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.
Are you a “frequent/heavy media multitasker?” If you, or someone you know, fits this label, read on. I’ll keep it short.
A research team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison recently gathered 1,683 undergraduates, identified roughly 50 students who could be described as either unusually ‘light media multitaskers’ (LMM) or unusually ‘heavy media multitaskers’ (HMM), and then conducted additional tests on the LMM and HMM students. In the latter phase of the investigation, students in the selected groups performed a 10 minute task, either a mindfulness intervention or a control activity (see below), and then completed two mental performance tests (the task-test #1-test #2 sequence was then repeated two more times so that each student could take a total of 6 performance tests).
The team* found that, as expected, the LMM students turned in better scores on the mental performance tests regardless of which task (control/intervention) they performed first, and the tasks didn’t seem to affect their performance much. The HMM students who completed the mindfulness intervention, however, had much better performance scores than the HMM students who performed the control task.
Gary Snyder ’51 begins his essay, Just One Breath: The Practice of Poetry and Meditation (Tricycle, Fall 1991) with a straightforward teaching:
In this world of onrushing events the act of meditation — even just a “one-breath” meditation — straightening the back, clearing the mind for a moment — is a refreshing island in the stream.
What is this “meditation” that even one moment is good? Snyder says,
… it is a simple and plain activity. Attention: deliberate stillness and silence.
There are many types of meditation techniques, but nearly all of them have one instruction in common: when you discover your mind has been wandering, gently pause, observe that you have wandered, and then return to the instructions.
This act of changing direction functions as an attentional reset. It takes only a few moments, but it allows you to reset your focus, your attention, and (at least temporarily) free your mind from one task so that it can take up another.
A 15-minute meditation session might provide over a hundred opportunities for attentional resets, but you don’t need to take a 15-minute break to reset your attention. A few well-timed breaths, a short walk around your building, listening to some music, or almost any focused activity that you can give your undivided attention to, may provide a much needed reset.
I’m discovering that there is fairly large research literature on attentional resets (I’ll just call them “resets”) and I’ll try to share some of that with you. For starters, here is an article, “Hit the Reset Button in Your Brain” (D.J. Levitin, Sunday Review, NY Times, 9 Aug 2014) and two posts from this blog:
Spring Break is right around the corner, and so are midterms, papers, and qualifying exams. Your chances of squeezing a meditation session into your schedule this week are probably zero, but you can still use this simple, portable, breathing technique to calm yourself down when you start to feel crazy:
1. Take a deep breath, expanding your belly. 2. Pause. 3. Exhale slowly to the count of five. 4. Repeat four times.
When you have a little more time, learn more about other controlled breathing tools: Unsure What To Do? Breathe. Exhale. Repeat. (A Quiet Place, 14 Nov 2016)
School starts again in a few weeks. For me that usually means going into overdrive wrapping up summer projects and putting together materials for the new year. If I haven’t found vacation time yet, it probably isn’t going to happen. At least that’s my usual pattern, but a recent NY Times op-ed by Daniel J. Levitin, author of “The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload,” explains why dodging vacation is a bad idea.
According to “Hit the Reset Button in Your Brain” (NY Times, Opinion, Aug. 9), there are two networks in my brain that take turns operating just like two kids going up and down on a seesaw. For my brain to be at its best, the so-called task-positive network, or central executive, needs to shut down periodically so that the task-negative network, or daydreaming mode, can have a chance to operate. More than that, I need to leave my daydreaming mode with unfettered control of my life for extended periods. Switching back and forth rapidly between the two modes just isn’t as beneficial as a good, old-fashioned, turn-the-cell/email-off vacation. Of course, what better way to take a break than sitting meditation for 30 minutes?