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The benefits of mindfulness in the classroom


“Existing education fails to bring inner peace,” the Dalai Lama said in Vancouver last October. That’s why humanity is facing a “moral crisis.” His words hit a poignant nerve as we sat tensely in our seats. At that very moment on the other side of the country, Parliament Hill was in lockdown with an unknown number of gunmen and victims inside. At Vancouver’s Chan Centre, we were surrounded by stern-faced security personnel. Everyone was on edge. We had not yet learned that there was a single shooter, an emotionally troubled man. A young Canadian. When the Dalai Lama paused to sip water, we checked our Twitter feeds for updates.

Compassionate Classrooms Rule

Even when regular curriculum includes diversity and social responsibility training, compassionate classrooms come out ahead. UBC’s Dr. Kimberly Schonert-Reichl and her team of researchers compared Grade 4 students from regular classes to those in MindUP, which uses a positive psychology curriculum.

Students in the MindUP program showed an overall 25 percent increase in pro-sociality. Dr. Schonert-Reichl says activities like the ones in MindUP “are aimed at changing the ecology of the classroom environment to one in which belonging, caring, collaboration and understanding others is emphasized.”

Compared to other students, MindUP students:

  • were faster at executive functioning tests
  • had higher year-end math scores
  • had improved cardio-vascular health
  • had reduced blood pressure

Peers reported that MindUP kids were:

  • more likely to share with others
  • better liked by others overall
  • more trustworthy
  • more helpful
  • kinder

Self-reports show that MindUP kids:

  • were more optimistic
  • felt greater empathy for others
  • had fewer depressive symptoms
  • had more positive views of their school

The scene at Parliament Hill was a tragic but timely backdrop to the Dalai Lama’s talk. “Nobody wants suffering. Yet suffering is everywhere,” he said. “We use human intelligence in the wrong way. We create weapons, violence.” As the lockdown spread into Ottawa’s malls and streets, the Dalai Lama and UBC’s foremost education researchers spoke about a more hopeful wave spreading across Canada.

Dr. Kim Schonert-Reichl, a professor in the Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology at the University of British Columbia, explained that British Columbia has become one of the world’s forerunners in compassionate education. Social and emotional competency is now going to be an explicit part of the education system. That means teaching children’s hearts – as well as their brains – is a requirement. Today 90 percent of school districts in B.C. have social and emotional competencies written into their contracts. UBC is now offering a Master’s concentration in Social-Emotional Learning Development for aspiring teachers. Other countries are looking to Canada to watch how these educational shifts unfold.

Negative Behaviours Increasing

Canada’s changes are born out of genuine necessity. Dr. Schonert-Reichl notes the increasing rates of childhood bullying, aggression and depression. The Canadian Mental Health Association reports, “The total number of 12- to 19-year-olds in Canada at risk for developing depression is a staggering 3.2 million.” Anxiety disorders now affect 12 percent of the total population. Narcissism is on the rise, according to Jean M. Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and author of Generation Me. Meanwhile, psychologist and researcher Sara H. Konrath’s studies have shown plummeting empathy rates since the 1980s – especially in the last 10 years.

The causes of this perfect storm are complex and not entirely understood. Increasing economic challenges mean exhausted parents are working harder than ever. Childcare remains unaffordable for many. Consequently, increasing numbers of latch-key kids come home to empty houses to play video games by themselves.

Educational psychologists have long known that social and emotional activities in the classroom can improve student well-being. But until recently, they lacked the empirical data to prove it. When the Dalai Lama spoke in Vancouver a decade ago, he urged UBC’s educational researchers to examine the scientific legitimacy of these new school initiatives.

“Individual teachers can only do so much,” he reminded. “The whole culture needs to be onboard.” Fear and anger are damaging to the immune system and distracting to the brain. Many children feel the “anxiety created by lack of a feeling of oneness,” said the Dalai Lama. “There’s too much emphasis on the self, not enough on others.”

