls’ and boys’ school administrators and representatives from the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), National Coalition of Girls’ Schools (NCGS), and International Boys’ Schools Coalition (IBSC) as together we reflect on current challenges and future opportunities for educators to support transgender and nonbinary students in all-boys and all-girls schools.

Recording of Webinar

Synthesis of Breakout Discussion Groups:

Supporting Transgender Students in Girls’ and Boys’ Schools Tuesday, November 15, 1:00 p.m. ET

How might your school stay true to its gender-specific mission while supporting students for whom that binary no longer applies?

● Multiple breakout groups wrestled with the existential question: “What does it mean to be an all girls school or all boys school?” ○ Discussions raised the ideas of strong communities, and single-gender schools as safe spaces for students to explore their identities and grow intellectually and socially. ○ How do these ideas converge with gender fluidity or a non-binary concept of gender? Can schools still create a safe space for transgender students to explore their identity and find their voice? ○ Some schools emphasized our commitment to our kids and the value of each of them within our schools and beyond, and to consider how their transition will impact their continued growth and development into adulthood, college, returning for transcripts, and more. ○ Overall comments across all breakout groups emphasized the need to support the student and keep them at the center, as opposed to creating hard and fast policies.

● Another thorny question that was raised was “Can it be inconsistent with a school’s mission to have a transgender student in the school?” ○ Depending on where the student is in their school career, can the school better serve the student by keeping them in the community or by helping them find a school where the mission is better aligned with their transitioning identity? ○ Some girls schools reasoned that there was mission congruence in aligning women living in a patriarchal culture with transgender individuals in a dominant binary culture.

● Some groups focused on the wording or underlying meaning of the school’s mission ○ Specific words and phrases pulled from mission statements, such as “to be rather than to seem”, creating a caring and diverse community, affirming the worth and dignity of every individual, can be explicitly used to rally support for students ○ With a mission statement such as “build fine young men, one boy at a time”, finding space for a transitioning student is challenging, but language focuses on the individual needs of each student, which creates room for interpretation.

● Based on Tony’s narrative, some schools mused on the difference between supporting the transition of students who are existing members of your community versus encountering transgender students in the admissions process. Most attendees thought there should not be a specific question in admissions applications to screen for transgender students. What have been the primary challenges to confront in having initial conversations around supporting transgender students in your school? What have been the most rewarding moments?

● Challenges ○ Shifting from a binary view of gender. How we understand what a girl or what a boy is. ○ Parental perception and expectations. They send their student to a school and the paradigm shifts. Not ready to have conversations with their young students about gender and sex. ○ Education of and communication with the boards of trustees. Using outside resources from experts (Gender Spectrum) or religious organizations (Episcopal School) is beneficial. ○ Admissions process when a student has already transitioned and the school may not know at the outset. ○ Boarding schools. Housing. Which floor does the student live on? Based on a discussion with a lawyer, the students are living on the floor of the gender with which they identified.

● Points to Consider ○ Go through the student’s experience minute to minute and analyze every aspect of your school to ask what can affect them during a transition. If we backtrack and experience our school through students’ eyes, then maybe we can relate with them when they’re exploring their gender expression even before they make the decision to transition. We want to support our students fully, and maybe this starts sooner than when a student comes to us with a firm decision to transition. Maybe more students need our support as they are questioning. ○ Anecdotally, the largest groups of students who are talking about transitioning are ages 4 – 6 years old. When we started to talk about the process, we thought we’d work more with older, high school students. With this younger age group, it raises the question of whether we can continue to serve this student well years after they transition?

● Initial Steps of One School Shared ○ We are gathering groups of faculty, staff, trustees to start an ongoing conversation about vocabulary, transitioning and gender fluidity. We hope to proactively learn about the gender spectrum and think strategically about our approach now, so we will be ready to help a student when they need our support (rather than reacting to the situation when it does arise). We’re thinking about the series of concentric circles of faculty we’d involve and inform so that a specific student is supported but also so that their privacy is respected. The better we prepare ourselves as a school community, the better we can support all of our students.

