Small rocks from the beaches of eastern Massachusetts began appearing at Lexington High School last fall. They were painted in pastels and inscribed with pithy advice: Be happy.… Mistakes are O.K.… Don’t worry, it will be over soon. They had appeared almost by magic, boosting spirits and spreading calm at a public high school known for its sleep-deprived student body.
Crying jags over test scores are common here. Students say getting B’s can be deeply dispiriting, dashing college dreams and profoundly disappointing parents.
The rocks, it turns out, were the work of a small group of students worried about rising anxiety and depression among their peers. They had transformed a storage area into a relaxation center with comfy chairs, an orange/peach lava lamp and a coffee table brimming with donated art supplies and lots and lots of rocks — to be painted and given to favorite teachers and friends. They called it the Rock Room.
“At first it was just us,” said Gili Grunfeld, a senior who helped with the effort. “Then everyone was coming in.”
So many rocks were piling up, they had to be stored in a display case near one of the cafeterias. The maxims seemed to call out to students as they headed to their classes in conceptual physics, computer programming, astronomy and Advanced Placement Music Theory.
And they became a visual reminder of a larger, communitywide initiative: to tackle the joy-killing, suicide-inducing performance anxiety so prevalent in turbocharged suburbs like Lexington. In recent years, the problem has spiked to tragic proportions in Colorado Springs, Palo Alto, Calif., and nearby Newton, Mass., where stress has been blamed for the loss of multiple young lives. In January, a senior at Lexington High School, who had just transferred from a local private school, took her own life.
Residents in this tight-knit hamlet, with its high level of civic engagement, are hoping to stem the tide. Mary Czajkowski, the district superintendent, was hired in 2015 with the mandate of “tackling the issue head on.”
Elementary school students now learn breathing exercises and study how the brain works and how tension affects it. New rules in the high school limit homework. To decrease competition, there are no class rankings and no valedictorians and salutatorians. In town, there are regular workshops on teen anxiety and college forums designed to convince parents that their children can succeed without the Ivy Leagues. Last October, more than 300 people crammed into the town hall for a screening of “Beyond Measure,” a sequel to Vicki Abeles’s documentary on youth angst, “Race to Nowhere.”
“We want to be a model,” said Jessie Steigerwald, a longtime school board member.
But it has not been easy.
Claire Sheth, a mother of four who had invited Ms. Abeles to town, describes Lexington students as “tired to the core.” Students say depression is so prevalent that it affects friendships, turning teenagers into crisis counselors. “A lot of kids are trying to manage adult anxiety,” said the principal, Laura Lasa.
The problem is not anecdotal. In a 2015 national health survey, 95 percent of Lexington High School students reported being heavily stressed over their classes and 15 percent said they had considered killing themselves in the last year. Thinking about it most often were Asian and Asian-American students — 17 percent of them, as is the case nationally.
The town’s growing Asian community has not been timid acknowledging the problem. Through college forums and chat rooms, a group of parents and leaders of the local Chinese-American and Indian-American associations have been working to lower the competitive bar and realign parental thinking. Others are pushing back. They don’t want the workload reduced — they moved here for the high-rigor schools. At association meetings, where the tension is most pronounced, discussions about academic competition in the district have brought some to tears.
Indeed, reversing the culture is complicated in a town that prides itself on sending dozens of students to the Ivy Leagues: 10 went to Harvard last year and seven to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Young people are lauded at school board meetings and online for having published academic papers or performed at Lincoln Center. Last year, the varsity team placed second in the 2016 History Bowl nationals and fourth in the National Science Bowl. The robotics team has qualified for the FIRST Championship, an international technology and engineering competition, for five of the last six years.
After school recently at the public library, which was packed with students poring over textbooks, calculus work sheets, lab reports and term papers, a sophomore looked up from her world history textbook and said, “You see all these people? They want the same thing — that’s really overwhelming.” What they want: Entry into a top colleges when acceptance rates are at an all-time low.
