Breathe. Exhale. Repeat: The Benefits of Controlled Breathing

Photo

CreditAndrew Rae

Take a deep breath, expanding your belly. Pause. Exhale slowly to the count of five. Repeat four times.

Congratulations. You’ve just calmed your nervous system.

Controlled breathing, like what you just practiced, has been shown to reduce stress, increase alertness and boost your immune system. For centuries yogis have used breath control, or pranayama, to promote concentration and improve vitality. Buddha advocated breath-meditation as a way to reach enlightenment.

Science is just beginning to provide evidence that the benefits of this ancient practice are real. Studies have found, for example, that breathing practices can help reduce symptoms associated with anxiety, insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and attention deficit disorder.

“Breathing is massively practical,” says Belisa Vranich, a psychologist and author of the book “Breathe,” to be published in December. “It’s meditation for people who can’t meditate.”

How controlled breathing may promote healing remains a source of scientific study. One theory is that controlled breathing can change the response of the body’s autonomic nervous system, which controls unconscious processes such as heart rate and digestion as well as the body’s stress response, says Dr. Richard Brown, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and co-author of “The Healing Power of the Breath.”

Consciously changing the way you breathe appears to send a signal to the brain to adjust the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system, which can slow heart rate and digestion and promote feelings of calm as well as the sympathetic system, which controls the release of stress hormones like cortisol.

Many maladies, such as anxiety and depression, are aggravated or triggered by stress. “I have seen patients transformed by adopting regular breathing practices,” says Dr. Brown, who has a private practice in Manhattan and teaches breathing workshops around the world.

When you take slow, steady breaths, your brain gets the message that all is well and activates the parasympathetic response, said Dr. Brown. When you take shallow rapid breaths or hold your breath, the sympathetic response is activated. “If you breathe correctly, your mind will calm down,” said Dr. Patricia Gerbarg, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at New York Medical College and Dr. Brown’s co-author

Dr. Chris Streeter, an associate professor of psychiatry and neurology at Boston University, recently completed a small study in which she measured the effect of daily yoga and breathing on people with diagnoses of major depressive disorder.

After 12 weeks of daily yoga and coherent breathing, the subjects’ depressive symptoms significantly decreased and their levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid, a brain chemical that has calming and anti-anxiety effects, had increased. The research was presented in May at the International Congress on Integrative Medicine and Health in Las Vegas. While the study was small and lacked a control group, Dr. Streeter and her colleagues are planning a randomized controlled trial to further test the intervention.

“The findings were exciting,” she said. “They show that a behavioral intervention can have effects of similar magnitude as an antidepressant.”

Controlled breathing may also affect the immune system. Researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina divided a group of 20 healthy adults into two groups. One group was instructed to do two sets of 10-minute breathing exercises, while the other group was told to read a text of their choice for 20 minutes. The subjects’ saliva was tested at various intervals during the exercise. The researchers found that the breathing exercise group’s saliva had significantly lower levels of three cytokines that are associated with inflammation and stress. The findings were published in the journal BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine in August.

Here are three basic breathing exercises to try on your own.

Coherent Breathing

If you have the time to learn only one technique, this is the one to try. In coherent breathing, the goal is to breathe at a rate of five breaths per minute, which generally translates into inhaling and exhaling to the count of six. If you have never practiced breathing exercises before, you may have to work up to this practice slowly, starting with inhaling and exhaling to the count of three and working your way up to six.

Photo

CreditAndrew Rae

1. Sitting upright or lying down, place your hands on your belly.

2. Slowly breathe in, expanding your belly, to the count of five.

3. Pause.

4. Slowly breathe out to the count of six.

5. Work your way up to practicing this pattern for 10 to 20 minutes a day.

Stress Relief

When your mind is racing or you feel keyed up, try Rock and Roll breathing, which has the added benefit of strengthening your core.

Photo

CreditAndrew Rae

1. Sit up straight on the floor or the edge of a chair.

2. Place your hands on your belly.

3. As you inhale, lean forward and expand your belly.

4. As you exhale, squeeze the breath out and curl forward while leaning backward; exhale until you’re completely empty of breath.

5. Repeat 20 times.

Energizing HA Breath

When the midafternoon slump hits, stand up and do some quick breathwork to wake up your mind and body.

Photo

CreditAndrew Rae

1. Stand up tall, elbows bent, palms facing up.

2. As you inhale, draw your elbows back behind you, palms continuing to face up.

3. Then exhale quickly, thrusting your palms forward and turning them downward, while saying “Ha” out loud.

4. Repeat quickly 10 to 15 times.

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.

