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When mindfulness meets the remote classroom

When mindfulness meets the remote classroom

Picture of Susan  Abram
Students practice mindfulness practice
Photo credit: (Photo: Rodger Bosch/AFP via Getty Images)

Lizbeth Gonzalez teaches the practice of mindfulness in some of the most distressed schools in the San Francisco Bay Area. One day, a fifth grader shared something unexpected.

“I'm glad I know this and I can practice this,” Gonzalez recalled the 10-year-old as saying. “This way I will now know not to kill someone, because I saw someone killed in front of my house."

The comment left Lizbeth Gonzalez saddened for what the child had witnessed, but also hopeful for the lesson learned.

Across several states and California in particular, mindfulness programs have come into classrooms. Teachers see benefits when students learn to pause, take deep breaths, and be in the moment to calm stress, anger and anxiety, rather than reacting in a negative way. Before the pandemic, teachers who introduced mindfulness saw higher test scores, fewer fights, and students more willing to share feelings. Now, as COVID-19 presses on and children are forced to stay home and learn remotely, some experts and educators say mindfulness is even more important.

Gonzalez is a program manager for the Mindful Life Project, which has expanded to 25 schools across nine cities. She often hears stories of violence and other traumatic events from young students. While school campuses have closed because of COVID-19, the mindfulness sessions have moved online and Gonzalez allows times for the children to share their thoughts virtually. Most of the children are from immigrant families. They share worries about parents who argue over money, a dad they never see because he works all the time, a mom who may be deported. They also talk about drugs and guns.

JG Larochette founded the Mindful Life Project in 2012, after years as an elementary school teacher in Richmond, California. The area has long experienced high levels of poverty, environmental pollution and violence. Combine all those factors with the constant bad news on social media, cyberbullying and other pressures brought on by technology, and Larochette said he could feel his students’ stress grow.

“We're being pushed further and further away from the present moment and away from ourselves,” Larochette said. “We've created a culture of go, go, go. Do this and do that and run the rat race. We all need that pause. We all need that reset. We're being pulled a thousand directions.”

The pandemic has only increased the pressure. People feel the fatigue of being at home too much or the stress of finding or maintaining jobs, seeking food and supplies, or making sure children are learning online.

Larochette said the harsh circumstances that his students came from weighed on him after a decade of teaching. Depression and anxiety followed and eventually led him to mindfulness. The practice helped him so much he wanted to share it.

“One of the biggest things is kids don’t feel safe in school,” he said.

The practice of mindfulness is not new. People from cultures worldwide seem to understand that taking a few minutes a day to stop, meditate and reflect in the moment can be healing. When children learn the technique, their brains are more likely to adapt to the practice over the long term, Larochette added.

“We should always remember that just like the body needs physical exercise, the mind needs exercise,” he said. “All of us have the ability and the innate capacity to be in the present moment, even at the hardest of times.”

A 2019 report from the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University backs up his words. After studying an eight-week mindfulness program for sixth graders in a Massachusetts school, researchers noted reduced stress and increased attention among the students.

Other studies have found that mindfulness has a greater long-term effect on students ages 15 to 18. Their brains are still developing but they are more likely to retain what they learn, according to Rebecca Hedrick, who specializes in child and adolescent psychiatry at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

“These mindfulness programs will change the way their brain is formed,” Hedrick said. She has found that classroom teachers, whom students know and trust, can inspire students to use mindfulness techniques as a healthy coping strategy. 

When a teacher says, ‘This is a way to deal with anxiety,’ it gives a message that every human has experienced anxiety. My hope is that it helps to normalize these difficult emotions that every human experiences.”

Students have now spent months learning from home, isolated from face-to-face social interactions and friends. Hedrick said she worries about how they will adjust to returning to school. They may have rusty social skills, shyness, and resist opening up to peers. Shorter attention spans are also an issue, as electronics promise instant gratification.

Boredom can feel hazardous to youth, she said, and now that children have grown accustomed to having their needs met at home, they may grow restless in classrooms. Mindfulness teaches that it’s fine to embrace the boring and mundane, Hedrick added.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, the largest in the state, has gradually included such mindfulness programs as interest among teachers has grown. Many started incorporating mindfulness practices on their own. They reported that students were less anxious about tests and less likely to lash out in situations that previously triggered negative responses.

“What we've seen as a district, when we started moving out these mindfulness programs is that teachers were asking for more,” said Adriana Valenzuela, who oversees social-emotional learning for the district. “The word got around, so more teachers started requesting it.”

The district incorporated mindfulness programs for each day of the school week, such as Mindful Monday, Wellness Wednesday and Thoughtful Thursday.

While mindfulness is helpful, it doesn’t substitute for the mental health care that remains inaccessible to many low-income families who may need it, said Susan Ward-Roncalli, a social emotional learning facilitator with LAUSD. “I don’t know if (mindfulness) brings equity to access to mental health.”

Still, mindfulness can help children and their parents recognize the importance of mental health, said Gonzalez of the Mindful Life Project. She has not only seen how the practice can be a lifesaver for young people, but also experienced it firsthand.

As a child of immigrants, she was brought to the United States when she was 12. At college, she struggled with the stress of school and worried about her mom, who had just been diagnosed with cancer. Drugs and alcohol were among the ways that young people in her family and community dealt with the weight of such stress. Gonzalezsaid she fought within herself not to follow that pattern.

Eventually, her path led her to Larochette’s Mindful Life Project, to learn new ways of coping and to teach those methods in the community where she was raised.

“I saw myself in every student,” she said.

Gonzalez said she feels privileged to teach children the practice and see its impact.

“I've been able to witness them change, to love themselves.”

**

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of Lizbeth Gonzalez as Lizbeth Hernandez. It also incorrectly referred to JG Larochette as JG Laroche. Earlier comments on the role of classroom teachers in teaching mindfulness have also been clarified.

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