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October 1, 2019
Vol. 77
No. 2

School Safety Starts from Within

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Mindfulness isn't a panacea, but schools are increasingly recognizing its potential to improve student well-being and safety.

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Social-emotional learning
Three weeks after the February 14, 2018, shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where 17 people were killed and 17 more injured, the Florida state legislature passed a bill, which among other things, designated two new roles for each school district: a director of safe schools and a mental health coordinator. These new positions reflect two distinct ways of handling potential violence in schools, one from the outside in (school safety) and the other from the inside out (mental health).
Mental health interventions are designed to improve the internal psychological world of students so they are less apt to engage in violence and better able to handle the stress that accompanies incidents of trauma. Such interventions include self-regulation strategies like developing a growth mindset, creating better nutrition habits, engaging in physical exercise, and participating in emotional-intelligence activities that help students identify their moment-to-moment emotional states and establish ways to safely manage feelings when they are at or near the boiling point.

Calming the Mind

One self-regulation strategy that has received growing attention over the past few years is mindfulness. Simply stated, mindfulness is the practice of attending to each present moment in time with an attitude of acceptance, openness, and curiosity. By engaging in this practice on a regular basis, students and their teachers and administrators can learn to train their minds, regulate their emotions, control their behaviors, and cultivate healthier relationships with the people and events around them.
There are three components to mindfulness. The first is focus. This could be a focus on our breathing, bodily sensations, eating, walking, or any other regular activity that we engage in during the course of a day. The second component is open monitoring, which involves noticing our inner and/or outer experiences in whatever form they happen to take as they arise from moment to moment within our awareness. The third component is attitude and in particular having an open, nonjudgmental, curious attitude toward whatever experiences come up as we practice, whether they be thoughts, feelings, outer perceptions, or internal sensations.
The easiest way to try mindfulness is to sit in a comfortable position, close your eyes, and begin to pay attention to your breathing, noticing the rising and falling of your chest or belly, or the inrush and outflow of air through your nostrils. When distractions come up, as they inevitably will (one study suggested that our minds wander 47 percent of the time during waking hours [Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010]), simply notice the distraction in a nonjudgmental way (a noise, a thought, a feeling of boredom, plans for the future, and so on), and then return to your breathing. Doing this repeatedly helps to train the mind to handle the ups and downs of daily living without getting caught up in negative states. For students who are easily triggered into meltdowns or violent behavior, mindfulness can help difficult emotions "just be" in their bodies, while they focus on their breathing.

Smoothing Out the Bumps in a Roller-Coaster Day

While mindfulness practice has its roots in a 1,000-year-old Buddhist tradition, it was given a strong secular foundation in science through the efforts of biologist Jon Kabat-Zinn. Founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, Kabat-Zinn created a stress reduction and chronic pain management program in the early 1970's based upon mindfulness (Kabat-Zinn, 2012). Since that time, more than 3,000 scientific studies on mindfulness have demonstrated that it can help relieve pain, stress, depression, anxiety, and a host of other physical and mental ills (Gregoire, 2014).
Researchers are now increasingly studying the impact of mindfulness in school settings, including in schools impacted by gang violence, bullying, hate speech, and classroom conflict. One randomized controlled study published in the journal Pediatrics, for example, showed improvements in urban "at risk" middle school students with respect to reducing somatization (having medical symptoms without any known cause), depression, negative affect, negative coping, rumination, self-hostility, and post-traumatic symptom severity (Sibinga et al., 2016).
"[The brain wiring in] kids with chronic stress and trauma is becoming hijacked into flight, fight, freeze," says J.G. Larochette, founder of the Mindful Life Project, a mindfulness training organization that works with Title 1 schools. "They're not able to regulate their emotions, they're reactive, they're verbally or physically violent" (Cuevas, 2019). Mindfulness, Larochette notes, helps smooth out the bumps that would otherwise derail kids with high-trauma backgrounds.
Studies suggest, in fact, that mindfulness works particularly well for kids who have executive function problems or struggle with self-regulation issues (Viglas & Perlman, 2018). Hexter Elementary School in Dallas uses mindfulness as part of its school safety program. Principal Jennifer Jackson notes: "It's a proactive way to ensure that students feel safe and heard and that their feelings and needs are being met without it escalating to a conflict that will require getting an administrator involved" (Spillyards, 2018). Intervention teacher Stacey Achterhoff introduced mindfulness to K–5 homeless students in the Duluth Public Schools in Minnesota. "[Now] when I go into the classroom, I see that quiet magic of kids being able to settle into their own bodies …. They see there's power in being able to control what they can, when there are so many other things out of their control" (Zalaznick, 2017).
Students begin to see the benefits of mindfulness practice, too. One nine-year-old boy from the United Kingdom, who practiced "petal breathing" (where students open and close their fingers in time with their breathing), said it helped him to "forget all the scary stuff …. If I concentrate on my breathing, the worrying thoughts just go 'pop' and disappear" (Walker, 2018). A high school student from Baltimore used mindfulness to deal with difficult emotions: "I take a deep breath in a moment of conflict and [decide], I can do this in a different way. I don't have to fight this person. I don't have to look [to] violence as the answer" (PBS News Hour, 2017).