Lexington looks and feels like a lot of other affluent suburbs: serene, stately, with a whiff of muted money. Minivans and aging Volvos are packed with violins and well-worn soccer gear. There are meticulously restored Colonials and Tudor revivals. Walk along the red brick sidewalks of Massachusetts Avenue, which cuts through the center of town, and Lexington’s Brahmin past is evident: a statue on the Battle Green of a musket-toting Captain John Parker, who led the fight against the British in 1775.
In evidence as well are signs of the burgeoning biotech industry, and the changing face of America’s elite.
Since 2000, the Asian population has ballooned from 11 percent to an estimated 22 percent of Lexington’s 32,000 or so residents, surpassing Newton (at about 13 percent) and Cambridge (15 percent). Today, more than a third of Lexington’s students are Asian or Asian-American. The demographic mirrors the migration of Asian families to suburbs across the country.
In the Crafty Yankee or the Asian bakery across the street, you are likely to bump into electrical engineers from Seoul, physicists from Beijing and biochemists from Boston. They teach at Harvard (10 miles away) and run labs at M.I.T. (11 miles). They hold top positions in the pharmaceutical companies that dot the Boston-area tech corridor. More than half of the adults in Lexington have graduate degrees. And many want their children to achieve the same.
In many ways, students in Lexington are the byproduct of the self-segregation that Enrico Moretti writes about in his book “The New Geography of Jobs,” which addresses the way well-educated, tech-minded adults cluster in brain hubs. For their children, that means ending up in schools in which everyone is super bright and hypercompetitive. It’s hard to feel special.
Best-selling authors and child psychologists have long urged parents to divest themselves from their child’s every accomplishment, thereby sending the message that mental health matters more than awards. In Lexington, the attack is more comprehensive, involving schools, neighborhoods, churches and synagogues. It is riffing off research that shows that resilience and happiness, reinforced by the entire community, can be just as contagious as stress and depression.
“You need to bring along everybody,” said Ms. Abeles, whose campaign has taken her to towns with similar communitywide efforts, including Elkins Park, Penn., San Ramon and Burbank, Calif., and New Rochelle, N.Y.
Peter Levine, associate dean for research at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts, says that communities that bond to promote pro-social behavior can be powerful inoculators for young people.
“Family problems are often community problems,” he said. “They need community solutions.”
No one is more aware of this than Ms. Lasa, who grew up here, earned degrees from nearby Springfield College and Lesley University, and then returned to the district — watching all the while as the population morphed from relatively laid back to Type A. She often wakes to emotional emails from parents delivered to her inbox after midnight. Most, she says, are about their children’s academic standing, and the tone is often disappointment.
Last fall, as 557 bright-eyed freshmen gathered in cushioned folding chairs in the auditorium for orientation, she gave a speech that over the last few years has come to focus more and more on stress reduction. She begged the students to make mistakes. “Do not believe that you must acquire straight A’s to be a successful student,” she said. “If you and/or your parents are caught up in society’s picture of success, let us help you change the focus.”
Students are now required to meet with counselors when choosing courses to talk about their academic loads. The practice is largely seen as a way of keeping students from overscheduling to beef up their college transcripts.
“We are trying to change a culture that is deeply rooted here,” Ms. Lasa told me in a sunny Boston accent as she barreled through the school. She was showing off the 45-minute free period she instituted this year, allowing — or in some cases, forcing — students to take time to unwind. Some were playing basketball in the gym. Others were talking with teachers. A few hung out in classrooms, chatting with friends. An awful lot, though, were getting a head start on homework.
Ms. Lasa says she is trying to “balance all the messages” they are getting about success and happiness. The one she wants to most impart is: “Slow down.”
The paradox of Lexington High School is that while indicators of anxiety abound, so too does an obsession with happiness. A large banner from the town’s newly formed suicide prevention group, a chapter of the national organization Sources of Strength, greets students as they enter the sprawling red brick building, proclaiming: “Be a Part of Happiness.” There are close to 50 students in the group. Below the banner are remnants of their project to spread positivity. Students were asked to write down their sources of strength, which were then posted beneath the banner and on Facebook. Some named their pets or friends. One wrote: “My mom.” Another: “Trip to Israel!” A girl with green hair: “Chicken curry.”