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.”

Mindfulness Exercises Improve Kids’ Math Scores

Time
Mandy Oaklander @mandyoaklander Jan. 26, 2015

Fourth and fifth graders who did mindfulness exercises had 15% better math scores than their peers
In adults, mindfulness has been shown to have all kinds of amazing effects throughout the body: it can combat stress, protect your heart, shorten migraines and possibly even extend life. But a new trial published in the journal Developmental Psychology suggests that the effects are also powerful in kids as young as 9—so much so that improving mindfulness showed to improve everything from social skills to math scores.

Researchers wanted to test the effects of a program that promotes social and emotional learning—peppered with mindfulness and kindness exercises—called MindUP. Developed by Goldie Hawn’s foundation, it’s used in schools across the U.S., Canada and beyond.

The study authors put 99 4th and 5th grade public school students in British Columbia into one of two groups. One group received four months of the mindfulness program, and the other got four months of a standard “social responsibility” program already used in Canadian public schools.

In the mindfulness classrooms, the program incorporated sense-sharpening exercises like mindful smelling and mindful eating, along with cognitive mindfulness exercises like seeing an issue from another’s point of view. Children did a three-minute meditation three times a day focusing on their breathing. They also acted on their lessons by practicing gratitude and doing kind things for others.

For the four months, researchers analyzed all kinds of in-depth measures, like behavioral assessments, cortisol levels, children’s self-reports of their own wellbeing, reviews from their peers about sociability and the objective academic scores of math grades.

The results were dramatic. “I really did not anticipate that we would have so many positive findings across all the multiple levels we looked at,” says study co-author Kimberly A. Schonert-Reichl, a developmental psychologist at the University of British Columbia. “I was very surprised,” she says—especially considering that the intervention took place at the end of the year, notoriously the worst time for students’ self-control.

Compared to the kids in the social responsibility program, children with the mindful intervention had 15% better math scores, showed 24% more social behaviors, were 24% less aggressive and perceived themselves as 20% more prosocial. They outperformed their peers in cognitive control, stress levels, emotional control, optimism, empathy, mindfulness and aggression.

The program also may have had an unintended effect—one the researchers didn’t measure, but now want to. “Anecdotally, teachers tell us that the program helped them calm down more—by doing the program and integrating these mindful attention practices and being more aware and thinking more about others, that they actually become less stressed,” Schonert-Reichl says. “That has huge implications, and a further area of research is needed.”

More research is needed, but mindfulness interventions like these are promising. “Doing these kinds of programs in school does not take away from academics,” Schonert-Reichl says. “It adds to a growing research literature that’s showing, actually, these kinds of programs and practices increase academic gains. By adding this on, you not only create more academically capable, successful students, but actually create more caring, less stressed, kind students.”

This school replaced detention with meditation. The results are stunning.

Upworthy

James Gaines, September 22, 2016

Imagine you’re working at a school and one of the kids is starting to act up. What do you do?

Traditionally, the answer would be to give the unruly kid detention or suspension.

But in my memory, detention tended to involve staring at walls, bored out of my mind, trying to either surreptitiously talk to the kids around me without getting caught or trying to read a book. If it was designed to make me think about my actions, it didn’t really work. It just made everything feel stupid and unfair.

But Robert W. Coleman Elementary School has been doing something different when students act out: offering meditation.

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Photo from Holistic Life Foundation, used with permission.

Instead of punishing disruptive kids or sending them to the principal’s office, the Baltimore school has something called the Mindful Moment Room instead.

The room looks nothing like your standard windowless detention room. Instead, it’s filled with lamps, decorations, and plush purple pillows. Misbehaving kids are encouraged to sit in the room and go through practices like breathing or meditation, helping them calm down and re-center. They are also asked to talk through what happened.

Meditation and mindfulness are pretty interesting, scientifically.

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Photo from Holistic Life Foundation, used with permission.

Mindful meditation has been around in some form or another for thousands of years. Recently, though, science has started looking at its effects on our minds and bodies, and it’s finding some interesting effects.

One study, for example, suggested that mindful meditation could give practicing soldiers a kind of mental armor against disruptive emotions, and it can improve memory too. Another suggested mindful meditation could improve a person’s attention span and focus.

Individual studies should be taken with a grain of salt (results don’t always carry in every single situation), but overall, science is starting to build up a really interesting picture of how awesome meditation can be. Mindfulness in particular has even become part of certain fairly successful psychotherapies.