How to Become a ‘Superager’

Think about the people in your life who are 65 or older. Some of them are experiencing the usual mental difficulties of old age, like forgetfulness or a dwindling attention span. Yet others somehow manage to remain mentally sharp. My father-in-law, a retired doctor, is 83 and he still edits books and runs several medical websites.

Why do some older people remain mentally nimble while others decline? “Superagers” (a term coined by the neurologist Marsel Mesulam) are those whose memory and attention isn’t merely above average for their age, but is actually on par with healthy, active 25-year-olds. My colleagues and I at Massachusetts General Hospital recently studied superagers to understand what made them tick.

Our lab used functional magnetic resonance imaging to scan and compare the brains of 17 superagers with those of other people of similar age. We succeeded in identifying a set of brain regions that distinguished the two groups. These regions were thinner for regular agers, a result of age-related atrophy, but in superagers they were indistinguishable from those of young adults, seemingly untouched by the ravages of time.

What are these crucial brain regions? If you asked most scientists to guess, they might nominate regions that are thought of as “cognitive” or dedicated to thinking, such as the lateral prefrontal cortex. However, that’s not what we found. Nearly all the action was in “emotional” regions, such as the midcingulate cortex and the anterior insula.

My lab was not surprised by this discovery, because we’ve seen modern neuroscience debunk the notion that there is a distinction between “cognitive” and “emotional” brain regions.

This distinction emerged in the 1940s, when a doctor named Paul MacLean devised a model of the human brain with three layers. An ancient inner layer, inherited from reptiles, was presumed to contain circuits for basic survival. The middle layer, the “limbic system,” supposedly contained emotion circuitry inherited from mammals. And the outermost layer was said to house rational thinking that is uniquely human. Dr. MacLean called this model “the triune brain.”

The triune brain became (and remains) popular in the media, the business world and certain scientific circles. But experts in brain evolution discredited it decades ago. The human brain didn’t evolve like a piece of sedimentary rock, with layers of increasing cognitive sophistication slowly accruing over time. Rather (in the words of the neuroscientist Georg Striedter), brains evolve like companies do: they reorganize as they expand. Brain areas that Dr. MacLean considered emotional, such as the regions of the “limbic system,” are now known to be major hubs for general communication throughout the brain. They’re important for many functions besides emotion, such as language, stress, regulation of internal organs, and even the coordination of the five senses into a cohesive experience.

And now, our research demonstrates that these major hub regions play a meaningful role in superaging. The thicker these regions of cortex are, the better a person’s performance on tests of memory and attention, such as memorizing a list of nouns and recalling it 20 minutes later.

Of course, the big question is: How do you become a superager? Which activities, if any, will increase your chances of remaining mentally sharp into old age? We’re still studying this question, but our best answer at the moment is: work hard at something. Many labs have observed that these critical brain regions increase in activity when people perform difficult tasks, whether the effort is physical or mental. You can therefore help keep these regions thick and healthy through vigorous exercise and bouts of strenuous mental effort. My father-in-law, for example, swims every day and plays tournament bridge.

The road to superaging is difficult, though, because these brain regions have another intriguing property: When they increase in activity, you tend to feel pretty bad — tired, stymied, frustrated. Think about the last time you grappled with a math problem or pushed yourself to your physical limits. Hard work makes you feel bad in the moment. The Marine Corps has a motto that embodies this principle: “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” That is, the discomfort of exertion means you’re building muscle and discipline. Superagers are like Marines: They excel at pushing past the temporary unpleasantness of intense effort. Studies suggest that the result is a more youthful brain that helps maintain a sharper memory and a greater ability to pay attention.

