Four-year-old Faith already believes in the power of breathing to help her do her best learning. “I was trying to match some letters and I got really frustrated,” says Faith. “And I needed to take a deep breath and I almost got it. I almost got it by myself and I felt just a little happy.”
Faith knows that the simple act of breathing can help her focus to complete the task at hand. She attends the Momentous School, a program of the Momentous Institute, a 97-year-old organization devoted to the social emotional health of kids and families. The school has been tracking kids’ progress for almost 20 years and have accumulated significant data showing the positive effects of incorporating mindfulness into education. Faith and her classmates are learning essential skills that research shows may give children lifelong protection against one of the most serious and quickly growing threats to child well-being in America today: toxic stress.
How toxic stress impedes healthy development in kids
Toxic stress is a prolonged activation of the stress response – without the buffer of safe relationships. It, along with “adverse childhood experiences” (ACES) – such as, poverty, abuse, domestic violence and more – is on the rise. Dr. Robert Block, former president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, feels that ACES “are the single greatest unaddressed public health threat facing our nation today.”
A growing body of science, including the work of Harvard University’s Center for the Developing Child, has found that toxic stress can impede healthy development, literally changing children’s brains and affecting their capacity to absorb even the best instruction.
A growing body of science, including the work of Harvard University’s Center for the Developing Child, has found that toxic stress can impede healthy development, literally changing children’s brains and affecting their capacity to absorb even the best instruction. Mindfulness is a much-needed life preserver in this otherwise troubling picture.
While childhood trauma is sadly nothing new, science now better understands its impact on brain function. During stressful experiences, the amygdala essentially hijacks the pre-frontal cortex impeding its ability to come online. In other words, the part of our brain responsible for the fight, flight or freeze response takes over and blocks the part of our brain which processes complex thoughts, anticipates consequences and inhibits behavior.
To state the obvious, we must intervene upstream to prevent ACES in the first place. In fact, a recent study examining the long-term cost savings of social emotional health programs in elementary schools estimated a benefit-to-cost ratio of 11:1, meaning every dollar invested in the programs had an average return of $11 in benefits.
Mindfulness can help kids manage their internal worlds
Moving stress from toxic to tolerable involves increasing the number of protective relationships in children’s lives and helping them learn how to regulate their nervous system, which is where mindfulness comes in. This skill allows children to manage their internal world regardless of what comes at them externally, which is a concept that even young children like Faith can understand.
At Momentous Institute, we use the analogy of a glitter ball or snow globe to convey the concept, explaining that the brain under stress is like a shaken snow globe—with the glitter swirling, they cannot see clearly. Breathing and other mindfulness techniques, which the children practice several times each day, help them “settle their glitter” so they can do their best thinking. We teach them that mindfulness and social emotional health can help them understand and manage their feelings, reactions and relationships. As Susan Kaiser Greenland illustrates in her books, The Mindful Child and Mindful Games, mindfulness practices can be right-sized for kids as young as Faith.
How mindfulness translates into improved academics
Science tells us why this works. Research shows mindfulness shrinks the amygdala and thickens the pre-frontal cortex. According to Dr. Richie Davidson, mindfulness strengthens connectivity between areas of the brain that support attention and concentration, thus weakening the amygdala’s capacity to hijack the thinking parts of the brain.
With this understanding, it is easy to see how mindfulness and self-regulation can translate into improved academics. This is true for all kids, but especially important for our most vulnerable kids coping with multiple ACES.
In kindergarten, those in the mindfulness group scored higher on a standardized vocabulary/literacy assessment than those in the control group.
There is a scarcity of large-scale research confirming mindfulness improves children’s life trajectories. However, there is a robust body of evidence about the benefits of mindfulness for adults. We hope it is only a matter of time before a large body of research about the impact of mindfulness on children becomes available.
Momentous Institute published one of two existing studies examining the impact of mindfulness practices on prekindergarten students’ self-regulation and academic performance. This study indicated that prekindergarten students who received a yearlong mindfulness curriculum showed greater improvements in their working memory and capacity to plan and organize than students in a control group. In kindergarten, those in the mindfulness group scored higher on a standardized vocabulary/literacy assessment than those in the control group.
Other research at Momentous School has shown that after three years of participating in mindfulness practices, 5th grade students’ levels of empathy predicted their scores on standardized reading and math assessments. This tells us that Faith was right when she said breathing helped her figure out her letters. Mindfulness does not just help her feel better or calm down; it increases her capacity for academic performance.
Mindfulness for kids is not one-size fits all
Without question, there are no silver bullets when dealing with complex topics like education and trauma. Mindfulness can only thrive in schools where positive climate is a priority. In addition, mindfulness can never be reduced to a curriculum. This work only takes root in a sustainable way if the system adopts a commitment to consistent practice and the well-being of all involved—children and adults alike.
The systemic issues behind the rising stress levels – poverty, racism, sexism, violence and inequity—must be attended to with courage and conviction.
Embedding mindfulness in education is one important step. That alone, however, will never be sufficient in addressing toxic stress and ACES. The systemic issues behind the rising stress levels – poverty, racism, sexism, violence and inequity—must be attended to with courage and conviction.
By prioritizing these systemic shifts along with a true integration of mindfulness, we can provide children a sense of control and the opportunity to achieve their full potential. We believe the same breathing that helped Faith learn the alphabet can spell long-term thriving for our children and our society.