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Why Teaching Mindfulness Benefits Students' Learning

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The following is an excerpt from Learning to BREATHE: A Mindfulness Curriculum for Adolescents to Cultivate Emotion Regulation, Attention, and Performance

By Patricia C. Broderick, PhD

What do children and adolescents need to be successful in life? When this question arises, a common answer is “a good education.” Academic success is the goal that is emphasized in standards-based movements about education reform, and it is currently in the forefront of public consciousness. The most typical benchmarks of academic success include outcomes such as test performance, progress through the educational system, and mastery of content knowledge. However, teachers and therapists who work with youth on a day-to- day basis, and who witness their progress and their struggles, know that there is more to this story.

There is little doubt that in addition to academic success, we also want our youth to be happy and well.

These goals are far from being disconnected: we now realize the fundamental role that social and emotional well-being play in the attainment of academic outcomes. Learning to channel attention to productive tasks, to sustain motivation when work becomes demanding, and to handle the frustrations of sharing, learning, and communicating with peers are skills that depend on the ability to understand and manage emotions. These are competencies that children and adolescents learn alongside more traditionally academic ones. Demands for these types of interpersonal, intrapersonal, and problem-solving skills increase as students progress through the school years.


Although the emphasis on academic achievement often captures most of the attention in debates on school reform, important inroads are being made by those who take a more holistic approach to education. [Researchers] Wang, Haertel, and Walberg reported that among eleven factors most important for classroom learning, social and emotional factors accounted for eight. Decades of research on empirically based social and emotional learning programs have consistently shown that well-designed and well-implemented prevention programs offer a means of reducing problem incidence while building skills for mental health, improving classroom behavior, and enhancing achievement.

Many prominent voices have joined together to call for inclusion of social and emotional learning within K–12 school curricula. The mission of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning is to promote social and emotional skill development in schools through comprehensive programming. Personal, social, and emotional learning goals are included within the framework for nationally recognized school counseling and violence-prevention programs.

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Neuroscience, too, has offered evidence to support a holistic message about cognitive, social, and emotional development. Recent scientific advances have led to rejection of a cognitive versus affective framework to describe human cognition. Evidence shows that the prefrontal cortex, considered the center of higher-level cognition in the brain, also plays a dramatically important role in emotion processing and regulation. Thus, the operation of the brain is more like an orchestra than a number of soloists. This paradigm-shifting evidence has forced us to rethink the relationship between reason and emotion. Not only does academic learning depend on social and emotional skills, but also it is virtually impossible to disentangle the two. A report from the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child put it this way:

When feelings are not well managed, thinking can be impaired. Recent scientific advances have shown how the interrelated development of emotion and cognition relies on the emergence, maturation, and interconnection of complex neural circuits in multiple areas of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex, limbic cortex, basal forebrain, amygdala, hypothalamus, and brain stem. The circuits that are involved in the regulation of emotion are highly interactive with those that are associated with “executive functions” (such as planning, judgment, and decision making), which are intimately involved in the development of problem-solving skills during the preschool years. In terms of basic brain functioning, emotions support executive functions when they are well regulated, but interfere with attention and decision making when they are poorly controlled.

Reports of student academic performance often find their way into local newspapers in features that compare schools within and across districts. What garners less attention is the fact that schools are also charged with oversight and management of students’ emotional and behavioral problems. Counselors and therapists, both inside and outside of schools, know all too well the toll that such difficulties take on young people’s development. Recent large-scale epidemiological studies paint a dramatic and disturbing picture of the state of youth mental health. The landmark report in 2000 by the US Surgeon General (US Department of Health and Human Services, US Department of Education, & US Department of Justice) revealed that one in ten of our young people suffers from a mental health condition that meets diagnostic criteria, and one in five suffers from problems that significantly impair day-to-day functioning, including academic achievement and social relationships. Ten years later, the first national representative sample of over ten thousand US adolescents, the NCS-A, reveals an even starker view. Approximately half of adolescents sampled (49.5 percent) met lifetime criteria for at least one diagnosed (DSM-IV) mental disorder, and 40 percent of these individuals met criteria for at least one additional mental disorder. Of this affected group, about one in four or five experienced symptoms so severe as to significantly impair their functioning across the life span.