This means that pleasant puzzles like Sudoku are not enough to provide the benefits of superaging. Neither are the popular diversions of various “brain game” websites. You must expend enough effort that you feel some “yuck.” Do it till it hurts, and then a bit more.

In the United States, we are obsessed with happiness. But as people get older, research shows, they cultivate happiness by avoiding unpleasant situations. This is sometimes a good idea, as when you avoid a rude neighbor. But if people consistently sidestep the discomfort of mental effort or physical exertion, this restraint can be detrimental to the brain. All brain tissue gets thinner from disuse. If you don’t use it, you lose it.

So, make a New Year’s resolution to take up a challenging activity. Learn a foreign language. Take an online college course. Master a musical instrument. Work that brain. Make it a year to remember.

Scared About the Next 4 Years? Take a Lesson From Improv Comedy

I know yesterday was a rough day for many. Popular words on my FB feed included grief, depression, shock, sadness, disbelief.

When times are tough, it might seem tempting to try to find the “eject” button and apply for Canadian citizenship. Or take advantage of California’s new legalized marijuana resolution to check out on a 4-year high.

But as many commentators have already pointed out, what is really needed is for us to step even further into the ring and do our best to all move forward together.

Which is why I wrote this post. To do my part to offer a tool to navigate your mind and spirit during a paradigm-shifting event such as this election might have been for you.

I have seen many great articles and blogs that have attempted to soothe the depressed spirit with a “it’s not as bad as you might think” message. They logically point out that Donald Trump won’t be able to make large changes in a political system such as ours… or that no matter who won, half the country would have been upset and so why does it matter if it’s your side or theirs… or that this sort of thing has happened before in US politics, and it didn’t sink us then so why would it sink us now?

These are all great arguments that bring a lot of comfort. The perspective that I want to add is how to accept what has happened so that you can build strongly upon it and make your presence in this nation count moving forward.

And we’ll do so with a lesson from Improv Comedy.

You may have noticed that Improv actors use a technique called “Yes, and,” which is the concept that you accept whatever move your partner just made, and build on it. For example, at my improv class last weekend, I was partnered with a classmate Jake, and we were told that we should improvise a scene with a car. I wanted the scene to be one of a girl getting driving lessons from her father. But before I could speak the words to frame the scene, my partner jumped in and had us be two bank robbers fleeing the scene of the crime. Not exactly what I had in mind. I was miffed.

But instead of resisting that plot line, I accepted it. I did my best imitation of a frantic car chase (which, to be clear, I am utterly terrible at. Cross that one off my list of potential careers.). And by embracing the scene I now found myself in, I was able to add the fact that I was a junior bank robber, and I was getting bank robbing lessons from the “big boss.” I ended up introducing the element of paternalistic instruction that I wanted; it was just with a gun in my hand and a sack of loot at my feet. The scene was fun and funny, and a big hit.

Contrast the “Yes, and” with the “No, but” approach. Had I responded to my partner that “we’re not bank robbers! You’re my dad and we are taking a driving test,” then the scene would have come to a screeching, awkward halt. My partner would have been offended, I would have been indignant, and I promise you that no one would have laughed.

The key to the “Yes, and” is acceptance. Acceptance means that you don’t waste your energy trying to resist something that you cannot change, and instead embrace it. Yes, embrace it. That doesn’t mean that you would have chosen it, but rather that you recognize that that is where things are now, and you commit to being fully receptive to what is. I

t’s only in that receptivity that you can really understand a situation enough to plot your “And.” This is something that we learn in the Serenity Prayer:

“Grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

and Wisdom to know the difference.”

The “Yes” is the serenity of accepting what is. The “and” is the courage to make a change. And the wisdom comes in linking the two.

So, folks, what has to happen now is that we all must become skilled Improv artists. Donald Trump will be the 45th president of the United States. Yes, and what will you build upon it? What will you add to the scene? The future of our country will be shaped by all of our “Ands.” If there is one thing I have learned from Improv Comedy, it’s that some of the best scenes come from those Ands. What will be yours?