Back at the school, the Mindful Moment Room isn’t the only way Robert W. Coleman Elementary has been encouraging its kids.

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After-school yoga. Photo from Holistic Life Foundation, used with permission.

The meditation room was created as a partnership with the Holistic Life Foundation, a local nonprofit that runs other programs as well. For more than 10 years the foundation has been offering the after-school program Holistic Me, where kids from pre-K through the fifth grade practice mindfulness exercises and yoga.

“It’s amazing,” said Kirk Philips, the Holistic Me coordinator at Robert W. Coleman. “You wouldn’t think that little kids would meditate in silence. And they do.”

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I want to be as cool as this kid one day. Photo from Holistic Life Foundation, used with permission.

There was a Christmas party, for example, where the kids knew they were going to get presents but were still expected to do meditation first.

“As a little kid, that’s got to be hard to sit down and meditate when you know you’re about to get a bag of gifts, and they did it! It was beautiful, we were all smiling at each other watching them,” said Philips.

The kids may even be bringing that mindfulness back home with them.

In the August 2016 issue of Oprah Magazine, Holistic Life Foundation co-founder Andres Gonzalez said: “We’ve had parents tell us, ‘I came home the other day stressed out, and my daughter said, “Hey, Mom, you need to sit down. I need to teach you how to breathe.”‘”

The program also helps mentor and tutor the kids, as well as teach them about the environment.

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Building a vegetable garden. Photo from Holistic Life Foundation, used with permission.

They help clean up local parks, build gardens, and visit nearby farms. Philips said they even teach kids to be co-teachers, letting them run the yoga sessions.

This isn’t just happening at one school, either. Lots of schools are trying this kind of holistic thinking, and it’s producing incredible results.

In the U.K., for example, the Mindfulness in Schools Project is teaching adults how to set up programs. Mindful Schools, another nonprofit, is helping to set up similar programs in the United States.

Oh, and by the way, the schools are seeing a tangible benefit from this program, too.

Philips said that at Robert W. Coleman Elementary, there have been exactly zero suspensions last year and so far this year. Meanwhile, nearby Patterson Park High School, which also uses the mindfulness programs, said suspension rates dropped and attendance increased as well.

Is that wholly from the mindfulness practices? It’s impossible to say, but those are pretty remarkable numbers, all the same.

The Mindful Child

The New York Times

Photo

CreditSam Kalda
It’s long been known that meditation helps children feel calmer, but new research is helping quantify its benefits for elementary school-age children. A 2015 study found that fourth- and fifth-grade students who participated in a four-month meditation program showed improvements in executive functions like cognitive control, working memory, cognitive flexibility — and better math grades. A study published recently in the journal Mindfulness found similar improvements in mathematics in fifth graders with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. And a study of elementary school children in Korea showed that eight weeks of meditation lowered aggression, social anxiety and stress levels.

These investigations, along with a review published in March that combed the developmental psychology and cognitive neuroscience literature, illustrate how meditative practices have the potential to actually change the structure and function of the brain in ways that foster academic success.

Fundamental principles of neuroscience suggest that meditation can have its greatest impact on cognition when the brain is in its earliest stages of development.

This is because the brain develops connections in prefrontal circuits at its fastest rate in childhood. It is this extra plasticity that creates the potential for meditation to have greater impact on executive functioning in children. Although meditation may benefit adults more in terms of stress reduction or physical rejuvenation, its lasting effects on things like sustained attention and cognitive control are significant but ultimately less robust.

clinical study published in 2011 in The Journal of Child and Family Studies demonstrates this concept superbly. The research design allowed adults and children to be compared directly since they were enrolled in the same mindfulness meditation program and assessed identically. Children between 8 and 12 who had A.D.H.D. diagnoses, along with parents, were enrolled in an eight-week mindfulness-training program. The results showed that mindfulness meditation significantly improved attention and impulse control in both groups, but the improvements were considerably more robust in the children.

Outside of the lab, many parents report on the benefits of early meditation. Heather Maurer of Vienna, Va., who was trained in transcendental meditation, leads her 9-year-old daughter, Daisy, through various visualization techniques and focused breathing exercises three nights a week, and says her daughter has become noticeably better at self-regulating her emotions, a sign of improved cognitive control. “When Daisy is upset, she will sit herself down and concentrate on her breathing until she is refocused,” Ms. Maurer said.