Mindfulness has the potential to be a very useful component in prevention and treatment efforts because of its effectiveness in reducing emotional distress and promoting emotional balance, improving attention, and contributing to motivated learning. Virtually all social-emotional learning (SEL) programs and many therapeutic modalities recognize that adaptive development rests on the child’s maturing capacity for emotion regulation. Emotion regulation is increasingly viewed by contemporary researchers as a foundation for well-being and positive adjustment throughout the life span. Emotion regulation processes may be defined as those strategies used to moderate affective experiences in order to meet the demands of different situations or to achieve certain goals. Such processes can include identification, differentiation, and acceptance of emotional experiences; ability to manage distress and modulate excitement; capacity to sustain motivation; prioritization among competing goals; and adaptive adjustment of behavioral responses . Difficulties in emotion regulation are at the root of many adolescent disorders, including depression, eating disorders, deliberate self-injury, substance-abuse disorders , and greater reactivity to stress.

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It is suggested here that there is a difference between knowing about emotions and knowing your own emotions as they are experienced. In addition to learning about emotions, there is a distinct advantage in learning how to notice what’s happening in the present moment. Attending to and identifying emotions can mitigate the emotional reaction and increase emotional balance and clarity. This practice offers the opportunity to develop hardiness in the face of uncomfortable feelings that otherwise might provoke a response that could be harmful (for example, “acting out” by taking drugs or displaying violent behavior, or “acting in” by becoming more depressed). Learning to attend to your present-moment experience, called “mindfulness,” offers adolescents a tool to manage emotions as they are perceived and potentially increase in magnitude. Mindfulness training can complement and strengthen other approaches and therapies that promote emotion regulation, reduce stress, and develop attention.

Mindfulness has been defined as a certain way of paying attention: “on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally." Mindfulness provides a means of handling distress with intention and nonjudgment via several proposed mechanisms: First, bringing attention to the present-moment experience of thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations shifts cognitive focus away from the past (such as a memory of a troubling incident) and the future (such as apprehension of impending trouble), thereby disrupting the connections between automatic cognitive interpretations and patterns of reacting. Second, focus on present-moment internal and external experience broadens attention and allows for suspension of previously practiced patterns of reacting (avoidance or overengagement), sometimes called decentering. Third, the quality of nonjudgment that is essential to mindfulness permits the observation of your experience without judgment or evaluation. The practice of orienting to experience with curiosity and acceptance strengthens tolerance for distress by altering automatic response patterns described previously. When practiced regularly, mindfulness can provide a powerful tool for restoring emotional balance and preventing engagement in harmful behavior.

To understand mindfulness and its role in child and adolescent development, it is also important to consider the nature of attention and the ways in which we typically construe it. We often think of attention as a trait-like characteristic that is relatively immutable or inborn.

Screen Shot 2013-09-11 at 3.31.53 PMFor example, students might be described as having “short attention spans” or as “highly attentive.” Or attention is viewed as so fragile and subject to distraction that it has to be “caught” by creative teachers or engaging clinicians. As noted earlier, attention is often seen as something separate from emotion, despite evidence from research and personal experience that shows how emotional states significantly affect the quality and the objects of our attention. In addressing emotion regulation through the teaching of mindfulness, attention is viewed as a skill that can be trained to observe the whole range of cognitive and emotional experiences that present themselves. It is a capacity that can be refined with practice so that it can be directed and maintained, intentionally and with greater stability, on objects of your choosing.

