We all know depressing stories of children leading a life of overwhelm. It is so unfortunate, and yet each of us sees it in our daily lives. With seemingly constant increases in school and social pressures, as well as the ever-quickening pace of life and access to a steady stimulus of information, children in our society are drowning in distraction, judgment, temptation and a culture unconditioned to reflection or detachment. Some are still thriving, thankfully, and yet, incidences of anxiety, depression, and stress are going up in too many young people.
Mindfulness, thankfully, provides some reprieve. I would call it an antidote.
As a licensed special educator and school administrator, it always seemed obvious to me to personalize a heartfelt education for each of my students. We see better results when we “educate the whole child”, when we foster connection and build relationships. The research is in - character has more to do with long term overall success than IQ or academic marks. A child’s ability to regulate their brains and bodies is the foundation to any true character or academic achievement. If a child’s brain is unable to function in a regulated way, skills such as communication, rationalization, and impulse control are much more difficult to achieve.
I began training with Mindful Schools in 2012 and began implementing mindfulness as an educator and school administrator in 2014. Mindful Schools is a non profit research backed program leading the way in training educators (through certification programs and trainings) to integrate mindfulness into schools and classrooms around the country. Currently, I am enrolled in their advanced mindfulness training Year-Long Certification course which will qualify me through Mindful Schools to be a leader in the facilitation and consultation of mindfulness as it applies to education. Through the course, participants deepen personal practice with two week-long retreats within a year, weekly webinars with experts with direct feedback on mindfulness implementation, book studies, a practicum, weekly teachings on various topics related to the mindfulness of emotions, thoughts, and sensory experiences, as well as copious amounts of scientifically-backed research.
The movement to bring mindfulness into schools emerged in the last decade after years of research had shown the mental health benefits of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). MBSR was shown to improve quality of life and increase resiliency to stress, just by employing the body’s natural ability to practice an active awareness of thoughts, emotions, and sensations. Mindful Schools became a leader in the implementation of mindfulness into schools, using similar foundations to MBSR techniques, establishing that benefits could also be seen in young people even with brief, though frequent, moments of mindful awareness. Mindfulness skills, such as focusing on the breath and allowing thoughts to pass, or practicing heartfelt acceptance of the current experience and without judgement, are taught in short lessons and practice is encouraged in the classroom, right alongside all of the other material that teachers cover. Think about it: mindfulness has long been shown to work in clinical settings, more students are increasingly experiencing clinical symptoms, so where better to address this on a wide-scale than in the classrooms where children spend so much of their time?
When I am in a classroom as a mindfulness instructor, be it a residential treatment or a public school setting, teaching mindfulness is the act of “inserting the pause.” Students receive direct instruction in breathing techniques, brain science, and mindful awareness. We practice concepts of sensory, somatic, and emotional awareness as well as sharp mental awareness of our thoughts. When we are in a moment of mindfulness, through calm and close observation, we are able to observe our thoughts, emotions, information from our bodies, and information from the outside world, all in an effort to simply observe what is. In that space, there is nothing else to do. When we observe closely, we create a pause in the momentum of the pace of things in order to bring us into a deeper experience of life itself. When we breathe, we literally regulate our brains.
When we practice regularly, we build our capacity to develop automaticity toward pausing, even when the stimulus is strong, and when we pause, we discover that we have the opportunity to make an empowering choice. In this pause, there is also an opportunity for self-acceptance that many of my students are unfortunately lacking. When students or adults first attempt mindfulness, they can be flooded with all of the information about the thoughts, emotions, or sensations that they have attempted to subdue for some time in order to avoid discomfort. We bring support, compassion for our process, and an attitude of non-judgement to our awareness. It is a gentle and understanding process. There is commonly resistance or potentially an expectation that mindfulness be a quick fix. Mindfulness is actually the opposite of the quick fix, and that’s okay as we learn to live with the natural ebbs and flows of daily life. We are trying to rewire the brain with new habits and experiences that ultimately create a greater opportunity for a fulfilling life. In my classroom setting, we create a space for cultivating this process, accepting the challenges inherent to it, and then coming back to work on it some more. Mindfulness is noticing what is, practicing acceptance of what arises, bit by bit, and in a regular practice.
The world is a more stimulating place than ever before in our history. We have more information at our fingertips, and learning skills to deal with this magnitude of stimulation is incredibly important. I see this pressure and subsequent need in my students, as a parent, and in my own life. And all the time, the thing I know to do about it is to teach young people how to insert their own pause. When they learn this, they learn the power of regulation, impulse control, somatic awareness, and stress reduction. And as an educator, I couldn’t think of skills I would rather teach.
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About the author:
Sarah Shoemaker, M.Ed. has spent her career as an educator and school administrator in academic non-profit, public, and residential treatment settings. Sarah earned a post-Master’s certificate in School Administration from Western Carolina University (NC) after first earning a Master’s degree in Special Education from Temple University (PA). Currently, she is completing the Mindful Schools Year-Long Certification Program for educators. Throughout various settings, she’s maintained focus and curiosity as to how social and emotional concerns impact students’ academic success as well as how to support the whole child: body, mind, and spirit. Sarah is currently Academic Director at Black Mountain Academy (NC), a residential treatment model for innovative clinical and academic practices for students on the Autism Spectrum Disorder.