Write me a note and share your thoughts!

In care,

The Mindful Classroom

Time Magazine

Fifth-graders flow through yoga-inspired poses in a mindfulness class at a public school in Louisville, Ky.
Luke Sharrett for TIMEFifth-graders flow through yoga-inspired poses in a mindfulness class at a public school in Louisville, Ky.

Some experts think mindfulness is the antidote to distraction, misbehaving–even poor math scores. Are they on to something?

Christina Johnson’s classroom must be the most peaceful place at Cane Run Elementary School in Louisville, Ky. Instead of desks, six rows of black yoga mats line the floor. All the lights are off except for one gently glowing lamp. Underwater sounds gurgle from a pair of speakers.

Today nearly two dozen fifth-graders are sitting on the mats with their shoes off and eyes closed, following Johnson as she guides them through a relaxation exercise. “Take a nice, nice deep breath in, and keep your hands on your anchors, please,” Johnson says. The kids place one hand on their chest, the other on their belly. Johnson taps a chime and the kids know what to do: listen intently, and when the long reverberation stops, their hands shoot up. “Good job,” Johnson says. “We’re ready.”

For the next 45 minutes, Johnson leads the class through exercises that are designed to increase mindfulness–a catchall term for practices that help you focus on the present moment. They learn how to savor the taste of a mint until it dissolves on their tongue; they move their little bodies into poses lifted straight from a yoga studio.

Cane Run, which requires that students attend the class twice weekly from kindergarten on up, is at the frontier of a growing movement. Mindfulness has come to the classroom. At Cane Run, it’s still an experiment: researchers want to know if a program like this can improve students’ focus, behavior, academic performance–even their empathy. A seven-year study, called the Compassionate Schools Project, is under way in 26 Louisville schools. If all goes as well as researchers expect–and if officials can secure the funding–mandatory mindfulness classes will wind up at every public school in the city.

That mindfulness is taking its place alongside math in elementary school says something about the stressed-out state of kids’ brains these days. Educators increasingly believe that mindfulness can be an antidote to three of the biggest mental-health challenges that kids face: anxiety, trouble paying attention and bullying.

It makes sense. In adults, the benefits of activities such as yoga, meditation and deep-breathing exercises are well established. A robust body of research shows that these exercises lower stress, ease anxiety, improve sleep, ward off sickness, reduce depression and even blunt pain. If mindfulness can work even some of the same wonders in children, the implications would be huge. Up to 20% of kids in the U.S. have anxiety–and anxiety is the No. 1 predictor of depression in adolescence. Diagnoses for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in kids show no signs of slowing, creeping up from 7% in 2003 to 11% in 2011.

Classes in mindfulness, its advocates hope, can make a dent in those worrying numbers, while also teaching kids softer skills, like how to communicate feelings, how to get along with classmates and how to modulate reactions–all skills that researchers believe the practice helps develop. If kids start early, the skills may prove useful down the road at countering the stresses and distractions of adult life. “These are not niceties. These are critical capabilities,” says Patrick Tolan, a professor at the University of Virginia Curry School of Education who is leading the analysis. “If children today don’t learn how to take care of themselves, it’s going to have enormous impact on our health care costs and on the health of our nation.”

Although research on mindfulness in children is still preliminary, studies show that it can help kids who have anxiety and trouble paying attention with their schoolwork, behavior and stress regulation. First-through third-graders who were taught mindfulness and breathing techniques had fewer ADHD symptoms and less test anxiety, one study found. Even for kids without these issues, mindfulness has been shown to increase kindness, sleep quality and even math scores.

This training appears to work in kids as young as 4. Preschoolers who received 12 weeks of a kindness and mindfulness class earned better grades and were more likely to share than counterparts in a control group, according to research by Lisa Flook, a scientist at the University of Wisconsin who is studying a mindfulness program in several schools in Madison. “A body of work shows there are these innate prosocial and altruistic qualities present from a very early age in children,” Flook says. “This is a way of nurturing the seeds of kindness in children.”

