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Mindfulness and Learning: What’s the Connection?
Helping students learn to calm their bodies and minds through the use
of appropriate mindful awareness practices can make a real difference,
says Patricia Jennings ( . Not just in
individual children’s lives, but in educational reform on the whole.
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More and more educators are exploring the use of contemplative or mindfulnessbased approaches to teaching. Through these approaches they are learning to
reduce stress (for teacher and student alike), enhance and improve classroom
climates, and are helping students to calm their bodies and minds, focus their
attention, and even open their hearts. Much of the success of these approaches is
about being able to recognize and properly tend to behavioral patterns.
Many of our automatic reactions arise, habitually, from emotionally difficult
experiences in our pasts. When we take time to experience our thoughts and
feelings with a present-centered, non-judgmental attitude, we begin to see such
patterned behaviors for what they are and they naturally subside, rather than drive
us to react in ways we may later regret.
Evidence suggests that regular mindful awareness practice changes how our body
and brain respond to stress, possibly strengthening connections in the prefrontal
cortex and reducing reactivity in our limbic system, supporting self-reflection and
self-regulation. These functions play a critical role in education. To learn, a student
must engage her prefrontal cortex to focus and monitor her attention and to
inhibit impulsive tendencies towards distraction. Given this, many children come to
school with nervous systems that are unprepared to learn.
The modern lifestyle—with huge doses of real and/or imaginary violence, constant
media exposure, general busyness, and high pressure—can trigger the fight-flightfreeze response in us, making learning more difficult. Furthermore, when the
human limbic system is hyperreactive, it’s difficult to engage the prefrontal cortex
—making it difficult to absorb and process new information. As we now know,
neuroplasticity allows us to make profound changes in the way our bodies and
minds function at any age, but especially during development. So helping students
learn to calm their bodies and minds through the use of developmentally
appropriate mindful awareness practices, which can be skillfully integrated into
curricula, can make a real difference, not just in individual children’s lives, but
educational reform on the whole.
Mindful awareness can certainly be experienced during formal practice sessions,
but it’s worth nothing that can also be cultivated during activities of daily life. For
example, interpersonal mindfulness involves applying mindful awareness to our
interactions with others and already does play an important role in educational
settings. The informal but essential practice of living mindfully involves keeping
one’s mind open to possibilities and maintaining the recognition that the level of
our awareness at any given moment is mediated by our thoughts, emotions, and
past experiences. This meta-awareness helps us to live in a way that is more
reflective and accepting of diverse views, qualities that are critical in a world of
growing global integration and communication.
At the Garrison Institute ( , my colleagues and I are
working to further support the integration of mindfulness-based and contemplative
approaches in our teaching and learning systems. Garrison Institute will host a
public symposium, “Advancing the Science and Practice of Contemplative
Education” (
option=com_civicrm&task=civicrm/event/info&reset=1&id=133&Itemid=998) on Nov. 4-6, 2011.
The purpose of the meeting is to promote the science, practice, implementation
and dissemination of contemplative education in K-12 schools, and we hope that
anyone who works for a better world for students or teachers will attend or follow
our work.
For more on education and mindfulness, read these other stories on our site:
Teachers Tuning In (
Please Help Me Learn Who I Am (
Teach Our Children Well (
A documentary you might also be interested in, called Project Happiness, follows a
group of teenagers in search of happiness. See it here
( .