Amanda Simmons, a mother who runs her own meditation studio in Los Angeles, has seen similar improvements in her 11-year-old son, Jacob, who is on the autism spectrum. Jacob also has A.D.H.D. and bipolar disorder, but Ms. Simmons said many of his symptoms have diminished since he began daily meditation and mantra chants six months ago. “The meditation seems to act like a ‘hard reboot’ for his brain, almost instantly resolving mood swings or lessening anger,” Ms. Simmons said. She believes it has enabled him to take a lower dose of Risperdal, an antipsychotic drug used to treat bipolar disorder.

Whether children are on medication or not, meditation can help instill self-control and an ability to focus. Perhaps encouraging meditation and mind-body practices will come to be recognized as being as essential to smart parenting as teaching your child to work hard, eat healthfully and exercise regularly.

To learn some meditation techniques you can teach your child, readThree Ways for Children to Try Meditation at Home.

What Changes When a School Embraces Mindfulness?

Mind/Shift

(iStock)

It was lunch time at Marysville School in Southeast Portland when the fire broke out. Teachers quickly herded their students out of the building to the sports field behind the school as the old colonial-style building burned. The fire that traumatized students and staff alike was in 2009, when Lana Penley was in her second year as principal. The 460 students and 50 staff members of the K-8 school relocated to a vacant school building in another part of Portland, displaced from their school site for three years as the district rebuilt the Marysville building.

“We were already a school that struggled, and then adding [the fire] on top of it, we really thought we needed to find a social and emotional curriculum that connects to the heart to overcome our trauma,” Penley explained. When the school reopened, Penley and her staff started using the MindUP curriculum, developed by the Hawn Foundation (founded by the actress Goldie Hawn), to try to address underlying trauma both from the fire and from the daily poverty that many students face.

At first they implemented the program using a counselor, rotating between classes, teaching the 15-lesson sequence that starts with explaining to students how their brains work and what’s happening when they are stressed, scared or angry. The program then moves into mindful breathing exercises, meant to help students feel present in their bodies. There’s a section on choosing to approach the world with optimism and discussions of mindfulness in all the senses: seeing, listening and eating. Towards the end of the sequence the lessons expand outward, asking students how they can contribute to the community, how they can be better citizens. Students practice doing random acts of kindness and reflect on how that makes them feel. Gratitude becomes a daily practice.

The program is a blend of neuroscience, social and emotional tenets like empathy and perspective taking, and mindfulness, a practice which many schools have already started exploring. Several programs teach mindfulness in schools, including Mindful Schools.

After implementing the MindUP program at Marysville, Penley saw the difference. “We’ve seen this huge shift in the overall tone and civility of the school culture,” she said.

Penley and her staff soon realized that when the counselor taught the class, students were getting the benefit, but teachers weren’t. Soon teachers started coming to Penley, asking to teach the class themselves, as part of their regular classes.

“After our first year we began to think about how we could bring this to the overall health of the school,” Penley said. As a staff they decided to teach the MindUP lessons concurrently, at the same time every week, so there would be a sense of synergy. “Everyone is in a classroom except the custodian and secretary,” Penley said. “Imagine all of us hearing about gratitude and asking ourselves how we can integrate it throughout everything we do.”

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A Marysville class doing three minutes of mindfulness. (Lana Penley/Marysville School) 

Penley says the real shifts in school culture came when they started implementing the program school-wide. Teachers now start class in the morning with a few breaths to help students feel present. The middle school has breathing exercises after passing periods. Penley described how kindergarteners used to come into their classroom for free breakfast while their teacher was already directing them to look at what she’d written on the board. Students were having a hard time learning that way because they didn’t feel settled or safe.

Now, teachers greet kids at the door and play soft music with the lights down; they talk about the practices the whole school is working on at that moment. In this low key environment, the teacher is taking roll and checking in on students.

Gradually the practices in the MindUP program became part of how the school operates. “These are the ways we treat each other and that happens all the time throughout the day,” Penley said. The switch to thinking about every interaction and learning moment in the school day as one of mindfulness has dramatically changed the tone of the school, according to Penley. She says discipline referrals have dropped and students are using their mindful seeing practice in classes like English, art and science to make better observations. An eighth grader recently noted that he’d been watching the presidential debates and that the candidates weren’t doing a good job of listening to one another’s perspectives.

And this more human approach hasn’t stopped at the classroom door. Teachers get a “brain break” at the start of staff meetings in recognition that they’re coming from a hectic teaching day and need a moment to ground themselves in the present before starting another task. The staff also practice whatever skill they’ll be teaching through MindUP with one another before rolling it out into the classroom.