Mindfulness is attentiveness to the present as it is happening. This is quite a different way of using the mind from what we typically experience. Most of the time, children and adolescents use their minds to manipulate ideas or concepts, to recall information from the past or from their storehouse of knowledge, to imagine future circumstances, to plan, to calculate, or to schedule. These are just some of the important functions of mind that improve as children age and that are enhanced through schooling. But there is also a present-moment mind that is aware of unfolding thoughts, feelings, and sensations. This quality of mind allows for meta-awareness of those circumstances, plans, and calculations as they unfold. Mindfulness allows the individual to gain entrance to the workings of the mind such that, as some adolescents put it, it’s possible to have “space in my mind,” allowing them to see that “changing thoughts and feelings are nothing but travelers stopping by for a quick stay.” This realization can be deeply empowering as students come to recognize their potential for riding the waves of experience with greater equanimity. The inner reserve of mindful awareness is available to everyone, and these faculties of mind, developed with practice, have direct relevance to burgeoning self-awareness, to self-regulation, and to the emotional balance that supports fully engaged learning and well-being.

Activity With Students: Mindful Walkabout

This activity can be used at any point in the six-or eighteen-session version of the program when an outdoor exercise is appropriate. The objective is to observe something in nature closely and mindfully, and share it with the group through art or poetry. This activity works best when an outdoor park or natural area is available, although it could also be done in other settings.

Provide each group member with a pad of paper and a pencil. Invite them to take a mindful walk around the area and notice the natural world. When they come to something of interest, perhaps something that they have never noticed before, instruct them to stop and observe mindfully (notice shape, color, texture, movement, context, size, and so on). Encourage them to observe with appreciation and interest. Ask them to use the paper and pencil to draw a “map” of the walk and a sketch of the objects of mindful observation. The entire activity might take ten to fifteen minutes or longer if desired. No particular expertise in art is required. Ring a bell to return to the group setting.

After the walkabout, observers might share their experiences with the whole group. This could include describing the map of the particular path. You may also invite group members to complete a couplet (two-lined poem) based on their experience of mindful observation. Choose one opening line for the whole group, or assign different ones to each member. It’s helpful to print out the first line on a piece of paper and allow group members to write the second line of about seven to nine syllables. Members can then read their couplets aloud individually or chorally, adding their lines to create a whole-group poem. Some possible opening lines include:

  • Happy for the chance to stop and look
  • Still for a while, I pause and look
  • Holding in my steady gaze
  • What have I seen on my journey?
  • What is more beautiful than this?
  • Walking the path, I see what’s hidden

Moving to Practice

1. Emphasize that we’re learning to pay attention in a particular way.

2. Start by paying attention to the body (add the “B” poster to the wall, leaving space for the letters that will come in between the “B” and the last “E”).

3. Introduce basic awareness of breath and move to the “Body Scan” (later in this section).

4. Introduce real-life mindfulness (see the list of possibilities in the student workbook, for example, “Mindfulness in My Life” in the workbook).

Practicing paying attention in an open and interested way is the first step. We can start our training in mindfulness by paying attention to the body. Sometimes, as we shall see, our minds are stuck in the future or in the past, but the body is always in the present. Much of the time we don’t pay very much attention to our bodies. Sometimes we pay too much attention to one aspect of the body, but neglect the whole. So we begin our mindful-awareness training by focusing on the body as a whole.

After a short period, ask what this experience was like:

What did you notice about this type of breathing?

This is often called “shallow breathing” and is associated with anxious states. Shallow breathing can result in reduced oxygen intake and can make you feel fatigued. Now place your hands on your belly and breathe from there. Notice the movement as the breath comes in and leaves the belly.

After a short period, ask what this experience was like:

What did you notice about this type of breathing? How was it different?

Belly breathing feels more relaxing. The body can be trained to breathe in a healthier way.

Now let’s try a complete breath. Put one hand on your chest and the other on your belly, and allow the breath to move in from your nostrils, fill your lungs, and expand your belly. Then exhale through your nostrils. Notice how the whole body was involved. This is the kind of breathing we’ll be practicing in the “Body Scan.”

Reprinted with permission: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
copyright (c) 2013 [Patricia C. Broderick, PhD]

Patricia C. Broderick, PhD, is a research associate at the Prevention Research Center for the Promotion of Human Development at Penn State University and founder of the Stress Reduction Center at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. A graduate of the mindfulness-based stress reduction advanced practicum at the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, Broderick is a licensed clinical psychologist as well as a certified school psychologist and counselor for grades K through 12.



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