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Could mindfulness help Michigan's kids escape poverty?

Oct 13, 2015

Credit Papermoons / Flickr Creative Commons

Yesterday on The Next Idea, experts joined Cynthia Canty to talk about implementing mindfulness practice in schools. Mindfulness has been known to help both students and teachers deal with stress in the classroom.

In case you missed the show or need a refresher, “mindfulness is a quality of awareness that involves paying attention in the present moment to what’s happening, with a sense of kindness to yourself and acceptance,” explains Rita Benn, co-founder of the Michigan Collaborative for Mindfulness in Education.

When people think about mindfulness, the first thing that usually comes to mind is meditation. But you don't need to cross your legs and hum "om" to be mindful. You can practice mindfulness while walking, eating, breathing – almost anything, really. 

It just involves slowing down and being aware of what's going on around you. 

The use of mindfulness in the classroom has improved test scores, cut down on school suspensions, and led to a better learning atmosphere for kids. 

But that's not all. There is loads of research out there that says mindfulness can make a huge difference for low-income students and students who have experienced trauma – two things that often go hand in hand

KQED's MindShift program explored the benefits of mindfulness on low-income schools last year: 
 

“When we look at low-performing schools it’s not that these children are unable to learn, it’s that very often they are unavailable to learn,” said Madeline Kronenberg, a West Contra Costa County school board member. “They’re not able to focus; they’re so fixated on other things that are going on in their lives that it’s difficult for them to be able to find space for learning. Our job is to educate these kids and the way you educate them is that they need to be available to learn.”

That's where mindfulness comes in: 

Studies of mindfulness programs in schools have found that regular practice — even just a few minutes per day — improves student self-control and increases their classroom participation, respect for others, happiness, optimism, and self-acceptance levels. It can help reduce absenteeism and suspensions too. A mindfulness practice helps reduce activity in the amygdala, the brain’s emotional center responsible for fear and stress reactions.

Another common form of mindfulness is practicing yoga. One low-income community in California tried giving kids yoga mats to help them relax and focus: 

Yoga provides the same relief for these kids as it does for the millions of others who practice it: stress relief, an improved state of mind and better physical health. 

“What we’re trying to do is give an opportunity to that child to release stress with some vigorous movements and then do some deep breathing to relax, calm themselves and reboot their whole system, and then come into their math class with a fresh perspective,” says Russell Case, the foundation’s program manager for the Ravenswood schools.

Yoga may not be for everyone, but mindfulness might be easier to sell. Mindfulness has also been known to breed resilience, a protective factor for kids trying to escape poverty and the aftermath of trauma. 

The very best part? Practicing mindfulness is completely, 100% free. 

You can hear yesterday's show here – it's definitely worth your time. If you know of any schools interested in or practicing mindfulness in the classroom, drop us a line in the comment section below or at brittany@michiganradio.org. Thanks!