“Our teachers are happier, which is really important, and we have a ton of people applying to our school now because they’re interested in mindfulness,” Penley said. Before they started the MindUP program, Marysville, like many other Title 1 schools serving a diverse population of learners, struggled to attract teachers. Now, Penley said she has 100 applicants for every open position, which also allows her to hire teachers who are in line with their vision.

On a teacher survey administered in the 2013-2014 school year 95 percent of the adults in the building said they were satisfied or extremely satisfied working at Marysville. And all of the adults reported that teaching MindUP has carried over into their personal lives and extends into the classroom throughout content areas.

Despite the success of the program, it hasn’t been all smooth sailing. Some teachers initially pushed back with the inevitable “initiative fatigue” that plagues many schools. But Penley said she kept them engaged in conversations about what made them uncomfortable and how they could work through those issues. “Once you are on the ground and realize that what it’s teaching are just basic human practices, we’ve seen that even our most resistant teachers have come a long way with it,” Penley said.

Penley said the program has also helped her personally. “It’s helped me find the joy in my job,” she said. “Being a principal is a really hard job. A lot of principals don’t like their jobs.” She’s learned to be more present in each meeting and to think of her main job as being a listener. She used to rush about trying to solve every problem, but now she tries to stay focused and present in each moment, giving her staff her full attention. It’s helped her remember why she loves working in education and being around kids.

“It really is a shift in the heart,” Penley said. “It’s a way of being. Instead of compliance, we call it moving more towards compassion. It’s going to shift the feel of the school.”

RESEARCH BEHIND THE PROGRAM

University of British Columbia professor Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, who was one of several researchers consulted on the development of MindUP, conducted a randomized controlled trial on fourth and fifth graders participating in the program in Vancouver public schools.Students reported many positive benefits of the program: 82 percent of children reported having a more positive outlook, 81 percent learned to make themselves happy, and 58 percent of children tried to help others more often.

Schonert-Reichl also tested children’s saliva for cortisol levels and found those who participated in the program had healthier levels. Peers also rated students in the program as more prosocial. Schonert-Reichl says teachers in British Columbia were involved in developing the curriculum based on evidence-based neuroscience and psychology principles, which helped ensure the lessons were hitting home for educators.

“When the MindUP program was developed it was an iterative process between researchers and teachers,” Schonert-Reichl said. Teachers would teach a lesson, give feedback and help the researchers improve on the program.

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Marysville student practice mindfulness (Lana Penley/Marysville School)

 

 

“When teachers see it they’re like, oh yeah I can do this,” she said. “It wasn’t something foreign because it had been developed by teachers.” The program also came out in 2005, just after British Columbia had included social and emotional learning as a part of the curriculum. Schonert-Reichl said the high level recognition that these skills are valuable made it much easier for schools to get access to training money and to implement with fidelity.

In Vancouver there is a district-level person who coordinates trainings and materials, supports teachers in classrooms, and connects them to one another. “Instead of it just being this outside person who drops in and does the professional development and leaves with no follow-up, you have this core district support,” Schonert-Reichl said.

A TRAINER’S EXPERIENCE

Jonathan Weresch became a MindUP trainer after seeing the results in his own classroom. He taught students with learning differences and disordered behaviors, who were especially hard to teach after lunch.

Weresch said it took about six weeks for his students to get on board with the program and there were plenty of times they tested his patience as they got used to it. In the beginning when he’d ask them to focus their attention on their breathing with their eyes closed there would be a lot of silly noises. But he modeled patience and continued to teach them about what these exercises were doing for the brain, and in time students stopped joking around. Although he’s a principal now, he still does MindUP trainings on the side because he believes in it.

As a trainer, Weresch answers a lot of questions from teachers who are either having problems getting results or who don’t see how three minutes of focused breathing three times a day can make such a big difference. Weresch explains that it’s like any other skill.

”First we have to practice things deliberately, and then what happens — just like learning to play the piano or something like that — we practice and then with enough practice it becomes a habit. And the habits become character traits after a while.”

The most common complaint he hears from teachers (who are choosing MindUP as their professional development) is that they don’t have time for an extra program, the curriculum is already too big and hard to cover. Weresch sympathizes with that argument, but tells them that in his own experience the time spent on the front end tremendously improved the quality of learning throughout the day. He also points to research indicating that social and emotional learning improves academic achievement.