Mindfulness in Education

Anxiety. Depression. Pain. Stress.  What if there was a way to improve mental health and well-being by chanting or thinking compassionate thoughts?  With deep breathing or meditation?  According to several new studies, there is. Mindfulness is making its move into the mainstream and increasingly, into the classroom as well. 

Educators across the country are embracing mindfulness as a way of taming high spirits and helping to address record levels of stress and anxiety in young people.

Based on Buddhist practices, mindfulness encourages participants “to experience what is happening in the present moment in thoughts, feelings and physical sensations,” says Elaine Smookler from the Centre for Mindfulness Studies in Toronto.  Through various techniques, such as deep breathing, chanting, meditation or yoga, participants can calm and focus their minds. 

She compares it to turning off auto-pilot.

At a time when, according to a survey from the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services, 90 per cent of students feel overwhelmed by everything they have to do, educators are looking for ways to deal with student stress.  Early studies have shown that mindfulness can decrease anxiety and alleviate depression, and some schools are adding meditation breaks into the class schedule alongside recess and story time.

The concept of mindfulness was popularized in the West by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a now-retired professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.  He recognized the clinical and psychological benefits of the popular Buddhist philosophy and pioneered mindfulness’ moves into the field of medicine.

Mindfulness is really about a “growing ability to deal with negative emotions and thoughts,” explains Peter Black, of Mindful Meditation Ottawa.  He teaches a mindfulness based stress-reduction course designed by Kabat-Zinn.

Mindful practices may also have medical merit. A study by the University of California Berkeley in 2012 found that mindfulness helps to increase memory capacity and reduce mind-wandering. 

The Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology examined 39 studies in 2010 on the effect of mindfulness on anxiety.  The analysis found that mindfulness-based therapies helped to reduce anxiety in almost all of the 1,140 participants.

An article released by The Journal of the American Medical Association this year reaffirmed that mindfulness practices like meditation can reduce feelings of depression, anxiety and even pain.

With all of the benefits to mental health and general well-being why not bring mindfulness into the classroom to help young children and students avoid stress and anxiety later on in life?

Former teacher Melanie Viglas sees mindfulness as the answer. 

Viglas used to teach kindergarten at Tumpane Public School in North York, ON.  Now she is conducting research at the Atkinson Centre, a department of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in Toronto.  As part of her research, she goes into Toronto schools and shows educators how to implement mindful practices in their classrooms. As a former teacher, Viglas has an insight into what works and what doesn’t.

Students in Viglas’ class regularly participated in mindful activities. For example, they would quietly focus on the sound of a bell until it faded away, or place a hand on their bellies to feel every breath.

“Because they are so young, they didn’t have any preconceived notions about it and they weren’t coming in with any of the judgement or close-mindedness that adults do,” Viglas says.

Her students started to make more thoughtful choices, like catching themselves before throwing a tantrum, she recalls.  They used compassionate meditation to “cultivate that idea of shared humanity,” which helped the students get along much better. 

The idea is catching on.

The Toronto Public School Board announced a new four year plan to improve mental health and well-being for students in January. As part of the plan, 100 per cent of staff will receive training in mental health awareness and all schools will be required to set up “Mental Health Teams” to account for the well-being of all students.

For some schools, like Rosedale Heights School of the Arts, this means incorporating mindfulness-based initiatives into everyday school life.

Last fall, 12 teachers and principal Barrie Sketchley received their eight weeks of training in mindfulness practices.  Some teachers use mindfulness activities in their own classrooms now, and the school hopes to bring the program to all of the incoming grade nines next fall. 

Until then, students and teachers can participate in weekly yoga and meditation sessions.

“What we are trying to do is build resilience, give kids the skills to deal with the normal tensions, anxieties, stress that come into everybody’s lives,” says Sketchley.

As students get older, stress levels tends to increase. Mental health is a huge issue for college and university students, according to the executive report for Canadian Student Health Data of 2013 from CACUSS.

Almost half the 30,000 participants in the study reported crippling anxiety during the year and more than a third said they were too depressed to do anything at all.

“People with depression or anxiety are stuck in the past or the future but they are rarely in the present moment,” says Dr. Francois Rousseau, an Ottawa psychologist. “What we try to do in mindfulness is bring the attention back to what is happening right now, this very second.”

This concept is being explored by a new study group with the Paul Menton Centre at Carleton University in Ottawa.  The PMC is responsible for coordinating the accommodation of students with disabilities. 

Sonia Tanguay, co-chair of Mindfulness Ottawa and the disabilities coordinator for the PMC at Carleton heads the project, which is offered to students who have a C+ grade average or lower.  Over six weeks, a group of 16 students will explore various mindfulness practices to find the one that works best for them.

The goal is for the students to find, “how they are experiencing their stress and how they can respond more effectively,” Tanguay says.

Meanwhile, Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., is launching a new masters degree in Contemplative Inquiry and Approaches in Education next fall. 

The program aims “to foster contemplative capacity in students.  This includes mindful awareness, communication, the ethics of compassion, wisdom, creativity, these kinds of things,” says Heeson Bai, one of the professors in the program, adding that mindfulness is a response to, “a world that is going crazy.”

In a world gone crazy, preparing students for an anxiety free future is becoming more and more important to educators and mental health experts alike.

“You are going to have thousands of thoughts every day for the rest of your life,” according to Dr. Rousseau. “Some of these thoughts are going to be positive, some of these thoughts are going to be neutral and some of these thoughts could be really negative and could be destructive if you buy into them.”

As mindfulness makes it way into the mainstream, Elaine Smookler says that if people can approach it with openness, a willingness to try and time to practise then they can accomplish anything. 

“When we come out of automatic pilot, suddenly the world becomes much more sharp and colourful,” she says.

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