November 18, 2022 – On a recent Thursday afternoon, Connie Clotworthy greeted a roomful of energetic fourth graders at Valor Academy Elementary School in Arleta, California, about 20 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles.
She starts with a mindfulness exercise, reminding the 19 students to “purposefully” give their brains a break. In a calm voice, she says, “We’re going to close our eyes for 30 seconds.” She tells them to just breathe in, breathe out. nothing else. They all do.
After the 30 seconds, she asks, “Who could just breathe in, breathe out? Who had a million other thoughts?” This prompts laughter and some raised hands in response to both the success question and “a million other thoughts” in response.
Then Clotworthy brings out their teaching assistants: a stuffed bulldog named Billy and a stuffed owl named Hoots.
She speaks of “great emotions”. She holds Billy up and says, “If you get angry, you’ll make our dog bark and bite,” and waves the stuffed dog around. “And how do we calm our dog down? To breathe. Who helps? whoo.”
But Hoots can only help when Billy calms down, she reminds them. “Do you think Hoots comes out when Billy barks and screams?” The kids know the answer to that and shake their heads in unison, “No.”
The session concludes with a 5-minute meditation and a “Body Scan,” a guided, non-judgmental exercise in noting bodily sensations, performed with the eyes closed.
Clotworthy is the CEO and Founder of Worthy Beyond Purpose, a Los Angeles nonprofit founded in 2018. She leads the once-weekly 30-minute mindfulness and meditation program at Valor Academy Elementary and five other schools in the area.
After the session, she proudly says, the kids know that Billy represents the amygdala, the brain region associated with emotional processing, and Hoots is the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s control center involved in emotion regulation.
Clotworthy and other practitioners like her are increasingly taking to the classroom to try mindfulness and meditation to alleviate pervasive mental health problems Pandemic trauma, isolation, school closures, school shootings, and other issues that constantly plague students of all ages. Study after study has found many negative impacts of COVID-19 safety measures on the mental health of children and adolescents.
While the terms mindfulness and meditation are often confused, experts say mindfulness is the quality of “being in the present moment without judgment,” while meditation describes a more formal practice of calming the body and mind.
Mindfulness isn’t religious, Clotworthy says, but a way of “staying in the present.” The word, put in its simplest terms, “just means attention. We teach kids to be in the present.”
Aside from helping students deal with stressors, it can also be good for society, as the Dalai Lama promised in his famous quote: “If every 8-year-old in the world is taught meditation, we will become violence within a generation.” eliminate from the world. ”
Mindfulness programs for schools
Some school-based mindfulness programs, like Clotworthy’s, are small non-profit endeavors. Others use existing national commercial programs.
For example, Headspace, the mindfulness and meditation app, recently partnered with Vivi, a communication platform for kindergarten through 12th Class. Teachers can play Headspace content through Vivi, says Vivi co-founder Simon Holland, to access mindfulness and meditation content designed for children and teens.
Rosamaria Segura is the director of Insight LA’s Insight in Action program, which offers mindfulness and meditation practices in areas they otherwise could not afford. The program is offered to students at three schools and teachers and parents at six others.
“We offer it for free,” she says. Sometimes it’s a 6 week program, sometimes a year. The members of the community finance it with donations.
The students being mentored are “newcomers who speak Spanish,” says Segura, and “their journey has involved a lot of anxiety and trauma. We train students to stay in the present” with the mindfulness exercises.
“Last year we had an outdoor mindfulness garden with elementary school students,” she says. Students would enter the garden and choose a sticker that matched their mood. In the beginning, most chose stickers that reflected worries or fears. “At the end of the session, the stickers moved into the happy, relaxed state. It was incredibly dramatic to see.”
What the research suggests
Mediation and mindfulness for adults has long had a list of well-known benefits, such as reducing stress and improving mood. Recently, a well-publicized study found that a program called mindfulness-based stress reduction rivals a prescription drug for how well it treats anxiety disorders.
