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December 1, 2009

Perspectives / Vital Connections

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"I am one of 6 billion," His Holiness, the Dalai Lama said," and I am here to learn." Dressed in his red robes and a jaunty red visor, the leader of Tibetan Buddhism and Nobel Peace Prize winner sat smiling at us from the stage of Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. He was presiding over, but mostly asking questions of, a group of distinguished educators, scientists, researchers, and contemplatives who were gathered to "conduct a dialogue on cultivating a healthy mind, brain, and heart."
It was a fascinating two days in which East and West grappled with what might be called the ultimate whole-child topic. One after the other, the speakers at the Mind and Life Institute conference spoke of how we must integrate physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual learning if we are to educate children to be "mindful citizens in an imperiled world."
"The habits we form from childhood make no small difference. They make all the difference," said professor of neurology Takao Hensch, quoting the words of Aristotle in his discussion of brain plasticity. Although the brain has an amazing capacity to learn—even on one's dying day the brain is capable of registering new growth—the importance of experiences in early life cannot be underestimated. The ways that certain physical and emotional needs are met—or not met—in sensitive time periods can profoundly affect our ability to learn everything from languages to empathy.
Professor of psychiatry Richard Davidson spoke of why we must teach students how to regulate their attention and emotions. A middle school student who becomes involved in an argument in the school hallway cannot focus on learning if his lingering anger and anxiety overwhelm him. Although puberty starts earlier than it used to, the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which helps regulate emotion, does not fully develop until a person's early 20s. The age range from 14–24 is thus particularly risky for students. Teaching our children how to modulate their emotions, focus their wandering attention, and recover from adversity become paramount, Davidson said.
At one point in the proceedings, the Dalai Lama interrupted the researchers who were painstakingly establishing the many connections between head and heart. "Why do you need to research what you already know?" he asked. The audience members, many of whom were teachers and school administrators, laughed, knowing all too well that schools have struggled for years over how to best encourage both student well-being and achievement without inciting culture wars.
Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk and cellular geneticist, commented that such training of the mind is sometimes considered politically incorrect. He wondered why we can easily spend 20 minutes on a bicycle going nowhere but think it less important to spend 20 minutes practicing kindness.
This issue of Educational Leadershiptakes a look at the progress schools are making toward doing what both research and common sense tell us is important to do for all kids: cultivating their healthy minds, brains, bodies, and hearts.
Several authors, for example, take up the vital topic of nutrition (pp. 6, 12, 66). Some nutritionists now warn that the generation of children born since 2000 may be the first to have shorter life spans than their parents because of the nutrient-poor, processed food they have become accustomed to eating. Unhealthy eating can lead to sickness and affect students' ability to concentrate and learn. Dr. David A. Kessler, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (p. 6), and Dr. David Satcher, former U.S. surgeon general (p. 38), concur that students are becoming increasingly vulnerable. It doesn't help that the lessons students learn in the school cafeteria often contradict those that they are taught in science class.
Other authors discuss a range of essential human needs, for example, sleep (p. 44), physical activity (pp. 60, 70, 82), and experiences with nature (p. 24). These human functions have been neglected as schools have extended the academic day, cutting back on recess and physical education time to do so. Psychological stress is another fact of life. A number of our authors (pp. 48, 54, 84) describe how to reach out to students who are reacting in unhealthy ways to their personal distress.
Paul Barton and Richard Coley, in their research on the achievement gap (p. 18), enumerate the factors—both inside and outside school—that contribute to maintaining the hardly budging achievement gaps. The trends are distressing. Barton and Coley urge us to get beyond casting blame or claiming helplessness and act.
A final story told at the Mind and Life conference corroborates what we need to do. The tale goes that a mother came to Gandhi, seeking his help in persuading her child to give up his habit of eating too many sweets. Gandhi replied that she would have to bring her child back to him in two weeks. The mother was puzzled, but she returned. Gandhi then took the child aside and counseled him about the dangers of too much sugar. The mother wanted to know, "But why did you wait two weeks to talk to him?" Gandhi replied, "Because two weeks ago I, too, was eating sugar."
For our children and for ourselves, learning and health begin with first steps.
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