Teaching mindfulness and meditation in elementary schools

By Christopher Sun, Writer, British Columbia School Trustees Association

One of Angela Lawrence’s clients is an anxious, self-critical teenage girl who manages anxiety by getting high and getting reassurance about herself from her boyfriend.

For Lawrence, a drug and alcohol counsellor at school district 73 in Kamloops, seeing teens relieve stress and anxiety byway of lashing out or through self-medication is unfortunately common. Even students coming from healthy backgrounds, who are not abusing drugs or alcohol, are ill-equipped in dealing with the pressures that come with school and life, sometimes causing panic attacks. To combat it, Lawrence teaches students to practise a rather simple technique called mindfulness, and it seems to work.

“It’s the number one tool I use,” Lawrence said. “It’s the first thing I go to.”

Mindfulness is a practice of being aware of the moment and meditating, with an emphasis on breathing and calming one’s self down before tackling something that could cause anxiety and stress, such as taking an exam or competing in a sporting event. The practice is rooted in Eastern philosophy, notably Buddhism, but is taught and practised in the school district in a purely secular way.

“We keep Buddhism out of it. We don’t ever enter into it,” Lawrence said, adding she is also aware of the skepticism surrounding it.

“It may sound flakey and hokey, but there is more than 30 years of science behind it.”

Mindfulness has been on the radar of psychologists and psychiatrists since the 1970s, due to American doctor John Kabat-Zinn’s interest in meditation. Recent studies out of UBC, Harvard Medical School and University of Massachusetts have confirmed that mindfulness can reduce stress, anxiety and panic attacks, along with treating addictions and eating disorders. In the early 2000s, a mindfulness program called MindUP was conceived in Vancouver by Hollywood actress Goldie Hawn, while she was temporarily living in the city with her family. Hawn’s interest in Buddhism, research into producing a documentary about happiness, and the shock of 9/11 allowed her to meet various neuroscientists, psychologists and educators which lead to the founding of her Hawn Foundation and developing this social and emotional learning program. The 15-lesson “MindUP” curriculum is being used in schools throughout Canada, United States, United Kingdom, China, Serbia, Australia and Venezuela.

The research out of UBC on both mindfulness and MindUP has proven it works and has been used in Vancouver school for more than a decade.

In September, the Kamloops-Thompson school district started piloting MindUP at Summit Elementary, where many teachers were already teaching mindfulness in their classrooms. School and family consultant Tyler Van Beers said there was a tangible increase in focus, impulse control and academic performance in classrooms where mindfulness was being practised.

“Mindfulness is very critical to academic performance,” Van Beers said. “It’s a missing piece in the education of social and emotional learning.”

Part of the curriculum requires students at Summit to take a brain break three times a day which involves asking everyone to get into their mindful body. This require students to sit up straight and close their eyes as a chime is rung, either by the teacher or a fellow student. Students are then instructed to listen to the sound of the chime, to be in the present and pay attention to their breathing.

“After a minute or two of listening to the chime and concentrating on their breathing, they are thanked for being mindful,” Van Beers said, adding brain breaks are meant to calm nerves by regulating emotion and tension.

“It helps them be ready for learning.”

The way mindfulness is being taught at Summit also teaches students about how the brain works. Students are shown which parts of the brain responds to various emotions such as stress, anxiety, happiness and memory.

“One favourite lesson is where students act like scientists and are given a scent like cinnamon,” Van Beers explained. “They notice it, smell it and then they have to describe what it is using descriptive words and what it reminds them of. The memory of what cinnamon smells like and what it reminds them of is connected to the hippocampus and we teach them that.”

Implementing social and emotional programs does have a cost and the MindUP curriculum, which is trademarked by the Hawn Foundation, is costing school district 73 about $4,000 to use at the one school. Lawrence said this is no different than paying to implement other programs such as the Drug Abuse Resistance Education, known as DARE. She also said the price tag shouldn’t scare others from teaching mindfulness.

“It doesn’t have to cost anything at all,” Lawrence said, adding it costs nothing to implement brain breaks and literature on the topic can be found online and in books. “What we are trying is more than the proprietary part of MindUP.”

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