One morning in February, students in “Positive Psychology: The Pursuit of Happiness,” a popular elective, were following up on a discussion about the psychologist Barbara Fredrickson’s “broaden and build” theory, which posits that negative emotions like anxiety and fear prompt survival-oriented behaviors, while positive emotions expand awareness, spurring new ideas, creativity and eventually building skills.
“Today, we are going to look at pretty simple ways to make it more likely that you experience positive emotions on a day-to-day basis,” Matthew Gardner told his “Happiness” students as they pulled out notebooks and pencil cases. The class discussed the benefits of exercise and eating foods that release feel-good hormones. The students also learned that smiling and being smiled at releases dopamine, which has an uplifting impact.
Mr. Gardner offered an alternative to smiling: “Our brains are not so perfect that, sometimes, if you hold a pen or pencil like this” — he held a pencil between his teeth — “you activate some of the same face muscles. You might get a little bit of a dopamine effect, too.”
Several students held pencils between their teeth to test the theory.
At one point, the class practiced laughter yoga, raising their arms slowly as they breathed in, then lowering them as they breathed out, and bursting into peels of laughter. Afterward, the students recorded changes in their pulse rate to demonstrate research from the HeartMath Institute that shows heart rates slow down and smooth out after bouts of good feeling.
“It’s not just that your heart rate goes down and you become very calm,” Mr. Gardner explained. “It’s that the shape of your heart rate is smooth and more controlled. Frustration is more jagged.”
Their homework assignment: Do laughter yoga or “smile at five people you wouldn’t normally smile at.”
The effects of smiling are also taught in the A.P. Psychology class that Gili Grunfeld is taking, and it has informed her thoughts on stress. On a winter afternoon, she and several classmates were uncoiling in the Rock Room, making friendship bracelets and sketching in fat coloring books. A Post-it that read “Unplug” was taped to the wall clock. The students were bemoaning how so many of their peers develop “tunnel vision,” in Gili’s words, about schoolwork and extracurricular activities, sacrificing sleep and time with friends.
“They isolate for academics,” she said glumly.
Soon the students had changed topics, and were discussing the ice that had caked the school parking lot that morning and how to balance on it. The subtext, once again, was well-being: How much can friends support each other if both feel overwhelmed?
“Are we more likely to fall or are we more steady if we hold onto each other?” asked Jocelyn Geller, a junior.
“I feel like if you have a friend with you, you feel safer,” said Millie Landis, a sophomore, pulling Jocelyn up and wobbling on the floor with her to demonstrate. “But you could pull each other down.”
The district has increased the number of counselors and social workers, including those working in the district’s elementary schools, and expanded the training they receive in identifying and supporting at-risk students.
Cynthia Tang, whose parents emigrated from Taiwan, has been a counselor at Lexington High for 12 years. Warm and well-liked, she organizes workshops addressing the pressure on Asian students to succeed, borrowing insights from the childhood discord she experienced with her own parents as well as research on biculturalism. Studies show that the less assimilated parents are to American culture, the more stressed the children.
Adding to the pressure, she says, are cultural differences in how parents, raised abroad, and their offspring, raised in the United States, are expected to process setbacks and strife: American educators routinely encourage students to share their feelings; not so in Asia.
“I really see a lot of this being bicultural conflict,” Ms. Tang said. “When you have one side of the family holding one set of values and the other embracing a new set of values, that inherently creates a lot of misunderstanding and a lot of tension.”
Ms. Tang says that the disconnect is compounded by a lack of knowledge about the various routes to success available in the United States. Last year, she was brought in by the vice president of the local Chinese-American Association, Hua Wang, to help plan the college forum, a three-hour event on Father’s Day. Dr. Wang, an engineering professor at Boston University, wanted to shift the focus away from a guide on applying to top colleges.
