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Voices: “Mindfulness” in schools to combat stress

Former school principal turned leadership consultant Rona Wilensky argues that as long as schools remain bastions of stress students won’t learn.

I first began my career in education reform in 1984 and in all these years I have never seen more pressure on adults and children in schools.



Race to the Top, state level legislation tying teacher and administrator evaluations to student test scores and mandates that teachers master complex new pedagogies to implement the Common Core – not to mention years of budget cuts – have raised the stakes and necessarily, the fears and anxieties of adults working in schools. And in an enterprise as deeply inter-personal as teaching, the stress these initiatives create in school staff is directly transmitted to students. For as every parent or teacher knows, young people are brilliant detectors of the emotional temperature of the adults they depend on.

At the same time, the non-school pressures on children, especially poor children of color, intensified with the recession and slow economic recovery. Unemployed parents, housing disruptions, physical and mental health crises, crime and poverty continue unabated, burdening children with worry about their day-to-day survival.

In short, schools transmit and receive high levels of stress on a daily basis.

Coincidentally, embedded in most of the new policy initiatives is an implicit theory of change – that intense expectations on adults and children in schools will lead to unprecedented new levels of learning in the craft of teaching and the education of children.   Unfortunately, this model of change flies in the face of strong evidence that stress and deep learning are, in fact, negatively correlated.

Research has shown that under some forms of pressure we can get very good at tightly focused attention as well as memorizing information or displaying what we have memorized. However, narrow focus and memorization – while useful – are no longer our priority goals for teachers or students.

The research that is more relevant to the current situation shows that chronic states of stress usually compromise the body, the emotions and the mind in ways that interfere with the very kind of learning we say we want: high-level, creative, inter-disciplinary and collaborative problem-solving.

Stress has been implicated in weakened immune systems, which lead not only to more frequent short-term illnesses but also to the onset of chronic diseases, such as high blood pressure, diabetes and cardiovascular disorders in both adults and children. As all of us know too well, illness in any form drains energy, motivation and the capacity to be physically present – all of which are essential to mastering complex learning tasks.

Chronic stress is also associated with anxiety, depression and disordered sleep – further interfering with learning. And it can heighten emotional reactivity, which compromises healthy relationships, effective communication and good decision-making – key elements in the 21st century skill set.

Stress exerts its negative effects on learning by compromising the workings of the pre-frontal cortex, the very site of the executive functions crucial to the development of other traits we say we want:  creativity, cognitive flexibility, self-control and discipline.

In short, there is a high likelihood that the stress we have created for educators and the stresses we ignore in our students’ lives will undermine our best efforts to raise the bar and close the achievement gap.

Combatting stress in schools

What can be done?  It is unlikely that educational or economic policies will change in the short run, although I certainly encourage and applaud efforts that tackle them head on. In the meantime, we need a strategy to prevent what cannot immediately be changed from derailing our best intentions. What I’m about to offer may seem like small potatoes, but it has a strong track record in the worlds of physical and mental health and is an emerging intervention in myriad other sectors, such as the military, business and the other professions. I encourage schools to both acknowledge the almost unbearable intensity of the situation we are in and intentionally support the use of stress-reducing strategies, including mindfulness practices.

Conventional stress reduction looks like a laundry list of New Year’s resolutions – eat better, sleep more and exercise daily – all important and useful antidotes to the toxicity that stress creates. More and more, however, stress reduction prescriptions include a recommendation to begin and sustain a regular mindfulness practice, which affects an even deeper level of change. Dubbed the “mindfulness revolution” by Congressman Tim Ryan of Youngstown, Ohio, in his book The Mindful Nation, advocates, including myself, recommend formal practices in which we learn to train our capacity to be fully present in the moment and notice when our minds have wandered, to cultivate kindness toward ourselves and others and to develop new ways of relating to habitual thoughts and emotions.

Early research has shown that regular mindfulness practice has transformative effects on our ability to cope with intense challenges in our lives: it leads to better regulation of anxiety, depression and emotional volatility; replaces reactivity with responsiveness by helping to create a space between stimuli and action in which we can more thoughtfully weigh our choices; and supports commitments to engage in more self-care and finding a balance between “doing” and “being” in our lives.

Across the nation, including Colorado, evidence-based programs in mindfulness are being offered to educators and students as an important strategy for increased well being in difficult times. When adults are calmer and more present, students feel seen and cared for, laying the social and emotional foundation for the hard work of high-level learning. When students learn to regulate their own stress, they develop a sense of efficacy that empowers them to take greater responsibility for their own lives and learning.

If you’d like more information about mindfulness in general, visit www.mindful.org, the home base for the mindfulness revolution.  For a comprehensive view of mindfulness programming and research in education visit www.garrisoninstitute.org and click on the link to the Initiative on Contemplative Teaching and Learning. It may just change your life for good.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.