B.C.’s new directive to educate children’s hearts means actively fostering compassion, forgiveness, empathy, and connectedness in the classroom. It means promoting self-regulation and practising kindness and gratitude. It includes popular programs, such as MindUP, which uses positive psychology and mindfulness to encourage self-regulation, kindness, and problem-solving skills. Related programs include the Wellness Initiative and Healthy Schools BC.

These new programs go beyond the social responsibility curriculum already in place in most Canadian schools. And they’re having farther reaching benefits. A typical day inside a socially and emotionally focused elementary classroom might include:

  • meditation
  • mindful eating
  • a visit from an infant and parent
  • an art project about gratitude
  • a perspective-taking activity that encourages empathy

Does Mindfulness Work in the Classroom?

Some parents might be skeptical about the productivity of “mindfully” chewing one’s recess snack. Others worry these activities coddle children and might produce a nation of emotional weaklings, unable to withstand the gentlest storms of life. But these new initiatives are not the result of West Coast administrators sitting around eating a bit too much hemp granola. Under Dr. Schonert-Reichl’s leadership, UBC researchers have administered peer-on-peer reporting, self reports, saliva tests, and compared math scores. The results are in. Social and emotional competency makes students happier and more resilient. It improves their academic performance, reduces blood pressure, and improves cardiovascular health. (See sidebar for more details.)

In one MindUP activity, a teacher reads an emotion-provoking newspaper article. Children are asked to brainstorm feeling words to that relate to the situation. The teacher will choose one word to focus on – perhaps one that enhances emotional vocabulary. Students then illustrate the emotion with an abstract drawing and describe it to a partner. The class discusses global events, such as the ebola outbreak or war, that might raise the same emotion. They may locate the emotion on Dr. Marc Bracett’s emotional intelligence “mood meter.” For homework, students are asked to describe a time when they felt this emotion. Follow-up activities might include further group discussion or a creative writing assignment.

These activities offer many benefits. The kind of analysis and introspection they require promotes “executive functioning.” Executive functioning is complex thinking in the frontal lobe of the brain. It develops significantly through the course of childhood and can be enriched in the classroom.

Psychologists have shown that well-developed executive functioning predicts altruism. Showing other-oriented behaviour – by giving away a cookie or holding someone’s heavy backpack – is cognitively demanding for children, according to a study from Colombian psychologists David Aguilar-Pardo, Rosario Martinez-Arias and Jaime Colmenares. But like everything else, we improve with practice. And when we improve our skills with altruism, other executive functioning activities also benefit.

Something else important is happening in these emotional literacy activities. Students are connecting to each other. They are understanding how an emotion like loneliness or jealousy or shame is sparked by different things – or the very same things. In elementary school, especially during the critical later grades, fear of judgment can hem children into cut-out versions of their real selves.

Researcher Brené Brown addresses this in her TED Talk about vulnerability. “In order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen,” she urges. We must let go of who we think we should be, in order to be who we really are. Only when we accept our real selves, can we experience “true compassion for others.” Students involved in these emotional competency activities develop “the courage to be imperfect,” as René hopes we all will. In doing so, they bond more meaningfully with peers.

Teacher and Student Results

All this bonding, emotional support and mindfulness leads to less anxiety in the classroom. Teachers are noticing the difference. Stress levels are lower and positive social interactions increase. Teachers who participate in these new compassionate classrooms also feel happier and more peaceful. Researchers are hoping to look into those effects next. They also wonder how these improved classrooms might affect families and neighbourhoods.

We cannot protect our children from all of life’s difficulties. But stronger social bonds with peers and teachers buffer stress even in the face of the worst crises. Dr. Schonert-Reichl says, “When you help others, you become happier, you learn more, and you’re more creative, too.”

That good news was much needed on a grim day like that one last October. Our children are growing up in challenging times and we need to equip them with the right tools to face the world. The Dalai Lama event ended early. Before the tense security personnel escorted him out, he left us with this thought: “The last century was very violent. The beginning of the new century, there were also horrible killings. If you attempt to improve now, the end of this century could be more peaceful.”


Vancouver-based Carolye E. Kuchta is a writer and researcher. She has worked as a university professor, a script-writer and an editor for humanitarian organization Susila Dharma International.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, November/ December 2015.

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