Passing by a classroom where students are sitting quietly with their eyes closed might have seemed strange a few years ago, before mindfulness became commonplace in schools. But today, most educators wouldn’t pause at the scene.
Research shows that mindfulness meditation can reduce anxiety, improve emotion regulation and increase compassion—benefits that account for its rising popularity among K–12 educators. But some culturally responsive educators worry that using mindfulness meditation in the classroom can send a dangerous message to students struggling within an inequitable education system.
“What we’re doing when we teach mindfulness to [only] students is saying, ‘Here’s how to cope with school,’” says Barbara Dray, lead consultant with the LLC Transforming Practices in Education. “That’s not sufficient. I want to have their voices be valued at school.”
Jey Ehrenhalt, a Teaching Tolerance staff member with a background in mindfulness studies, agrees. “What we don’t want to do is communicate to students that when your school system is failing you, the best way to cope is to sit still and be quiet and compliant,” Ehrenhalt says.
In other words, implementing mindfulness programs without integrating culturally responsive practices is akin to treating the symptoms of inequitable education without addressing the cause. Mindfulness, without a teacher trained in both meditation and cultural competency, may inadvertently teach students to resign themselves to inequity and injustice.
“In schools, we need to have a whole recognition of the different situations that are creating the suffering of our children,” Dray says.
One example of the inequities mindfulness can perpetuate is harmful disciplinary practices. According to the 2014 U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights Data Snapshot, students of color and students with disabilities are referred to law enforcement at highly disproportional rates. Mindfulness practiced by students may reduce some of the behaviors that lead to referrals, but it doesn’t address implicit biases in their teachers, which can harm students in numerous ways.
For meditation in schools to reap social emotional benefits without undermining equity and cultural competency, a more responsive—and responsible—approach is necessary. Ideally such an approach is two-pronged: One, educators must acknowledge their own biases and adopt pedagogical practices that acknowledge and challenge systemic inequities; and, two, they must hone their own mindfulness practice before bringing it into the classroom.
What is mindfulness?
“Mindfulness is simply nonjudgmental awareness of what’s happening right now, being curious and compassionate about what’s happening in the present moment.”
—Erica Marcus, Mindful Schools Instructor
Part of the problem, says Erica Marcus, a Mindful Schools instructor in Portland, Maine, is that many educators aren’t aware of their biases. Marcus, who teaches mindfulness to teachers and students throughout New England, asserts that without confronting their innately held beliefs, teachers will continue to discipline their students unfairly. Engaging teachers in mindfulness practice, she says, can help.
Dray’s approach to mindfulness work asks teachers to “unpack the clash” that they’re having with their students. She begins her workshops by asking teachers to “empty their cup”: acknowledging and discussing the negative thoughts they might have about students. For many educators, she says, it can be a difficult, sometimes embarrassing process, but it’s a necessary first step.
Next, Dray talks about intercultural communication theory, or the idea that the statements we hear about people often fall into three categories: evaluative, interpretive and descriptive. She presents teachers with a stereotypical evaluative statement like “Refugee kids steal.” They then unpack it together and move to a more interpretive version: “Refugee kids take more than their fair share during snack time.” Dray finally moves to a purely descriptive statement: “Some refugee students took two boxes of raisins during snack time and put them in their backpacks.”
Once the educators move to a purely descriptive statement, it’s easier to reflect. Why might this be happening? Where is this behavior coming from?
For some educators, these questions mark the beginning of a journey toward becoming a culturally connected teacher, says Dray. Once educators gain awareness of their own implicit biases, they can more effectively teach mindfulness to their students in a way that doesn’t mask harmful patterns or practices.
Students with known mental health issues or histories of trauma may not be good candidates for mindfulness meditation in a classroom setting. A psychologist or counselor should always be involved in the decision about whether those students should participate.
Rona Wilensky, director of mindfulness programs at the Colorado-based nonprofit PassageWorks, agrees that an experienced teacher is fundamental to successful implementation of mindfulness meditation in the classroom.
She suspects that hasty implementation lies at the root of anti-bias educators’ concerns about mindfulness practice in schools. “I think teachers and educators in general tend to be people who prioritize their clients above themselves, and so they want to know ‘How can I use this in my classroom with my kids tomorrow?’ … That’s an incredibly positive attribute … [but] it leaves a blind spot.”
