Why Mindfulness is
Needed in Education

The Impact of Toxic Stress on School Communities

Healthy stress is a natural part of life, including childhood. Children and adults alike need to be challenged in order to grow and develop. However, in the modern education system, healthy stress is frequently displaced by toxic stress. Toxic stress occurs when life’s demands consistently outpace our ability to cope with those demands.

Students

Students

Toxic stress impairs attention, emotion and mood regulation, sleep, and learning readiness daily in American classrooms. Even more troubling, prolonged exposure to childhood toxic stress has lifelong impacts on mental and physical health.

Educators

Educators

Toxic stress starts as decreased productivity and creativity, escalating to more serious symptoms like frequent anxiety, dissociation, frustration, and, eventually, burnout. Roughly half a million U.S. teachers leave the profession each year – a turnover rate of over 20 percent.

Parents

Parents

Toxic stress can lead to a parenting style that looks more like a “to-do” list, rather than an empathic, present-centered relationship with a developing child. Exposure to parental stress in early childhood has been shown to impact gene expression even years later in adolescence.

The Difficulty of Working with Toxic Stress

Toxic stress is challenging to work with because our stress response taps into some very old survival hardware in our evolutionary biology.

When a 4th grader reports that she felt she “was going to die” from test anxiety, she’s telling the truth. The responses of her autonomic nervous system are the same whether she’s taking a math test or sensing actual physical danger.

Even children who have not suffered adverse childhood experiences may struggle with frequent “mismatches” between the severity of a stimulus (a routine pop quiz) and their response (loss of peripheral vision, sweating, nausea, terror and immobility). In children suffering from trauma, these “mismatches” become chronic and habitual.

Our Solution: Mindfulness

Because the roots of toxic stress lie deep in the nervous system, we need tools that go beyond the conceptual mind to directly target that system. To transform our habitual responses, we need to regularly practice our skills when we are not in “fight – flight – freeze” mode.

“Under duress we don’t rise to our expectations, we fall to our level of training.”
-Bruce Lee

Our courses establish two forms of training as the foundation for teaching
other methods of stress management, emotion regulation and interpersonal skills.

The Development of Mindfulness

The development of mindfulness, a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, emotions, sensations and surrounding environment.

The Development of Heartfulness

The intentional nurturing of positive mind states such as kindness and compassion.

 

 

These two trainings improve our ability to manage a number of significant psychological challenges associated with stress, including:

  • Overwhelm. The sense that life – and particularly your own thoughts and emotions – is “too much to handle.”
  • Busyness. The sense that “doing things” has become compulsive – that you are constantly avoiding simply being with yourself.
  • Rumination. The sense that the same stressful thought patterns “loop” over and over again in your mind without being questioned.
  • Dissociation. The sense that you maintain unhealthy psychological distance from life and from people, cut off from your own and other people’s emotions.
  • Narcissism. The sense that life is about defending, protecting and enhancing one’s sense of self. A lack of empathy for the needs of others and an inability to take compassionate action.

Not Just Coping. Thriving.

In discussing how mindfulness practice addresses stress and other problems in education, we don’t want to lose sight of the fact that mindfulness can take us beyond the terrain of managing symptoms to a place where we are developing the deepest capacities of the human mind.

We can think of the process as a spectrum:

Spectrum-of-Stress_v3

Modern Mindfulness - A Brief History

Mindfulness-Based Interventions (MBIs) have nearly 35 years of research & development supporting them, and have moved progressively through three large institutional cultures: health care, mental health, & education. The timeline below gives some important milestones in this progression.

Mindfulness Timeline

  • Healthcare

    Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn develops Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)

  • Mental Health

    Development of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT)

  • Education

    First round of formalized mindfulness in education interventions training teachers in self-care, resiliency and wellness and training students in mindfulness techniques

  • Mental Health

    MBCT endorsed by the United Kingdom’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence

  • Education

    Inaugural Mindful Schools in-class program

  • Education

    More serious research designs initiated. Publication of first meta-analyses of mindfulness in education

  • Healthcare

    MBSR in more than 200 medical centers, hospitals and clinics; more than 1,300 published studies show symptom reductions across a wide range of diagnoses as well as neurobiological impacts

  • Education

    Students and teachers worldwide have access to mindfulness programs

Benefits

Solid scientific evidence suggests that mindfulness interventions improve attention, self-control, emotional resilience, recovery from addiction, memory and immune response. Here’s a summary of benefits particularly relevant to educators:

Attention

Attention

Strengthens our "mental muscle" for bringing focus back where we want it, when we want it.
Emotional Regulation

Emotional Regulation

Observing our emotions helps us recognize when they occur, to see their transient nature, and to change how we respond to them.
Adaptability

Adaptability

Becoming aware of our patterns enables us to gradually change habitual behaviors wisely.
Compassion

Compassion

Awareness of our own thoughts, emotions, and senses grows our understanding of what other people are experiencing.
Calming

Calming

Breathing and other mindfulness practices relax the body and mind, giving access to peace independent of external circumstances.
Resilience

Resilience

Seeing things objectively reduces the amount of narrative we add to the world's natural ups and downs, giving us greater balance.