Mindfulness in Schools: Teaching mental and emotional health

As twitter followers (@gkuriloff) know, I have been taking a mindfulness class at the Penn Center for Mindfulness with Dr. Michael Baime.

This work has been powerful and instrumental for me as I have slowly learned to be more present in my own life and to attend to the hear and now for what it is and not what I want or don’t want it to be. Dr. Baime talks about inserting mindfulness, awareness, and choice in between the events in our lives and our responses to those events.

Jon Kabat-Zinn (1990), an early proponent and teacher of mindfulness and author of Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness, defines mindfulness as “…the complete ‘owning’ of each moment of your experience, good, bad, or ugly.”

More recently a group of mental health health experts from a variety of institutions in the U.S. and Canada worked together to operationalize this definition.  They write:

We propose a two-component model of mindfulness.  The first component involves the self-regulation of attention so that it is maintained on immediate experience, thereby allowing for increased recognition of mental events in the present moment.  The second component involves adopting a particular orientation toward one’s experiences in the present moment, an orientation that is characterized by curiosity, openness and acceptance.

I have been thinking a lot about the implications of mindfulness for schooling. There are numerous examples of moments in schools where, in fact, we teach the exact opposite of mindfulness. In most city schools serving poor people, mostly poor people of color, I have worked in, we rush students from moment to moment, squeezing out every last instant of time so that there is not a free moment.

We dread the possibility that students might be find themselves with free time. If passing time is five minutes, we invest our energy in trying to cut it down to three. We start each class with a “Do Now” or “Warm-up activity” because we apparently want students to rush in from the hallway and rush immediately into their work.

This mode of behavior–rushing from one thing to the next without mental and emotional transition–may be common in American society, but it is not healthy. As Dr. Baime and Dr. Kabat-Zinn and many others point out, in all of our rushing about, we teach ourselves to rarely actually live in the present moment. Is it any wonder that we and our students are easily turned to anger, rage, frustration, depression and fear? We are rarely prepared to focus on the present moment and so we are rarely able to assert conscious choice in between the events that happen to us (like say being yelled at by your teacher to sit down) and our responses to those events (telling the teacher to go to hell).

Mindfulness is a core value of the REAL School design and an important element of our planning for physical and emotional health because we want students to make purposeful, thoughtful decisions about their actions. We don’t want students to live in the future, always rushing on to what’s next. We want students to slow down, to think and learn so that they can, as Dewey teaches us, become more confident, powerful people right now, not some distant day down the road.

In describing Mindfulness as a value, we write:

Mindfulness: The REAL School teaches its members to be mindful of their lives, in their interactions and in their participation in the REAL School community. Mindfulness expresses the value of self-regulation and attention to the present moment coupled with the engagement of natural curiosity and an open and inquiring attitude.[i]

There are a number of programs and people working to bring Mindfulness practices to schools (the Mindfulness in Education Conference; Jill Suttie’s article on Mindful Schools, good ongoing work out of the U.K., and numerous local school and healthcare partnerships such as Mindful Schools) and there has been some recent media attention given to mindfulness practices in schools. These are the beginnings of a potentially powerful transformation in schools, but the focus must oriented aways from “stress-reduction” and towards mindful living which is a broader and more fundamental concern.


[i] Bishop, S.R., and Lau, M., et al. (2003). Mindfulness: An Operational Definition. Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

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One comment

  1. “Rushing students from moment to moment.” This is so true about most American schools and even most of American society today. We wonder why there is an epidemic of obesity in this country when a person’s lunch break is jammed into 25 minutes or so. If the premises of mindfulness were followed, we would be able to savor the moment and enjoy one of the great pleasures of humankind: breaking bread with others.

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