How Mindfulness Helps Students Learn

I just published a book called Altered Traits, which is a look at all of the research on meditation and mindfulness. And what it shows, I think, has deep lessons for leadership in school. It shows that there’s a dose-response relationship. That the more hours in your life you put into mindfulness, the stronger the benefits will become.

Those benefits are the ones that are most strongly documented by the research articles are a sharpening of attention, the ability to concentrate despite distractions, which everyone needs today, students, principals, teachers. Distractions are greater than ever have been in human history, I think. And also to be able to handle all the multitasking that we have to do these days. But still go back to that thing you have to do that’s so important to you today, where your concentration’s very high before you started multitasking, usually when you get back to it, it’s very low. But if you’ve done mindfulness, it will still be high. That’s another benefit.

Also, the data is showing that students learn better. In other words, students who do mindfulness are better able to take in their lessons. Better able to do well on tests. And we finally found this out. And I think it simply shows that mindfulness supports the basic mission of the school, which is to help children learn. There’s a related method, which is called, sometimes loving kindness. I think of it as a well-wishing. Where you don’t just focus on your own stream of awareness, but you think of others and you wish them well. And that kind of meditation turns out to be very powerful too. It makes people more empathic, more present to other people, more likely to help them. I think these are qualities that anyone in any setting can use, but particularly principals, teachers and students benefit enormously when a teacher is very present. And teachers benefit enormously when a principal is present. And I think it works all the way up the ladder. 

A basic lesson from all of these research that we reviewed is that mindfulness and every kind of meditation is kind of a mental fitness workout. You’re shaping the brain. It’s like when you go to the gym, every time you lift a weight for repetition, that muscle becomes that much stronger. Every time, for example, you do mindfulness, you’re being aware of your breath, your mind wanders away, you notice it wander, you bring it back. That’s like a repetition in the mental gym. It’s a mental workout. And it strengthens particular circuitry that helps you concentrate, helps you ignore distractions.

Also, there’s a two-for here, because for kids, this is the circuitry that manages impulse. This is the circuitry that helps you delay gratification in pursuit of your goals. This is the circuitry that helps you learn. So, maturity has been defined as widening the gap between impulse and action. And you see that in kids as they grow, go through first grade, second grade up to high school. That they’re better able to manage that first impulse, think it over, and then react in a better way. And little kids have a big problem with this, of course, ’cause these parts of the brain haven’t come online so strongly yet. 

But, essentially, with every meditation, you’re re-wiring or strengthening a particular part of the brain. So as a teacher, you might want to think, well, what do we want to help these kids with? And the kind of universal broadband help is the generic mindfulness training, which I think you’ve been bringing schools everywhere. It can get more refined, you can do that well-wishing, that makes kids kinder, more empathic with each other. 

How Schools Can Help Students Build Resilience

I think that it’s incumbent on any school to help prepare children better for handling the system’s challenges that they’re going to face. Most social and environmental, by first helping them build inner strength, inner resilience. I think an inner focus mindfulness is fundamental. In the emotional intelligence model we talk about it in terms of self-awareness and self-management. And the competencies like emotional balance or staying positive, or bouncing back from stress. These things all are things that you benefit from in terms of doing mindfulness. That the qualities that you strengthen help you in all those ways.

But then, it’s not just about you, it’s about you and everyone else. So, you need this other awareness. You need empathy, you need the ability to collaborate, you need the ability to handle conflict. You need abilities that allow you to work together as a team, as a group, with other kids, or as an adult in your neighborhood, or a teacher with a school or principal.And then there’s the superintendent who has the kind of view from the balcony, seeing it all, but also looking outward in terms of the community, in terms of, you know, you have to be aware of larger contextual issues, which are systems issues. Things like, what’s happening in the economy, what’s happening in the culture, what’s happening in our community. The political tides, the technology changes. That’s another whole system that’s very important. 

I was in a school, the Smith College campus school in North Hampton Massachusetts and the teacher brought in, in December when there’s snow outside in North Hampton, a box of clementines and explained these tangerines had come from Morocco. And then the kids thought, well what did it take to get these tangerines from Morocco to North Hampton in the winter? Who grew them? Who watered them? Who made the box? Who shipped them? Did it come by a boat? All the people involved. And what really, they’re doing is understanding the system behind the food you see in the store.

And also you’re letting students understand that they’re part of a system they don’t see, but they can understand. So the kids in North Hampton were actually building in their own minds the system that helped bring those tangerines there. And I think the same is true with gender issues, with diversity issues. This is part of a social web and so this larger kind of systems thinking I think is mindfulness at the largest level. It’s breaking down and paying close attention to, and understanding each part of a very, very large network of connection that impacts our lives. But it does it so often invisibly. And so, just as you do with mindfulness, you’re making your mental processes more visible to you, I think that the systems thinking has the potential to help children bring the invisible part of the system into their awareness.