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Here's why an elementary school traded harsh discipline for mindful meditation

Aug 16, 2016

Have you ever found yourself in a stressful or overwhelming situation where you had to tell yourself to stop and breathe?

If so, you've practiced mindfulness and may not have even known it.

Rita Benn is co-founder of the Michigan Collaborative for Mindfulness in Education. She explained to Michigan Radio's The Next Idea:

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.

While mindfulness can involve techniques like meditation, it can really be practiced anytime. It just involves slowing down and being aware of what's going on around you.

In recent years, more has become known about the benefits of mindfulness, including disease and pain management and control of emotions.

And the use of mindfulness in the classroom has improved test scorescut down on school suspensions, and led to a better learning atmosphere for kids, especially for low-income students and students who have experienced trauma – two things that often go hand in hand

At Robert W. Coleman Elementary School in West Baltimore, Maryland, when kids misbehave they are sent to the Mindful Moment Room, rather than the principal's office. According to KidsSafetyNetwork.com:

When a student is referred to the Mindful Moment Room, he goes through breathing and centering exercises with a staff member, discusses his feelings and emotions surrounding the incident, and works with the staff to figure out what mindfulness technique he could use next time a similar situation arises.

It's part of the Mindful Moment program run by the Holistic Life Foundation, a Baltimore-based nonprofit organization.

The school day at Coleman starts with a breathing exercise over the PA system and ends with an afterschool program where students can learn yoga. The mindfulness method seems to be working. In the 2013-2014 school year, the school had zero suspensions, according to Oprah.com.

In Baltimore, 84 percent of students are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-priced school lunches. Almost a quarter of Baltimore residents live below the poverty line. It was also the epicenter of riots that followed Freddy Gray's death in police custody last year.

These types of experiences can affect all aspects of a child's life. According to The Baltimore Sun:

Studies have piled up showing that in the tangle of tough, intractable issues like poverty and drug addiction, exposure to violence is a major factor damaging children's health. The stress that fills their little bodies breeds anxiety and depression, making it hard for them to concentrate in school. In fact, research has found that such experiences hurt the development of crucial areas of their brains — those involving attention, memory and behavior control. In the worst cases, children walk around with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder no different from those plaguing soldiers who have fought on the front lines.

I've told you before how children who grow up in poverty experience a significant number of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), that can range from physical, emotional, or sexual abuse to having parents who are divorced or incarcerated. All of which can lead to misbehavior in the classroom. According to The Baltimore Sun:

The stakes are high for Baltimore and Maryland — and their taxpayers. If these children are not helped, they are more likely to turn to violence themselves or need government-funded mental health services. Research shows that they're also more likely to struggle to maintain jobs and be productive members of society.

Mounting research shows harsh punishments like suspensions and expulsions don't prevent future misbehavior, they only make it worse - particularly for kids in poverty. So if alternative methods like mindfulness show results, I think it's worth a shot.

You can watch a video about the Holistic Me Afterschool Program at Robert W. Coleman Elementary School below:

What do you think of the idea of mindfulness as an alternative to punishment?