Mindfulness is Not About Keeping Kids Calm and Compliant

By Jennifer Gunn

The buzz around mindfulness in schools has reached a fever pitch, as evidenced by mindfulness sessions for educators found at every conference and professional development event around the country. One unintended strand of the spread of mindfulness is that some view its practice as a means for keeping students calm, compliant, and under control. And, as mindfulness quickly spreads to typically underserved schools and populations, we run the risk of it being perceived as a crutch for behavior management.

Mindful Schools identifies two forms of mindfulness training. The development of mindfulness:  “a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, emotions, sensations, and surrounding environment.” And the development of heartfulness: “The intentional nurturing of positive mind states, such as kindness and compassion.” Mindfulness itself does not solve injustice or address the very real systemic issues that cause student issues in school. “Meditation and yoga are tools my students and I can use to prepare for, or feel restored after, difficult or emotionally charged work on social injustices,” says Christina Torres, an educator in Honolulu, Hawaii. “Mindfulness is not the solution; it’s a tool. Simply because we are using these tools does not mean we can shirk our responsibility to work alongside our students to understand and fight systemic injustice. We must use mindfulness to restore us for the difficult, but worthwhile, path we walk with our students toward a society that provides them with everything they deserve.”

While mindfulness may lead to calmer classrooms, it is not meant to be merely a classroom management tool. And if we begin to think of it as one, we run the risk of diminishing its true purpose and advantages for students. “Mindfulness on the surface is the missing essential piece of all of our lives,” says New York City Department of Education assistant principal, Walter Brown. “Instituting mindfulness into a toxic classroom with an already imbalanced power structure only reinforces that imbalance. All too often teachers use mindfulness to exercise control on a classroom with the mindset of ‘Look, I can get all of these kids to be quiet.’” To this point, we spoke with Barnaby Spring, director of student services and the director of mindfulness in education in the Office of the First Deputy Chancellor of New York City’s Department of Education.

What is the true purpose of mindfulness in education?

As discourse, discussion, and debate continue to flourish in public and educational environments in accordance with the emergence of mindfulness in education, many purposes of mindfulness are being identified and championed based on increasing scientific, evidence-based research, and school-based quantitative and qualitative reports, working collaboratively with students, parents, educators, community leaders, and city educational and civic leadership.  In the New York City Department of Education we established a workflow, Mindfulness in Education, to respond to the fact that mindfulness and various contemplative practices have been emerging in our citywide school system over the past 30 years.  Primary areas where we see a purpose for Mindfulness in Education are:

  • To provide a holistic foundation for the development of social, emotional, academic, and leadership (civic engagement) learning of all members of the NYCDOE community.
  • To empower students with the agency of self-regulation to increase their capacity to respond in their best educational and civic interests, rather than to react in ways that hinder them in achieving their learning and life-long learning goals.
  • To support the translation of private, personal struggle into identification with others and articulating common issues based on values of compassion and empathy with “the other” in ways that encourage civic engagement and action to realize a more inclusive and democratic society.

What is the risk associated with linking mindfulness to compliance?

The risk of associating mindfulness — or any initiative in public education — with compliance is falling into a habitual pattern of what Dr. Ellen Langer of Harvard University describes as “mindlessness” and/or negative patterns of automaticity.  This is why in the NYCDOE we are not mandating or positing our support of mindfulness in education as a rollout or even a “voluntold.”

We are being mindful about mindfulness in education by introducing the educational leaders, the professional adults in the school, and families to mindfulness in education in ways that provide our educators with the space and time to investigate mindfulness in education — the resources, the reports, the data — so that they might make their own decisions around how they want — or do not want — to use this approach for themselves in their own professional practice and/or in their schools with colleagues, students, and families. Working with superintendents, school leaders, school leadership teams, and elected officials in NYC, we are realizing increasing interest and requests for mindfulness programming in our NYCDOE schools from PreK to 12.

How do you think mindfulness should be used to help/aid/benefit students and their learning?

Based on reports from the field, we find that mindfulness is aiding students in managing stress, and increasing awareness and capacity to sustain attention in all aspects of their lives. We are hearing directly from elementary, middle, and high school students how mindfulness helps them in school, at home, and in the streets to become increasingly aware of themselves and others, and how best to work with their individual thoughts, feelings, and actions as well as the thoughts, feelings, and actions of others.  They are also learning how to develop critical thinking skills necessary for high levels of performance and to engage via community and civic service to examine and understand how existing systems, structures, and processes function to support or hinder a healthy and thriving society.

The NYCDOE is the largest school district in the country. Do you think it is a leader in mindfulness education?

We in the NYCDOE are fortunate to have the current leadership of Chancellor Richard A. Carranza, First Deputy Chancellor Cheryl Watson-Harris, and the focus of our senior leadership on advancing equity in our school system.  We realize that not all city systems have the same opportunities to investigate innovative, creative, and emerging fields, such as mindfulness in education, as we do in NYC, based on the current vision of equity, social-emotional, and culturally responsive sustained learning.

For that reason, we embrace a responsibility to be a champion, thought partner, and connector to our professional colleagues around the country and internationally, in the same way that the NYCDOE often does in other fields of student learning, professional development, and increasing overall leadership capacity areas.  We would be remiss in not noting the emergence of mindfulness in education as critical social and climate crisis issues come to the forefront of our common experience in an increasingly complex and ever-changing world.

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