Programs that Promote Self-Regulation

There are a growing number of groups that train educators in using mindfulness in their classrooms and provide ongoing support as teachers improve their skills. These organizations include Calm Classroom, Inner Explorer, Learning to Breathe, Mindful Moment, Mindful Schools, MindUP, and Still, Quiet Place. Multiple ongoing studies are also seeking to measure both academic and nonacademic outcomes of mindfulness practice in a large sample of schools, including research at the University of Chicago, University of Virginia, and University of Oxford (see, for example, The Compassionate Schools Project in Louisville, Kentucky).
In addition, individual schools have developed their own mindfulness programs, often started when a teacher who had practiced mindfulness shared her enthusiasm with other teachers, gained support from administrators, and applied for and received training funds from community-based organizations, nonprofits, and research universities.
Mindfulness was introduced over a period of three years at David Crockett Elementary School in Phoenix, Arizona, the fifth-most economically segregated school in the United States, with a large population of refugees and homeless students. As education journalist Lisa Irish (2018) recounted, in the first year, the school brought in the training organization Mindfulness First, which led 30-minute circle time lessons twice a week for students and teachers on mindfulness and social-emotional learning.
During the second year, instructors met with students once a week in a mindfulness room set aside at the school for "chilling out" and learning self-regulation skills. Also, teachers were given access to a mindfulness app they could use in the classroom, along with stories and reflection exercises.
In the third year, Mindfulness First trainers served as coaches for teachers so that they could feel comfortable delivering mindfulness lessons on their own and integrating mindfulness activities throughout the day.
The outcomes from this three-year phase-in of mindfulness practices were encouraging. The school became a B-rated school (based on several academic indicators) in a district where many other schools were D-rated, and school suspensions dropped dramatically from 45 in the year before the program started to three in the third year of implementation (Irish, 2018).

Making the Most of Mindful Moments

The benefits of implementing mindfulness, and its emerging role in social-emotional learning and school safety, are becoming readily apparent in many other schools and districts around the country and elsewhere in the world (programs in the United Kingdom and Australia, in particular, have become quite popular). Here are some tips to help start a mindfulness program in your own school or district:
  • Start small. A sure way to sabotage a mindfulness program is to send a top-down edict from school administrators that all teachers must participate in it starting on Day 1. Instead, an individual or a cohort of teachers who have a keen interest in the subject should begin sharing what they know with others and radiating their excitement outward, so that mindfulness becomes an organic feature of schoolwide practice over time.
  • Don't see it as an "add-on." Some teachers are likely to resist mindfulness as just another thing they have to add on to their already crowded schedules. However, both the practice and theory of mindfulness can be aligned with programs that many schools are already doing, including the ASCD Whole Child Initiative, social-emotional learning, Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, and Universal Design for Learning.
  • Make sure to keep mindfulness secular. For public school teachers and administrators, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution makes it imperative that mindfulness be free of any religious or spiritual trappings. Avoid using methods and materials that have explicit connections with spirituality or religion (for example, no Tibetan singing bells, no special hand mudras, no having students greet each other by saying "Namaste," no sermons on how mindfulness raises energies in the chakras). It's important to emphasize that mindfulness is being used in schools as a secular program with a sound scientific base.
  • Take up your own personal practice of mindfulness. With educator stress reaching historic levels, it behooves both teachers and administrators to practice what they preach and take time at school and home to engage in mindfulness practices. This ensures that you will have credibility with your students, understand their experiences, and have the tools to stay calm yourself during the ups and downs of the school day.
  • Don't expect miracles right away. Despite opinions to the contrary, mindfulness won't actually make students more relaxed; it will help them become more aware. This awareness will translate on an incremental basis to their being able to handle impulsivity, conflict, and negative experiences like anger more effectively. The evidence for this may come up in incidental ways, such as, for example, when one teacher watched a kindergartner about to kick over a classmate's wooden block construction instead take a deep breath and walk away.
  • Make time for students to share their experiences. In addition to carrying out mindfulness practices and activities, try to reserve some time for students to share their experiences of practicing mindfulness. This will allow them to process the thoughts that come up in their awareness and receive support for whatever they may be going through.