She says that, in a quest for quick implementation, many schools bring in outside experts to lead sessions or resort to push-and-play methods like videos. Without a strong personal mindfulness background, teachers are left unable to respond to students’ needs as they arise throughout the process.
What needs to happen, says Wilensky, is for teachers to first be trained themselves in mindfulness meditation so they can then guide their students. This way, teachers become prepared to address the types of student difficulties the practice might bring up.
Marcus adds that there are a few important points that even experienced meditators need to focus on when bringing kids to the practice. First, she says, mindfulness practice should never be mandatory. Meditation can activate traumatic memories or thoughts for some children. Teachers should be prepared for this, and understand that mindfulness can mean acknowledging negative emotions and giving students opportunities to process them. Students should always have a way to opt out gracefully in the middle of a practice session if they become uncomfortable.
Keep Religion Out of It
Mindfulness meditation is often associated with Buddhism, which may be a stumbling block for some administrators or parents. Rona Wilensky of PassageWorks emphasizes the point that mindfulness is not a religion but a scientifically based practice.
Make sure that the mindfulness practice you bring into your classroom is purely secular. That means taking care to not use objects associated with any particular religion, nor to introduce literature that is religious in nature.
Debriefing is important, says Marcus. Students need validation that their experience was “correct.” There is no wrong way to be mindful, and many kids need to be told explicitly that their experience—whatever it was—is okay. Marcus also reminds educators to consider room setup. Something as simple as avoiding a circle configuration where kids have to close their eyes while facing someone can help to make the space feel safer for newcomers to mindfulness meditation.
And finally, says Marcus, the most important thing to remember as a new classroom practitioner of mindfulness meditation is to always bring your own compassion, experience and understanding. As Dray says, “At the end of the day, it’s about connecting with each other on a human level.”
Ehrenhalt emphasizes that being very honest about the motive for implementing mindfulness is critical. “Educators should clarify their intention before bringing mindfulness into the classroom,” Ehrenhalt says. “While teaching kids to meditate may appear to be helping them stay calm and controlled, on the inside, it’s doing just the opposite. Teachers will only understand this once they have practiced themselves.”
While not a magic pill, mindfulness can be one piece of a culturally responsive approach that equips students with skills that can benefit them in multiple areas of life—without neglecting a school’s commitment to equity.
“It’s when we use [mindfulness] for our own purposes, in an instrumental way to meet something that’s not intrinsic to the practice, that we run the risk of abusing it,” says Wilensky. “I think it has a transformative power when we do it with integrity and fidelity.”
Pettway is a former Lily Peter fellow, Raymond L. Barnes Poetry Award winner, and two-time Pushcart Prize nominee. Currently, she teaches creative writing in Bogotá, Colombia.
How to Get Started
Rona Wilensky says getting started practicing and teaching mindfulness meditation in a school setting isn’t difficult—but it is essential that educators prepare themselves appropriately.
1. Team up.
Tackling any new task alone can be daunting. Find a couple (or more!) fellow educators who are interested in learning more about mindfulness.
2. Educate yourself.
Check out a book or video on mindfulness basics for both adults and students. It’s essential to understand both. The book and CD set Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the Present Moment and Your Life, by Jon Kabat-Zinn, is a good place to start.
3. Connect to the community.
Not all communities have mindfulness meditation groups, but many do, particularly if you’re near a university. Connecting with others who are more experienced with mindfulness practice can deepen your practice.
4. Practice, practice, practice.
There’s no substitute for experience. Make sure to turn to your peer group and mindfulness community when you hit a stumbling block. And give yourself at least a few months of daily sitting, to experience the process, before you introduce it to students.
5. Check in with yourself.
Is mindfulness meditation changing how you behave in the classroom? How you interact with students? The practice will not always represent a quick fix, but noting the effects of mindfulness on your life can help you recognize the progress you’re making and prepare you to answer students’ questions.
6. Spread the news.
Keep your administration and parents informed. Provide information on research and be clear about exactly what you’ll be doing in the classroom.
7. Start small.
Introduce mindfulness a few minutes at a time. Feel things out with a simple exercise like taking three breaths when returning to the classroom after recess.