Why Is Mindfulness Needed in Education?

Today’s educators and students carry so much on their shoulders. Meeting academic and social expectations – and simply growing up and developing a sense of self and belonging – can be tough. Yet the pressures in today’s educational environment reach far beyond these basics. Our world is moving and changing faster than ever.

We need a response that addresses the overall health and sustainability of learning environments and supports the well-being of every educator, student, and member of the school community.

Students Face New Challenges

Anxiety

Nearly 1 in 3 adolescents will meet criteria for an anxietydisorder by the age of 18. 1

Trauma

46% of all children in the U.S. have experienced at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE). 2

Distraction

On average, U.S. teens spend 9 hours a day on digital entertainment, excluding school work. 3

Isolation

Nearly 40% of high school seniors report that they often feel lonely and left out. 4

An increasing number of today’s students face challenges that affect their ability to focus attention, regulate difficult emotions, build inner resilience, and form healthy and supportive relationships.

In response, we need to learn effective ways to help calm our students’ anxious nervous systems while providing them with supportive relationships, nurturing experiences, and positive learning environments.  

Educators Are Burning Out

Stress

61% of teachers report being stressed out. 5

Mental Health

58% of teachers say their mental health is “not good.” 5

Burnout

Public school educators are quitting their jobs at the highest rate on record. 6

Educators are tasked with teaching the next generation of leaders; yet their working conditions lack the support needed to ensure their success. Unsustainable conditions can manifest through decreased productivity and creativity, and escalate to more serious symptoms like anxiety, dissociation, frustration, and, eventually, burnout.

In response, we need to provide more support and investment in educators’ development and well-being.

Toxic Stress Is Real

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 contemporary education system, healthy stress is often displaced by toxic stress.

Toxic stress occurs when life’s demands consistently outpace our ability to cope with those demands.

Toxic stress is challenging to work with because the stress response taps into some very old survival hardware in our evolutionary biology. When a fourth 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 pop quiz) and their response (loss of peripheral vision, sweating, nausea, terror, or immobility). In children suffering from trauma, these “mismatches” become chronic and habitual.

To transform our habitual responses and build resilience, we need to create the space to regularly practice our skills when we are not in “fight – flight – freeze” mode.

“Mindfulness has been a very powerful experience for my staff. My work with Mindful Schools helped me reach a better understanding of how mindfulness could be taught to children and profoundly affect the culture of a whole school.”

– Kit Flynn
Principal, Ann Arbor, MI

How Mindfulness Helps

Mindfulness is a way of supporting students and educators so that they can not only survive, but thrive.

Not Just Surviving …

Research finds that mindfulness practice can help decrease stress and anxiety, and strengthen resilience and emotional regulation, for both adults and children.

Because the roots of stress, and 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 and build resilience, we need to create the space to regularly practice our skills when we are not in “fight – flight – freeze” mode. Professional development trainings at Mindful Schools support educators to explore different aspects of mindfulness practice in their classrooms and everyday lives.

… Thriving

Yet, the benefits of mindfulness can take students and educators beyond the terrain of managing symptoms to a place where they are also developing deeper human capacities that support their healthy development.

Research finds that mindfulness practice can increase attention, improve interpersonal relationships, and strengthen compassion.

Our goal in education is provide emotionally supportive learning environments that can offer students and educators ways to calm their nervous systems, focus their attention, work with their emotions, and cultivate open and curious minds. In these mindful learning environments and “mindful schools,” a new generation of students will be nurtured and prepared to lead a thriving world.

The Benefits of Mindfulness

Solid scientific evidence shows that mindfulness practice improves attention, self-control, emotional resilience, recovery from addiction, memory, immune response, and more. This summarizes benefits that are particularly relevant to educators; these are fundamental human abilities that when fostered through mindfulness practice will contribute to greater well-being in our school communities.

Manage Stress & Anxiety

Mindfulness practice helps educators notice the impact of toxic stress and anxiety and develop the skills to more effectively transform stressful situations.
 

Strengthen Cognitive Health & Attention

Mindfulness contributes to greater clarity in executive choice, decision-making, and healthy cognitive functioning. It strengthens our “mental muscle” for bringing focus back where we want it, when we want it.

Model Compassion & Kindness

As an educator’s mindfulness practice deepens, they develop a stronger capacity for self-care and self-compassion and ability to nurture, comfort, and heal themselves, students, and others.

Cultivate Awareness & Balance

Mindfulness gives us the skills to be present with our emotions, especially the difficult ones. Mindfulness practice can help reduce their intensity and impact on us and allows for new possibilities and patterns.

Foster Empathy & Connection

Mindfulness practice is a powerful way to develop a deeper sense of connection with both ourselves and others. Building our capacity for empathy supports us in effective communication, collaboration and leadership.
 

Grow Resilience

Mindfulness equips educators with resources like patience, flexibility, and equanimity, helping them to cope with adversity. Cultivating positive states – calm, relaxation, and peace – builds our inner strength to take on the daily challenges in schools.

Further Reading

1 National Institue of Mental Health. “Prevalence of Any Anxiety Disorder Among Adolescents.” https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/any-anxiety-disorder.shtml

Kessler RC, Chiu WT, Demler O, Merikangas KR, Walters EE. Prevalence, severity, and comorbidity of 12-month DSM-IV disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2005 Jun;62(6):617-27. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15939839/

2 National Survey of Children’s Health. “Adverse Childhood Experiences Among US Children.” 2017. https://www.cahmi.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/aces_fact_sheet.pdf

3 Common Sense Media. “The Common Sense Census: Media Use by Tweens and Teens.” 2015. https://www.commonsensemedia.org/sites/default/files/uploads/research/census_researchreport.pdf

4 O’Donnell, Jayne. “Teens aren’t socializing in the real world. And that’s making them super lonely.” USA Today. 2019. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/health/2019/03/20/teen-loneliness-social-media-cell-phones-suicide-isolation-gaming-cigna/3208845002/

5 American Federation of Teachers. “Educator Quality of Work Life Survey.” 2017. https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/2017_eqwl_survey_web.pdf

6 Hackman and Morath. “Teachers Quit Jobs at Highest Rate on Record.” Wall Street Journal. 2018. https://www.wsj.com/articles/teachers-quit-jobs-at-highest-rate-on-record-11545993052