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Mindfulness as a tool for reducing harm and building social emotional intelligence in schools, Pt. 1

By Anna Brinkhuis

As the old cliché goes, “If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.” People often disparage so-called “band aid solutions because they only temporarily treat the symptoms of the problem, rather than the problem itself. But what if the man dies from starvation before you can teach him how to fish? What if the patient bleeds out on the way to the hospital before you can stop the hemorrhage? The analogies are endless. This is the logic of harm reduction.

To address the structural issue, sometimes you must first alleviate its immediate effects. Miles Neale defined “McMindfulness” as “spiritual practices that provide immediate nutrition but no long-term sustenance.” Often associated with corporate mindfulness programs, McMindfulness is the commodification of traditional mindfulness teachings to the advantage of capitalist goals, like productivity. Rather than improving the well-being of the employee for their own sake, the implementation of mindfulness techniques like meditation or body scans serves to displace stress from its source (i.e., an unhealthy work environment) onto the individual. Employees are taught how to “cope” in place of actually addressing the root of the problem.

Like Marx’s definition of religion as the “opiate of the masses,” mindfulness in this context is used to pacify the individual and distract from the harms of a capitalist society, all while improving their mental health as a method of increasing the corporation’s productivity. Similar criticisms have been leveled at mindfulness programs in public schools: Funie Hsu writes that “in the face of widespread economic and racial inequality, most secular mindfulness in education programs instructs a sense of individual responsibility and uplift, rather than government accountability and structural change.” This mindset suggests that the only way forward is to improve the system—to teach the man to fish; working within the system in the short term is not an option. Under this logic, mindfulness training—giving the man a fish—only serves to reinforce the economic and racial injustices at the root of mental health because it doesn’t address structural issues.

That educators or policymakers must choose one or the other—harm reduction or sweeping structural change—is a false dichotomy. Mindfulness practices that help students develop self-awareness and emotional intelligence can be integrated into instruction even as others work to address the causes of the trauma addressed by mindfulness. To use an analogy, consider the free or reduced-price lunch (FRPL) program in American public schools. In 2016, 52% of students were eligible for FRPL. Whether or not a student qualifies for FRPL is calculated based on their household’s income—those below 185% of the poverty threshold qualify for the program. This suggests that food insecurity is just one symptom of a bigger issue—poverty. The logic of “either-or” would dictate that, instead of making sure students have access to food (a full stomach being a bare requirement for learning), policymakers should dedicate themselves fully to reforming the welfare state and American economy as a whole, not to mention address the racial inequalities that contribute to these economic disparities—Black students are more than twice as likely as white students to attend a high-poverty school (defined as a school where at least 75% of students are eligible for FRPL). Such broad-reaching efforts are no doubt integral, but in the short term, students need to be well-fed—the harms of poverty need to be reduced, and they can be through programs like FRPL. This can occur at the same time as others work toward institutional reform.

Like reformative approaches to food insecurity and poverty, mindfulness training and a reformed education system are not mutually exclusive; we can and should do both. Students are struggling with stressors expounded by poverty, racial injustice, and trauma now—over 60% of adults report one or more adverse childhood experience (ACE) before the age of 16. In addition, low-income and Black children are disproportionately exposed to traumatic events and are therefore “more likely to suffer from academic problems, behavioral problems, and health problems” and face “toxic stress” as a result. In an ideal world, we would have the power to fix these issues as quickly as one can teach a man to fish or perform a lifesaving operation. But students cannot wait the many years it will take for institutional reform to progress through our legislative system.

Mindfulness practices like body scans, breath awareness, and gentle yoga have been shown to reduce stress and contribute to increased self-regulation, attention awareness, and positive thinking in BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) youth. In fact, in their report on the impact of toxic stress on African American students’ mental health and academic performance, the Economic Policy Institute notes the positive role of self-regulation and social emotional learning practices in reducing student stress levels. Giving these students the tools to cope with the struggles they face not only helps reduce the immediate harm posed by external and emotional struggles, but also serves to alleviate some of the other inequalities low-income and BIPOC students face, such as a lack of access to quality education.

Read more about mindfulness instruction and social emotional learning in Part Two of this blog post.


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