A Mindful Holiday Season

This holiday season, in between eating more baked goods than we should, we’ve continued to develop the mindfulness programs that will be a core element of Millennium School. This time of year reminds us of the value of mindfulness – helping us cope with the strains and stresses that holidays sometimes create (without overindulging in those baked goods), and also helping us to feel a sense of awe and gratitude for the spirit of the holidays. 

As we design our mindfulness program, we know that it will not be an “add-on” activity that can be abandoned when scheduling conflicts arise; the skills it fosters are too important to healthy development for adolescents. 

There are many working definitions of mindfulness. According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, developer of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in the late 1970s, mindfulness is “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present, and non-judgmentally.” Shinzen Young, an American meditation teacher, explains mindfulness as three skills working together: concentration power, sensory clarity, and equanimity. Mindful Schools, an Emeryville-based organization whose mission is to introduce mindfulness practices to students and teachers, emphasizes that mindfulness “can be applied to our senses, thoughts, and emotions by using sustained attention and noticing our experience without over-identifying.” In their online training modules that ground mindfulness techniques within the daily realities of the classroom, instructors from Mindful Schools note that some explanations can become unnecessarily complex. The definition that resonates best with students, they say? “Noticing what’s happening right now.”

For children, and indeed for all humans, the practice of noticing what’s happening in the moment, especially when done without judgment, can open a crucial space between stimulus and emotional reaction, allowing for a more conscious response to a charged situation. We all know that adolescence presents a minefield of charged situations, from being spurned by a “crush” to hearing a secret held by a trusted friend suddenly aired in the lunchroom. When children practice taking a deep breath or naming the emotion that arises, both key mindfulness strategies, they learn to reduce stress while developing greater self-awareness and self-management.

These two important capabilities—the ability to reflect on one’s own feelings and thoughts and the ability to control one’s own thoughts and behavior—are two of the five Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) goals set forth by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, a Chicago-based organization whose mission is to promote the integration of academic and social-emotional competence in all students. Highlighting the benefits of SEL on cognitive skills, a 2011 meta-analysis of over 270,000 students enrolled in SEL programs, spanning kindergarten to high school, showed an 11-point gain in academic achievement percentiles. While the research showing the benefits of mindfulness techniques on children is not yet as robust as the research on adults, both Mindful Schools in the US and Mindfulness in Schools Project in the UK have each demonstrated dynamic results in student performance and general wellbeing, even after as few as eight sessions.

Importantly, we at Millennium School believe mindfulness has additional benefits to children besides increased attention and self-regulation. So does Lisa Miller, director of the Clinical Psychology Program at Teachers College, Columbia University, as well as the founder of the Spirituality Mind Body Institute. In a recent article for Independent School (“Education for Heart and Mind: The Science of Spirituality Informs a New Developmental Model”), Miller advocates for a more holistic use of mindfulness in schools. She writes, “Instead of focusing narrowly on practicing mindfulness for skill building, it’s time we put mindfulness into practice throughout the day: in a child’s sense of self, sense of others, the space we cocreate and their sense of themselves in relation to the ultimate goodness of life.” 

This is rich territory, and we recognize that as a new school we have the opportunity to build mindfulness into the DNA of our school culture. Whether for the results in self-regulation and social-emotional intelligence, for academic gains, for the deeper sense of self it creates, or even for a connection to “the ultimate goodness in life,” mindfulness practice shows its value in numerous ways.

So here’s to a mindful 2016, full of gratitude for the opportunity to open an exciting new middle school in the heart of San Francisco where we can invite Millennium students into daily mindfulness practices.