A Path to Inner Peace

Mindfulness continues to draw support from different sectors of our culture. NBA stars use it to perfect their game. Soldiers in the U.S. military use it as a means of preparing for and recovering from the trauma of war. Even some politicians now view it as an important contribution to a sane society. Congressman Tim Ryan from Ohio, in fact, has written a book on the topic of mindfulness (Ryan, 2018).
Delaware governor John Carney recently began one busy day by meditating alongside kindergartners at Mt. Pleasant Elementary School in Wilmington. Teaching mindfulness, he told local public radio station WHYY, is essential to mitigating school violence. "[We must have] a comprehensive approach to school safety," said Carney. "I personally believe that the mindfulness part of it is really important for, particularly, children dealing with incredible stress in their lives" (Eichmann, 2018). Seeing mindfulness as one key ingredient in any school safety program can help address potential violent activity or traumatic experiences—and allow room for inner peace to grow.
References

Cuevas, E. (April 24, 2019). Salinas students at Monte Bella Elementary practice mindfulness for trauma, stress. The Californian.

Eichmann, M. (February 27, 2018). Teaching kids to deal with stress as part of answer to school violence, Carney says. WHYY. Retrieved from https://whyy.org/articles/teaching-kids-deal-stress-part-answer-school-violence-carney-says

Gregoire, C. (May 19, 2014). Jack Kornfield on gratitude and mindfulness. Greater Good Magazine.

Irish, L. (August 2, 2018). Educators learn how to develop trauma-sensitive schools. AzEdNews.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2012). Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness (Rev. ed.). New York: Bantam Books.

Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilbert, D. T. (2010). A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science, 330(6006), p. 932.

PBS NewsHour. (February 21, 2017). Faced with outsized stresses, these Baltimore students learn to take a deep breath.

Ryan, T. (2018). Healing America: How a simple practice can help us recapture the American spirit. Carlsbad, CA: Hay House.

Sibinga, E. M., Webb, L., Ghazarian, S. R., & Ellen, J. M. (2016). School-based mindfulness instruction: An RCT. Pediatrics, 137(1).

Spillyards, A. (2018, March 22). School uses mindfulness as proactive approach to school safety. NBCDFW.

Viglas, M., & Perlman, M. (2018). Effects of a mindfulness-based program on young children's self-regulation, prosocial behavior, and hyperactivity. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 27(4), 1150–1161.

Walker, R. (November 25, 2018). 'It stops the scary stuff': Pupils thrive with mindfulness lessons. The Guardian.

Zalaznick, M. (April 5, 2017). Mindfulness exercises for children. District Administration. Retrieved from: https://districtadministration.com/mindfulness-exercises-for-children

Thomas Armstrong, educator, psychologist, and writer, is the Executive Director of the American Institute for Learning and Human Development. Over 30 years, he has given more than 1000 keynotes, workshop presentations, and lectures on 6 continents, in 29 countries, and 44 states.

He has written for numerous magazines, newspapers, and journals and is the author of 18 books, including the ASCD books Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom, Neurodiversity in the Classroom, The Power of the Adolescent Brain, The Best Schools, The Multiple Intelligences of Reading and Writing, ADD/ADHD Alternatives in the Classroom, and Awakening Genius in the Classroom.

Armstrong has also appeared on NBC’s The Today Show, CBS This Morning, CNN, the BBC and The Voice of America.

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