Mindfulness: From Ancient Wisdom to Modern Classroom

Imagine coming to your neighborhood middle school one morning to find three dead bodies dumped in the schoolyard. This is exactly what students experienced one morning when coming to Visitacion Valley Middle School in San Francisco.

As shocking as this might sound, the children at Visitacion were used to murder. Barry O’Driscoll, the school’s head of physical education (PE) commented that “In 2006 there were 38 killings in our neighborhood.” The culture of violence infected the school, which was the theatre of constant fighting, frequent suspension and poor academic achievement.

Anna Leach, who wrote about Visitacion Valley in a November 2015 Guardian article, shared how in 2007 the school decided to counter the culture of violence by introducing a “Quiet Time.” This was essentially an opportunity for students to be trained in the practice of mindfulness meditation.

That was before mindfulness—attentive, purposeful and non-judgmental awareness of one’s experiences—was trendy. Perhaps that is why teachers initially didn’t take this experimental practice very seriously.

Visitacion Valley a Month Later

A month into Quiet Time, the teachers began noticing changes in student behavior.

“They worked harder, paid more attention, were easier to teach and the number of fights fell dramatically,” O’Driscoll commented.

The results of mindfulness continued over the next decade. Here is what Leach reported in her Guardian article:

“In the first year of Quiet Time suspensions at Visitacion Valley – which has 500 students aged 11-13 – were reduced by 45% (pdf). By 2009-10, attendance rates were over 98% (some of the highest in the city), and today 20% of graduates are admitted to the highly academic Lowell high school – before it was rare for even one student to be accepted. Perhaps even more remarkable, last year’s California Healthy Kids Survey from the state’s education department found that students at Visitacion Valley middle school were the happiest in the whole of San Francisco.

How much of these changes were specifically because the students practiced mindfulness, and how much were due to other factors? Researchers wanted to know, and so they began testing mindfulness at other schools, including setting up controlled studies with rigorous research methods.

What We Now Know, A Decade Later

Over the next ten years, various studies and meta-studies began appearing in the peer-reviewed journals. These studies increasingly showed evidence of a consistent pattern: mindfulness (especially mindful breathing) is positively associated with improvement in student behavior and academic achievement. The organization, Mindful Schools, has a helpful summary of some of this research, which shows mindfulness programs affecting children’s grades, test-taking skills, emotional regulation, compassion, truancy rates, anxiety, memory, social and emotional learning, as well as improvement on numerous other metrics.

The research also shows that teachers who regularly practice mindfulness tend to be more satisfied with their jobs and better able to connect with students.

It isn’t surprising that taking time to calm down and engage in mindful breathing would improve student behavior. Calming down is always a good thing, especially for children prone to aggression and troubled emotions. But what is surprising about this research is the effect mindfulness is having on academic achievement. Some studies even suggests that mindfulness improves math scores by as much as 15%.

A clue to the relationship between mindfulness and academic achievement emerges when we consider the role that attentiveness plays for life success in general and educational success in particular.

Is Attention Key to a Successful Life?

The famous psychologist, William James, wrote about attentiveness in his 1892 book Psychology: Briefer Course. In James’ oft-quoted words, he pointed out that,

“The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will. No one is compos sui [master of himself] if he have it not. An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence. But it is easier to define this ideal than to give practical directions for bringing it about.”

Williams James recognized that the skill of attentiveness, or focus, lay behind the virtues that education tries to cultivate, but he was at a loss to know how this skill could actually be cultivated.

Modern research has confirmed James’ belief that attention is at the root of good judgement and character. In his 2013 book, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, Daniel Goleman shared research showing that a child’s ability to focus (i.e., to exercise cognitive control, to remain focused on goals, to exercise impulse control) was an even greater indication of future life success than the child’s IQ or the social economic sector of the child’s upbringing. As Goleman shared on his website,

“…a 30-year longitudinal study of more than a thousand kids – the gold standard for uncovering relationships between behavioral variables – found that those children with the best cognitive control had the greatest financial success in their 30s. Cognitive control predicted success better than a child’s IQ, and better than the wealth of the family they grew up in.

Cognitive control refers to the abilities to delay gratification in pursuit of your goals, maintaining impulse control, managing upsetting emotions well, holding focus, and possessing a readiness to learn. Grit requires good cognitive control. No wonder this results in financial and personal success.”

Pause for a minute to think about the implications of these findings. As parents and educators we spend enormous effort (not to mention huge sums of money) trying to help our children be smart, to learn lots of information and to have high IQs. Ironically, however, when it comes to actual success in life, these factors are far less important than the simple skill of being able to exercise cognitive control, to voluntarily bring back a wandering attention over and over again.

