on Education

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Including both students & teachers

Social and emotional learning (SEL) involves the development of the fundamental skills required to understand and manage oneself, and one’s relationships. Supported by research and theory in a variety of fields including education, positive and developmental psychology, cognitive behavioral theory, systems theory, and neuroscience, the SEL framework can be viewed as a comprehensive element of school improvement (see CASEL for more information).

Today, a complementary movement is emerging within mainstream education that may support SEL implementation by reinforcing social and emotional competencies in both students and teachers. Growing numbers of educators are exploring the use of contemplative or mindfulness-based approaches to teaching and learning to reduce teacher and student stress, enhance classroom climate, and to cultivate students’ ability to calm their bodies and minds, open their hearts and focus their attention.

Drawing upon new research in neuroscience, cognitive science, and developmental science and practices from contemplative traditions, teachers are experimenting with the “value added” of bringing a more mindful and caring approach to the classroom—one that values and promotes inquiry, reflection and present moment awareness, and harmonious relationships with others.

Many of our automatic reactions arise from past emotionally difficult experiences. These patterns of emotional reactivity tend to be habitual and unconscious. When we take time to experience these thoughts and feelings with a present-centered, non-judgmental attitude, we begin to see these patterns for what they are and they naturally subside, rather than drive us to react in ways we may later regret.

There is evidence that suggests that regular mindful awareness practice changes how our body and brain respond to stress, possibly strengthening connections in the prefrontal cortex and reducing reactivity in our limbic system, supporting self-reflection and self-regulation. These functions play a critical role in education. To learn, a student must engage her prefrontal cortex to focus and monitor her attention and to inhibit impulsive tendencies towards distraction.

Today many children come to school with nervous systems unprepared to learn. Our modern lifestyle with huge doses of real and/or imaginary violence, constant media exposure, general busyness, and high pressure triggers the fight-flight-freeze response setting the stage for a mind that has difficult learning. We now know that exposure to situations that trigger emotional reactivity during development, changes the way our brain and body respond to future stressors. It’s like a thermostat that’s been turned up to high.

When our limbic system is hyperreactive, it’s difficult to engage the prefrontal cortex and therefore difficult to absorb and process new information. We now know that neuroplasticity allows us to make profound changes in the way our bodies and minds function at any age, but especially during development. Helping students learn to calm their bodies and minds through the use of developmentally appropriate mindful awareness practices skillfully integrated into the curriculum may play a key role in educational reform today.

Mindful awareness can be experienced during practice but can also be cultivated during activities of daily life. Interpersonal mindfulness involves applying mindful awareness to our interactions with others and plays an important role in educational settings. The practice of living mindfully involves keeping one’s mind open to possibilities and maintaining the recognition that the level of our awareness at any given moment is mediated by our thoughts, emotions, and past experiences. This meta-awareness helps us to live in a way that is more reflective and accepting of diverse views of others so critical to our ability to flourish today’s world of growing global integration and communication.

At the Garrison Institute, we are working to build an evidence base to support the integration of mindfulness-based and contemplative approaches to improving teaching and learning. Garrison Institute will host a public symposium, “Advancing the Science and Practice of Contemplative Education" on Nov. 4-6, 2011. The purpose of the meeting is to promote the science, practice, implementation and dissemination of contemplative education in K-12 schools.  

posted by Tish Jennings, 9:38 am