Despite resistance from the organizers, he and Ms. Tang prevailed. At the forum, she presented a slide show celebrating the academic trajectories of respected Chinese-Americans: the fashion designer Vera Wang went to Sarah Lawrence College; Andrew Cherng, the founder of the fast-food chain Panda Express, went to Baker University in Kansas; the best-selling author Amy Tan, San José State University. Parents were surprised. But, Ms. Tang said, “I think a lot of parents felt like: ‘What do I do with that information?’”
This year, organizers will delve deeper into the differences between the Chinese and American systems, and are planning to add another new element: a panel discussion on combating stress. Dr. Wang said they want to showcase families who have adopted a more “holistic view” of education. Selected parents of graduating seniors will be asked to talk about how they encouraged their children to get enough sleep, comforted them when they came home with B’s and discouraged them from skipping ahead in math to be eligible for higher level classes earlier.
This would not be the only time that Dr. Wang has engaged in this kind of dialogue. Using the Mandarin words “danding,” which means to keep calm and steady, and “ruizhi,” which means wise and farsighted, he has initiated conversations on WeChat, an online chat room popular among Chinese parents. Recently, he told them: “Calmness and wisdom from the parents are the Asian child’s greatest blessings.”
But the message was not well received by everyone. Among the posted responses: “If your child gets a C, how do you get to a point of calm? You think we should be satisfied because at least he didn’t get a D?” And: “But my heart still whispers: Am I not just letting my child lose at the starting line?”
One parent, Melanie Lin, found herself, too, in a heated conversation on WeChat after early-admissions decisions arrived last school year. She urged the other parents to stop bragging on the site about acceptance letters to top-tier schools: “If it’s only those students who are attending the big-name schools that are being congratulated, then the idea being passed on is that only those students are successful, and attending a big-name school is the only way to become the pride of your parents.”
Dr. Lin, who works at a pharmaceutical company, emigrated in the 1990s from Beijing to get a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Arizona State University. She says her rebuttal annoyed even close friends, whose online responses accused her of trying to deny parents and their children their moments in the spotlight.
Recounting the conversation with me brought Dr. Lin to tears. “There is just so much pressure,” she said. For her, the struggles are not theoretical. On the home front, she too can be just as obsessed as her peers, she says.
Her daughter, Emily, would agree. During junior year, she dreaded car rides and family dinners — any time, really, that she was alone with her parents — because conversations routinely veered back to college. Now a senior, Emily has eight A.P. and 13 honors classes under her belt. She is also a violinist, choral singer, competitive swimmer and class vice president.
For a chunk of her high school career, Emily was one of those who “isolated for academics,” working into the early morning hours on homework and waking up, sometimes before dawn, after only five or so hours of sleep. She skipped birthday parties and lunch to squeeze in more studying. “I was never doing anything for pure fun,” she said. “I put my head down and I was always running somewhere with some purpose.”
But as a member of a youth board for a teen counseling center in town, she realized that her study habits were unhealthy. To get support for herself and others, she helped launch the town’s Sources of Strength chapter. She has assisted in planning student outreach events and spoke up at a town meeting about “the dog-eat-dog” competition that still persists at the high school.
Homework remains heavy, students say, particularly in high-level classes. Class rankings may be gone but students have a pretty good sense of where they stand. And while there has been talk of a later start time to the day so students can get more sleep, the idea is on hold.
In December, when early decisions came in, Emily found out she was deferred to the regular admissions pool by Yale, her top choice. Parents on WeChat were more sensitive this time around, but accepted seniors still bragged on Facebook.
Since then, Emily has been admitted to nine universities; rejected by three, including Yale; and waitllisted by Harvard and the University of Chicago. She is deciding between Columbia and Duke.
Through it all, she has wondered if it’s worth it.
“I lost out on a lot of high school,” she had told me as she waited for college decisions. What she hopes is that students who come after her find some balance before their time at Lexington is up.
Sit still. It’s the mantra of every classroom.