If attention is so important, shouldn’t our schools be teaching it?

Ancient Wisdom Meets Modern Science

When Williams James was writing, brain scientists didn’t know how the skill of attention could be taught. However, if James had looked outside the confines of the science of his day, he would have seen that numerous civilizations have a practice for cultivating attentiveness, one that is thousands of years old. That practice is mindfulness.

While mindfulness practices have not always been called by the same name, and while these practices have differed from one civilization to another, they all involve deliberately drawing the wandering attention back to a point of concentration, usually focused on one’s breath. In some religious traditions, the focus has been on a prayer instead of the breath, although the same principle is at work: reigning in a wandering mind.

Try it yourself. For the next ten seconds breathe in deeply, then exhale deeply, all the while drawing your wandering mind gently back to your breath. Okay, go…

Welcome back. You just practiced mindfulness! It’s really as simple as that.

Although people have been doing this type of mindful breathing for thousands of years, it is only recently that science has been able to explain what this practice does in the brain.

Discoveries about neuroplasticity have shown that the brain is like a muscle: the more we use certain functions, the better they become. This means that when we struggle to gain control of our attention in the context of mindfulness meditation, we are actually strengthening the neuro pathways needed for exercising attention at other times, including times when attention is required for maintaining impulse control, managing upsetting emotions, focusing on a difficult task, and so forth. Think of mindfulness as spending some time in the brain gym, developing the mental fitness needed to be successful in life.

Pushing Back Against a Culture of Distraction

The dark side of neuroplasticity is that attentiveness can be eroded just as much as it can be strengthened. Many researchers believe that overuse of technologies like the Internet and the smartphone can habituate children’s brains to permanent distractibility and split attention. They are showing that the smartphone does this directly through drawing children into a stream of continually changing stimuli. But researchers have also suggested that the smartphone erodes these neuro-mechanisms indirectly, through distracting children away from attention-building activities that used to be part of the normal childhood experience (e.g., playing with dolls, building forts in the woods, doing craft hobbies, organizing neighborhood baseball or football games, reading, playing cops and robbers, creating imaginary worlds, etc.).

Mindfulness offers a push-back against this culture of distraction. Through mindfulness practices, students are given the tools for strengthening the capacity to exercise cognitive control and the opportunity to strengthen the neuro-networks involved in attention.

What’s In It For Teachers?

I know a teacher who used to love reading. But over the years this teacher found it increasingly difficult to concentrate on a book without being distracted. “If I have about 20 or 30 minutes to spare,” he shared, “it’s much easier just to go on the Internet or social media than to read. When I do try to read, I find my mind being distracted by all sorts of things.”

This teacher began practicing mindful breathing. After a while he found that he could apply to the same cognitive control used during his mindfulness sessions to the activity of reading.

“Now when I read,” he explained, “I am able to use mindfulness to draw my attention back to the text instead of being perpetually distracted. It’s great, because every time I do this, I visualize the positive neuropathways in my brain being strengthened.”

I know this is true because I am that teacher. Through practicing mindfulness, I have been able to rediscover my love for reading. But I also find I do better at my work, because mindfulness has given me the skills for knowing how to bring my full attention to whatever I am doing at the moment.

That brings me to the final point I wanted to share in this post, which is the advantages that mindfulness has for teachers. Although most of the research has been focused on the benefit mindfulness brings to students, another side of the research shows that teachers who regularly practice mindfulness stand a far better chance of reaching their full potential and avoiding some of the common pitfalls associated with the profession.

Some of this research has been summarized by The Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley (for example, see HERE and HERE). Further research in this field is certainly required, but so far there seems to be good evidence that mindfulness can help teachers to:

  • remain present in the classroom;
  • maintain posture of self-control;
  • be more effective at managing stress;
  • experience decline in cortisol functioning;
  • achieve emotional balance;
  • be less affected by burnout and psychological symptoms;
  • have higher levels of self-compassion.

Mindfulness is certainly not a cure-all for the problems that teachers and students face. It works best when integrated into a teacher’s entire lifestyle, and into a school’s entire culture. But at the least, this research suggests that mindfulness is too important to be ignored.

Indeed, if attentiveness is really as central to success in life as researchers are discovering, then offering our students the chance to practice mindfulness may be one of the most important things we can do for them. A time may soon be coming when mindfulness is no longer considered merely an optional extra for our schools.

Click HERE for a free lesson on how mindfulness impacts student learning!

Written By Robin Phillips