In another ongoing study, researchers from the University of North Carolina Wilmington teach preschoolers yoga poses and relaxation exercises. After just two weeks, these kids exhibit better attention, awareness, gratitude and happiness compared with kids who did not have the classes. “What’s amazing is that this brief exposure appears to be so powerful,” says lead researcher Simone Nguyen, a developmental-psychology professor at the university. “A few minutes of breathing, a few minutes of paying attention to the moment are appearing to make a difference.”

A movement is also under way to train teachers in mindfulness. “Our theory is that if we actually produce educators that are more aware and empathic and attuned to children, that in its own right is going to have an effect on kids’ nervous systems,” says Chris McKenna, program director of Mindful Schools, a group in Emeryville, Calif., that trains teachers in mindfulness.

“There’s an almost immediate calming effect of mindfulness practice,” says Randye Semple, an anxiety-disorder expert and assistant professor at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine. Calm breathing triggers the parasympathetic nervous system–the opposite of the fight-or-flight response–which slows heart rate and makes blood pressure go down, she says. Mindfulness training also encourages kids to focus attention on whatever is happening in the moment. “Essentially, mindfulness is attention training,” she says. “We’re showing them that attention can be increased, that it can be ramped up and it can be trained.”

Another study this summer found that students had higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol if their teachers reported being burned out. But if stress is contagious, so is its opposite. In a study of hundreds of teachers across 36 public elementary schools in New York City, half of the teachers received mindfulness and stress-reduction training while the other half did not. Those who were trained in mindfulness became better at handling their own stress–and as it turns out, the benefits appeared to spread to the kids too. According to Tish Jennings, associate professor of education at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, the teachers who got the training were more sensitive to their students’ needs and better at fostering a productive environment for learning.

Encouraged by results such as these, a growing group of researchers, advocates and parents are pushing for mindfulness to be taught in all public schools. In some places, like Louisville, it could replace an enrichment or health course, while other districts will pick and choose parts of the practice to incorporate into existing classes. Other schools may try to create a more mindful culture by training teachers instead of adding a dedicated class. Private and charter schools across the country have been on to this for some time. “Self-regulation and attention can benefit kids on both ends and throughout the [socioeconomic] spectrum,” says Flook.

Not everyone thinks mindfulness belongs in schools. Classroom time is more prized than ever–and resources are scant. “If you can’t get art and music in a curriculum, you’re not going to be able to get this,” says McKenna. Nor do all parents find the material acceptable. One school district in Ohio piloted a mindfulness program in 2011 and found the results so impressive that it soon expanded to other schools. But parents complained that they felt the practice was teaching religion–Buddhism–and had no place in the classroom. In 2013, the district, in Canton, shuttered the program.

It’s a criticism researchers have heard before. “I don’t think any of us deny that most of these general practices and concepts come from Buddhism,” says Semple. “But we’re not teaching Buddhism. We’re teaching kids how to pay attention.”

Jennings too is careful to identify her program as “100% secular.” “We don’t teach anything related to other parts of yoga that might be considered spiritual or religious.” That’s part of the reason researchers are studying it closely. If the results show what they expect–a nearly universal benefit for kids–researchers hope it will lead to even broader adoption nationwide.

In Louisville, Christina Johnson knows it’s already working on her fifth-graders. She talks them through their final movements–raising both arms to the sky in a pose she calls “sunrise,” then releasing “all that negative stuff” as they flop over their toes–and then tells them to close their eyes and check in with their feelings. Moments later, a boy’s soft sniffle breaks the stillness. Johnson hugs and holds him as he whispers to her about problems at home. No one snickers. No one even opens their eyes.

“When the brain gets still and everything gets calm, the feelings come out,” Johnson says later. “That’s why this needs to be in schools.”