But that is changing as evidence builds that taking brief activity breaks during the day helps children learn and be more attentive in class, and a growing number of programs designed to promote movement are being adopted in schools.
“We need to recognize that children are movement-based,” said Brian Gatens, the superintendent of schools in Emerson, N.J. “In schools, we sometimes are pushing against human nature in asking them to sit still and be quiet all the time.”
“We fall into this trap that if kids are at their desks with their heads down and are silent and writing, we think they are learning,” Mr. Gatens added. “But what we have found is that the active time used to energize your brain makes all those still moments better,” or more productive.
A 2013 report from the Institute of Medicine concluded that children who are more active “show greater attention, have faster cognitive processing speed and perform better on standardized academic tests than children who are less active.” And a study released in January by Lund University in Sweden shows that students, especially boys, who had daily physical education, did better in school.
“Daily physical activity is an opportunity for the average school to become a high-performing school,” said Jesper Fritz, a doctoral student at Lund University and physician at the Skane University Hospital in Malmo who was the study’s lead author.
“Activity helps the brain in so many ways,” said James F. Sallis, a professor of family medicine and public health at the University of California, San Diego, who has done research on the association between activity breaks and classroom behavior. “Activity stimulates more blood vessels in the brain to support more brain cells. And there is evidence that active kids do better on standardized tests and pay attention more in school.”
John Ratey, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the author of “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain,” said: “Movement activates all the brain cells kids are using to learn, it wakes up the brain.”
“Plus,” he added, “it makes kids want to come to school more — it’s fun to do these activities.”
But not all districts are embracing the trend of movement breaks.
“The bottom line is that with only six and a half hours during the day, our priority is academics,” said Tom Hernandez, the director of community relations for the Plainfield School District in Illinois, about 40 miles southwest of Chicago. He said that under state law, the schools provide daily physical education classes and that teachers in the district find ways to give students time during the day to refresh and recharge.
“Kids aren’t meant to sit still all day and take in information,” said Steve Boyle, one of the co-founders of the National Association of Physical Literacy, which aims to bring movement into schools. “Adults aren’t wired that way either.”
Mr. Boyle’s association has introduced a series of three- to five-minute videos called “BrainErgizers” that are being used in schools and Boys and Girls Clubs in 15 states and in Canada, Mexico, Ireland and Australia, he said. A version of the program is available to schools at no charge.
The program is designed so that three to five times a day, teachers can set aside a few minutes for their students to watch a video and follow the cues given by the instructors. In one typical video, the instructors are college students of all shapes and sizes at the University of Connecticut who do a quick warm-up and then lead kids through a mini workout involving movements from several sports: baseball, basketball and a triathlon. That’s followed by a cool-down.
“At the end of the week, kids have gotten an hour or more worth of movement, and it’s all done in the classroom with no special equipment,” Mr. Boyle said. “We’re not looking to replace gym classes, we’re aiming to give kids more minutes of movement per week. And by introducing sports into the videos, giving kids a chance to try sports they may not have ever tried before.”
Julie Goldstein, principal of the Breakthrough Magnet School in Hartford, Conn., said her school has been using BrainErgizers since the spring of 2015.
It’s easy for the teachers to implement, and “easy for the students to follow,” Mrs. Goldstein said. She said the program has “helped them focus and bring up their energy level in the classroom.”
Scott McQuigg, chief executive and a co-founder of GoNoodle, a classroom movement program used in more than 60,000 elementary schools in the United States credits Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative with helping to bring movement and the health of children into the public consciousness.
“We call this the Movement movement,” Mr. McQuigg said. “If we invest three to five minutes for our kids to move in the classroom, we are actually going to optimize the next 45 minutes for learning. That small investment in time has such a big yield for teachers.”
GoNoodle, which offers free and paid videos, aims to entertain kids while they are moving, Mr. McQuigg said. GoNoodle and other “brain break” videos can be found on the website for “Let’s Move! Active Schools,” part of Mrs. Obama’s “Let’s Move!” initiative.
