Episode 1 of Point of View with Barry Boyce, Editor-in-Chief of Mindful Magazine, and Heather Hurlock, Senior Editor-Digital at Mindful.org, explores the debate surrounding mindfulness in public schools. Recently, the National Center for Law in Policy, a non-profit legal defense organization focussing on religious freedom and civil liberties, sent a legal notice to a Cape Cod School district asking them to end their mindfulness program because the center contends that the mindfulness program is based on Buddhist beliefs and violates the separation of church and state.
HH: Can you share your thoughts on what is happening in Cape Cod?
BB: The school board member who is opposing Calmer Choice being in the schools there, is a religious right Christian parenting author. And the organization, National Center for Law in Policy, is likewise a religious right organization. However, that doesn’t really matter. Whatever points they’re making to the extent that they are good and valid, aught to be taken into account. So, my general feeling about disputes is that, no matter who the person disputing is, we should always see if there’s a grain of truth to what they’re bringing up and whether it should lead to some incremental change. If in fact it turns out that maybe that accidentally some of the teachers in Calmer Choice, or some part of the curriculum might need to be adjusted somewhat to take greater care, great. I don’t know, I don’t have the information I’m not on the ground there.
They started Calmer Choice because of seeing how many school children were in crisis, including leading to suicides. So, Fiona Jensen who started Calmer Choice, was motivated by a real genuine concern for the well-being of students. This is a national epidemic, that stress in school is causing all kinds of problems. And Fiona is a tireless advocate for ways to help students deal with their attention and their emotions.
HH: The legal notice from NCLP seems to imply that mindfulness is potentially harmful to children. What do you think about that?
BB: There’s no evidence whatsoever, that mindfulness, properly taught in a developmentally appropriate way, would do any danger to school children. I’ve read the legal brief, it’s 24 pages long and it’s filled with assertions drawn from all sorts of places that have nothing to do at all with mindfulness, developmentally appropriate mindfulness practices for school children.
It talks about dangers that people going on improperly supervised Buddhist retreats might experience, but that has nothing at all to do with the effects that a developmentally appropriate mindfulness practice would have on a child.
HH: The legal notice also contends that mindfulness is acting as a gateway to Buddhism and a Buddhist worldview.
BB: There is a commonly accepted level of worldview, so to speak, that I think is acceptable in public school: that we should be kind to each other, that we’re here to pay attention and try to learn. You could call them a world view, but it’s basically what we’ve agreed upon about what should be going on in the classroom and how we should conduct ourselves. That’s why I don’t think teaching children to be kind, to have a practice that asks them to generate kindness, is a religious practice or even inculcating a big world view.
When you’re talking about the very simple practice of saying, “Okay, Jane. We’re going to take a couple minutes and we’re going to pay attention to your body and your breath.” That’s not very different from when I was taking Gym class and my coach asked me to focus on where my body is, it was often done a lot more aggressively, like “Boys, where are you? Where the hell are you?” And what he was trying to say was I wasn’t in my body at that moment. And if you are just giving that kind of instruction, that is not a religious ritual. And I think that will be proven over time as these kinds of questions come up. That just because it is used in Buddhism, doesn’t automatically make it a religious ritual.
HH: Are there best practices being developed for teaching mindfulness in Public schools?
BB: Definitely. One of the leading people doing this kind of work is Patricia Jennings, who is now at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. In the journal Mindfulness she recently published a commentary called: Mindfulness-Based Programs and the American Public School System: Recommendations for Best Practices to Ensure Secularity. So, key people in this field are very concerned that the skill of mindfulness is taught as a basic skill that we all have and that we can cultivate.
HH: How can mindfulness help children deal with the stress of school?
BB: I think what’s driven a lot of interest in having mindfulness in classrooms is to have a complete mind body in of education. Not just exercising students cognitive skills. But also to deal with their central nervous systems and their stress response and all sorts of phenomenon in our body and mind that effect our ability to pay attention to work together collaboratively with other people, to ride the waves of emotion that come over us during the day. This is what has driven the interest in mindfulness in schools. It’s long been recognized that you need to teach the whole student not just pour information into them.
I can’t just say in a blanket way that mindfulness in public schools is a good thing. I can only say that if mindfulness is taught appropriately, as a basic human skill that we all have, it’s a good thing in public schools.
For more on this topic, read our article Rainbows, Sunshine, and Unicorns: How Right-Wing Christians Are Attempting to Bring Down Mindfulness Programs in Our Public Schools.