Recent research has also found benefits for children and young people, although some experts argue that the buzz outweighs the evidence and that the studies need to be more scientific.
Among the more recent studies:
Does it work at school?
Some results from the school programs are anecdotal, others are based on surveys.
At Valor Academy Elementary, a public charter school in the LA Unified School District, the behavioral differences are striking, says Talar Samuelian, assistant cultural director. She started the program there in late 2021 with her third and fourth graders, concerned about their behavior after the pandemic brought distance learning.
“We had many students with behavioral problems and self-regulation problems,” you says. “The third graders had missed everything [in-person] first and second class. There was spiteful behavior among the girls, and the boys were very handy in the yards. You missed it [developing] a lot of playing skill.”
This year, the students are much calmer, she says. One of the benefits, she believes, is that “it helps build a sense of belonging.”
One surprised Samuelian. She had assumed that some of the third and fourth years were “too cool” to join in and push back. “Not one,” she says. “They were all mesmerized; they are all there.”
At the end of the 2021-2022 school year, Clotworthy surveyed 400 students who had participated in their program at four schools. Their results: “91% of students can correctly identify and describe the functions of the amygdala and prefrontal cortex,” versus 10% before the sessions began.
“We start with these teachings so kids know where their emotions live, how to identify them, and how to stay ahead of the eruptions,” she says.
A vast majority of children – 88% – say they know new ways to deal with these big emotions, such as breathing techniques. And 85% say they know how to listen to their bodies and feel the emotions before they erupt. Nearly 60% told Clotworthy they had fewer problems since starting their classes. Teachers told her that children in the classroom have longer attention spans and more emotional maturity.
Headspace’s own research found that 30 days of Headspace resulted in a 32% reduction in stress, while 8 weeks of use resulted in a 19% reduction in anxiety symptoms and a 14% improved focus.
Indira Esparza Galeana teaches at the Preuss School on the campus of the University of California, San Diego. Charter Middle and High School is for low-income students who aspire to be the first in their families to graduate from college. The daughter of immigrants, she graduated from school, returned to teach and now works as a member of the Vivi Educator Council, an unpaid position to launch the VIvi partnership.
Galeana is testing the Vivi Headspace program in one of her Advanced Placements 12th state classes and a ninth-grade ethnic studies class. The feedback has been positive, she says. Students are receptive to learning meditation; one says it’s relaxing and another says it made him think a lot. “I think that just goes to show they have a lot on their mind right now.”
A teacher’s perspective
“Mindfulness is a normal human condition,” says Patricia (Tish) Jennings, PhD, professor of education at the University of Virginia. “Little children tend to be very mindful”, naturally able to focus on the present moment.
Jennings is internationally recognized as a leader in mindfulness education and has been teaching mindfulness practices to children and adults for more than 40 years.
“I started doing this with kids in my Montessori class in 1981,” she says. Back then, “I didn’t call it mindfulness or meditation. I would say, ‘We learn to calm down, to focus our attention.’”
Basically, Jennings says, what’s known is that the practice really does help kids regulate themselves. “It helps them pay attention and it helps them calm down. Self-awareness and self-management are really important.”
She led a team that developed a mindfulness-based professional development program to improve teacher well-being and student engagement, and has written or edited books on mindfulness in schools.
Students learn about mindfulness
As the mindfulness and meditation session at Valor Academy ends, Clotworthy asks the students for some thoughts on mindfulness and meditation, including how it helps them.
Kylie Garcia, a 9-year-old with dark brown eyes and hair, who listened intently and fully participated during the session, says, “I like meditation because when I meditated, my body felt calm.” She likens it to pausing.
Jaden Martinez, also 9, says he sees mindfulness as a form of subtraction. If you just breathe during mindfulness, he says, it can help you get rid of all those random thoughts — basically subtract them — and just be in the moment.
According to Clotworthy, some students say they taught the techniques to their parents.
Valor Elementary has mindfulness classes on Thursdays; One girl said, “I wake up and realize that today is mindfulness day and I look forward to going to school.”