“We have purposely not gone after this as an exercise program,” Mr. McQuigg said. “This is a digital generation that expects to be entertained, and we think we can do more good around getting them to move if they are entertained.”
For example, GoNoodle videos have kids running alongside their desks through a virtual obstacle course or following along with dance moves.
Joseph E. Donnelly, professor of medicine and director of the Center for Physical Activity and Weight Management at the University of Kansas Medical Center, said one of the good things about kids being more physically active in classrooms is that everyone is moving at the same time.
“In physical education classes, there is a lot of standing around, a lot of minutes of kids waiting to do an activity, and sometimes kids are only moving for about 15 minutes during a 50-minute class,” said Dr. Donnelly, who co-authored a statement on the effects of physical activity and academic achievement in children that was published last year by the American College of Sports Medicine. “If you do movement in class a few times a day, that can add up to at least an extra 60 minutes more of movement per week.”
Lindsay DiStefano, an associate professor in the department of kinesiology at the University of Connecticut, said the country is due for a major shift toward appreciating the benefits of physical activity in the classroom.
“In 1961, President Kennedy said school kids needed physical activity to thrive, but in the past 20 years, the pendulum has totally shifted the opposite way because schools are feeling the pressure to have students do well on standardized tests,” Ms. DiStefano said. “We are not thinking about the child as an entire person, how physical activity helps them cope with the stresses of school and actually benefits them in the classroom.”
Vol. 16 No. 2 1/24/17
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),
- 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.
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.
A 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.
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.”
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.
“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.
I believe technology is a wonderful thing. I rely heavily on it every day and it is one of my passions. I facilitate my school’s technology advisory committee and am involved with tech at a district level as well. I provide release time to teachers so that they can plan ways to integrate technology into their lessons in a meaningful way. My teachers know the fastest way to get ahold of me is by first text, second email and then a distant third my office landline. Every teacher has my cellphone number. I Google Hangout with the secretaries when they need to get ahold of me.
In my house of four we have ipads, a mini ipad, android, iphones, a Mac, PC, Chromebook, laptops and tech toys (some of them mine). I tweet, email, instagram, blog, text.
I share this with the intent of laying the foundation to those who choose to read this that I am a tech guy and support it greatly, but….another one of my passions is wellness. I have always been pretty good at taking care of my physical well being, but up until a couple of years ago did not pay a lot of attention to working out my mental health. Because I, like so many of us, are continually being bombarded with information through technology I have found it important to make a concerted effort to take time to let my brain rest. For a couple of years now I have been practising “mindfulness” in an attempt to be more in the present, be more productive, less reactive and be more focused on particular tasks when I am working on them. At work our school created a mindfulness group for teachers and another for students. We are introducing mindfulness to all of our students to help reduce anxiety.
Recently the teacher-librarian handed me a copy of The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere by Pico Iyer and I found the book really resonated with me. The book is small (it can be read in one sitting) and has (at least for the past week) helped me “slow down” and appreciate things more. A good portion of the book talks about technology and its impact on our society. It in no way “bashes” tech, but rather provides some interesting insights on how we can ensure we don’t become too consumed with always being “plugged in.” The book provides plenty of examples from Google and Intel on how tech leaders like this who are often “leading the charge” also recognize the importance of slowing things down. The book states that according to “interruption science” it takes 25 min to recover from something like a cell phone call and yet on average we are being interrupted every 11 minutes so we never fully recover unless we train ourselves to.
I certainly have a ways to go to strike the right balance (whatever that is), but lately I have been feeling calmer, more content, appreciative and more productive. So as I sit in a little coffee shop with my Chromebook and Android looking out the window on a nice fall day, I know that later, when I head out for a walk, I won’t be using that time to make phone calls, answer emails while I clumsily maneuver the sidewalks, think of work projects that I should be working on and instead I will (at least try) to appreciate my surroundings so that when I do return will be rested and more capable to tackle what may be left on my list of things to do.