Life can be touch on kids, and kids can be tough on each other. A recent NPR Morning Edition story (20 Feb, 2020) brought this point home as it described how mindfulness practices are being used to help schoolchildren attending a high-needs elementary school in Nashville, TN. (Mindfulness Transforms Culture at High-Needs Elementary School)
The stage for the story is set when a 4th grader appears at the mindfulness room in the elementary school that has been set up by the school’s designated mindfulness teacher. The boy has come to the room because he is feeling worked up by a physical confrontation he had just had with another student who had bullied him in art class. Together, the student and the teacher go over the events. The teacher provides emotional support and assurance for the boy, and also leads him through some breathing exercises that loosen the “fight or flight” feelings that had gripped the boy. Ultimately, the boy is able return to class feeling calmer and with greater confidence in his personal safety.
Situations that generate some degree of “fight or flight” are not unique to elementary schools. “Stage fright” is not just a problem for those in the theater. Speaking out in conference, working with an unfamiliar apparatus in lab, knocking on a professor’s door to initiate a conversation, these are all known stressors for college students, and some type of mindfulness practice might be used to reduce these stresses.
Two other features of the NPR story also deserve mention. Mindfulness can be beneficial, but it shouldn’t be treated as a band-aid. When the sources of stress are systemic in nature – poverty, implicit bias, and so on – we should also be looking at how to change the system so that the sources of stress are reduced. In addition, mindfulness practice, like other healthy habits, needs to be normalized. It isn’t something that someone else does when they are struggling. It is something we, teachers as well as students, can all practice so that the tools are available to us whenever they are needed.
As colleges and universities across the country report an explosion of mental health problems, a new book argues that college life may be more stressful than ever. Dr. Anthony Rostain, co-author of The Stressed Years of Their Lives, notes that today’s college students are experiencing an “inordinate amount of anxiety” — much of it centered on “surviving college and doing well.”introduction to NPR’s Fresh Air interview with the book’s authors, 28 May 2019
College has always been stressful. I can recall my own first days of college, and I have also spent the past four decades observing what incoming (and returning) students go through year after year. And, to best of my recollection, much of that stress has derived from our wish to not only survive the experience, but to also handle every academic and social challenge perfectly.
Life can be very fine in so many ways, but it is never, never perfect. The image we try to measure ourselves against is ill-conceived (define an all-encompassing ‘perfect life’ for me).
Understanding the impossible nature of perfection is not an excuse for turning our backs on effort, on goals, and on life. But to see the images of perfection as they arise in our minds and to set them aside, and to likewise see the self-judgments arise that we are somehow defective or lacking and to set them aside as well, this is the opportunity that a meditation practice can offer.
The interview is worth listening to. The sources of stress that college students routinely deal with go far beyond what I have mentioned here, and from my observations, they seem endemic in society as a whole. We must help each other heal.
I would like to share news about an upcoming webinar, ‘Begin with Wholeness, End with Joy’, presented by Maria Hamilton Abegunde, Visiting Lecturer, Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies, Indiana University, Bloomington. This webinar focuses on how Ms. Abegunde, a poet, priest, and healer, uses contemplative and ritual practices in her courses on Black Feminisms to help students navigate through emotionally-charged material without being overwhelmed by feelings of personal crisis and injustices past and current.
The live webinar will be Nov. 30, 11 am, and is free. If you can’t watch at that time, you can watch a recording of the webinar by going to the host organization’s (Assoc. for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education) web site. More information about the webinar topic, the presenter, and links to past webinar offerings are available online at the ACMHE web page.
I recently tackled a new issue: how to get children to practice mindful activities (Mindful Games for Kids, 10 Aug 2017). In that post I said, “I can’t picture an 8 year-old sitting on a cushion, silently counting in- and out-breaths.” Now a post on the Trike Daily blog (A. Tzelnic, 2 Aug 2017), “Little Buddhas in the Classroom,” tells me that I may have underestimated the possibilities. Perhaps starting Chem 201 classes by putting away phones followed by 30 seconds of silence?
Disclaimer: the post describes 4th-6th graders so 10-12 year-olds?
Meditation traditions (zen, for example) often encourage meditation without any thought of personal gain. However, this has not prevented researchers from looking for possible benefits (and harms) that meditation might bring about. Stress, focus, attention management have all been investigated, and now researchers are looking into academic performance.
con·tem·plate – verb, “look thoughtfully for a long time at”
It might seem like contemplation has a natural role to play in education. Learning anything new would seem to involve looking, being thoughtful, investing time. But nothing can raise student (and faculty and administrator) highbrows faster, or higher, than suggesting that classroom time be given over to silent contemplation. So a recent Washington Post story (To get students to focus, some professors are asking them to close their eyes, Washington Post, A. Reiner, 7 Apr 2016) about Bryn Mawr physical chemistry professor, Michelle Francl, and her use of silent contemplation to lead students through some of the mathematical mysteries of quantum mechanics got me thinking … so much of organic chemistry is visual. What might my students gain if I paused over a complicated structural formula and said a la Francl, “We’re going to take a minute and a half and just look at it”?