“Our kids are going to be facing challenges that we really can’t even imagine today,” Tish Jennings noted a few years ago at an annual mindfulness research conferenced called the Bridging the Hearts & Minds of Youth conference. She continues to track those challenges today. Jennings is associate professor at the University of Virginia Curry School of Education, and her acclaimed research explores how teacher stress affects the classroom environment and student learning. She is author of Mindfulness for Teachers: Simple Skills for Peace and Productivity in the Classroom. During her talk back in 2013, Jennings mentioned that before mindfulness could be brought into education over the long term, a few things need to happen first.
1. Recognize the situation that exists in public education today.
It’s a conservative system, says Jennings, where positive initiatives and good ideas circulate and then seem to peter out before they’re realized. Add to that the “political winds” changing the discussion around what parents and teachers ought to be concerned about. Any mindful initiative will have to navigate these waters and be respectful of the rules, such as the overarching rule that teachers become in locos parentis, or, in the place of a parent, during school hours. “We can’t come in and teach mindfulness to kids in schools without being extremely careful and respectful of the school’s responsibilities,” says Jennings. For instance, one elementary school in Ohio shut down its mindfulness program after parents expressed concern about introducing a practice with religious connotations into the school day.
2. Build a strong evidence base.
When it comes to making the case for bringing mindfulness into education, personal experience and anecdotal information about the benefits aren’t going to cut it.
“We really need to know what we’re talking about. We really need to have hard science in front of us,” says Jennings, “We can’t just come in with good ideas and good will. It’s not good enough.”
While we may glean obvious benefits from our own mindfulness practices, that may not be enough to justify a full-fledged educational intiative. The justification needs to come mindfulness studies being conducted in educational settings, not just our personal understanding of how beneficial mindfulness can be.
“Our own beliefs may or may not—and our personal experiences—are not really adequate to make the case for [a] mindfulness based approach in education,” says Jennings.
3. Understand developmentally appropriate practices.
Determining appropriate practices for different age groups has received little attention thus far, says Jennings. There needs to be more research around developmentally appropriate practices instead of assuming what’s practiced by adults will work for children, too.
“There’s a lot of people with anecdotal experience, but we have no scientific basis for a lot of the things we’re doing today,” says Jennings.
More research efforts need to focus on answering the question of age-appropriate techniques.
4. Integrate mindfulness into the existing curriculum.
“It’s really tough to add something to the curriculum” because there is plenty of work that teachers are doing already, says Jennings. But if these programs are going to be successful, they can’t just be offered as add-ons by third parties, which is how a lot of these programs are offered today.
“A lot of the mindfulness programs that are out there today are kind of add-ons that are delivered by outsiders,” says Jennings. “That’s all well and good for now, but I don’t think it’s sustainable in the long term, and in that sense we really need to engage teachers and parents.”
5. Engage teachers and parents.
The best way to teach is it to practice it yourself. “That’s how children will learn best,” says Jennings. While teachers will have to do the heavy lifting of integrating mindfulness into subject areas, parents can work on being mindful role models for their children.
Read more about how mindfulness is helping children and teachers, in and outside the classroom in the October 2015 issue of Mindful magazine.
Below is a four-minute clip and transcript from the 2013 Bridging the Hearts and Minds of Youth conference, where Jennings talks about the challenges ahead for introducing mindfulness in educational settings.
Our kids are going to be facing challenges that we really can’t even imagine today. Teaching them skills to be mindful is critical for preparing them for the future. So, I want to spend a few minutes talking about the challenges ahead. I think some of the most important things we need to think about is the challenges of the educational system. How many people here are teachers? Alright, it’s a big group! So, you guys alright know this but the education system in American today is very conservative and it’s really difficult to change. Just think about how many initiatives have come through, trying to make major changes in education and have been unsuccessful. I’ve been working in the field of education since 1980 and I’ve seen—and anybody else who’s been involved that long—you see this pendulum swinging back and forth, somebody has a great idea and it swings back again. And it’s also at the mercy of political winds, as we see all the time. However, it’s really important to know that when a parent brings a child to school, the school becomes what we call in loco parentis, which means that the school takes responsibility for playing the role of the parent, or, in the replacement of that parent. So the school must respect the cultural sensitivities of the families it serves and we can’t come in and teach mindfulness to kids in schools without being extremely careful and respectful of the school’s responsibilities. I think that’s number one.
Number two, we really need to know what we’re talking about. We really need to have hard science in front of us. We can’t just come in with good ideas and good will. It’s not good enough. We need the hard science. We also must be self critical and really recognize that our own beliefs may or may not—and our personal experiences—are not really adequate to make the case for mindfulness based approach in education, we really need the hard science.
We need to develop a better understand of what activities are developmentally appropriate at any particular age. Right now, this is an area where we know very little, if anything at all. There’s a lot of people with anecdotal experience, but we have no scientific basis for a lot of the things we’re doing today. So this is another area that’s very important to be focusing some research on because the way we practice mindfulness as adults may or may not be appropriate for introducing children to different practices.
The other thing we need to do is we need to find ways to weave mindfulness into teaching existing curriculum, because, as those of you who are teachers here, there’s plenty of work that teachers are doing already and to add something to the curriculum is really—I see a lot of heads nodding—it’s really tough to add something to the curriculum. So finding ways to bring mindfulness into the curriculum, teach in a mindful way, is, I think, really important. A lot of the mindfulness programs that are out there today are kind of add-ons that are delivered by outsiders and that’s all well and good for now but I don’t think it’s sustainable in the long term, and in that sense we really need to engage teachers and parents.
They need to be exposed to mindfulness not only so they can teach mindfulness, but so they can teach and parent mindfully. I think that’s really critical. Teachers are the ones that will need to do the heavy lifting of integrating mindfulness into subject areas. That’s a very complex process that really teachers are the ones that need to do that. Furthermore, I would argue that the best way to teach children mindfulness, or to be mindful, is to demonstrate mindfulness ourselves, by modelling it. That’s how children will learn it the best.