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Mindfulness as a tool for reducing harm and building social emotional intelligence in schools, Pt. 2

By Anna Brinkhuis

In our last post, we explored the idea of teaching mindfulness and social emotional learning in schools as a form of harm reduction. In Part Two, we delve into the ways in which mindfulness practices can improve the well-being of BIPOC and low-income students.

Like corporate mindfulness, mindfulness practices in schools have been criticized for attempting “to teach children to be still and quiet instead of invoking curiosity and mindful presence.” While the latter two qualities absolutely should not be ignored, the former effects and their impact on classroom behavior and management are also important. Some of the goals of social emotional learning, of which mindfulness practices are a part, are impulse control and behavior regulation—abilities that sometimes require staying quiet and still at the appropriate time to not disrupt the learning environment. Teaching children these skills through mindfulness makes classroom management easier, allowing teachers to spend more time actually teaching and allowing students to spend more time actually learning. For example, a study of the impact of mindfulness training on low-income and minority students and classroom management showed that mindfulness instruction improved learning outcomes and behavior, including increased “attention, self-control, participation in activities, and caring/respect.”

Disruptive environments in schools can negatively impact student learning because they limit instructors’ ability to teach. Students have a right to quality education, and instead of punishing behavioral issues and contributing to the racialization of BIPOC students and the school-to-prison pipeline like other methods of behavior management, mindfulness teaches students the ability to self-regulate. Unlike in a corporate environment, where McMindfulness might shift responsibility for stress-management onto employees, increasing productivity and benefiting the company, it is students who ultimately benefit from a calmer environment when teachers are able to better manage their classroom.

Mindfulness instruction is not solely its utilitarian benefits. Introducing mindfulness practices in schools will not only reduce student stress levels and improve mental health—producing better learning outcomes in the short term—but also give students the tools to become emotionally healthy adults. Thus, students receive both the “fish” and the skills to catch fish on their own in the future. Beyond reducing the immediate impact of societal harms like poverty and racism, mindfulness helps students develop lifelong skills like self-regulation and self-awareness, important abilities no matter one’s ethnicity or socioeconomic background.

Thus, mindfulness instruction is not only about reducing harm or “leveling the playing field” between low-income/BIPOC students and the majority, but also about enabling all students to develop stronger social emotional health and awareness. Targeted universalism in education means setting one goal for all students (i.e., strong social emotional health and awareness) while acknowledging that different communities will need different tools to get there. Programs like Effective to Great Education (ETGE) focus on the specific needs of marginalized communities, considering the economic and racial inequities and trauma they face when creating a mindfulness curriculum.

Mindfulness is not a universal solution to improving the well-being of low-income and BIPOC students. It must be employed alongside material attempts to alleviate the origins of stress (poverty, understaffed schools, systemic racism, etc.). In addition, it faces its own unique set of challenges; advocates for mindfulness training must consider the questions of cultural appropriation and responsiveness—issues brought up by Funie Hsu and Maria Ishikawa—as well as how to employ anti-racism education within mindfulness instruction. Each of these aspects deserves careful consideration and research; after all, if mindfulness training produces harm for one group, it cannot be said to reduce harm for all. Nevertheless, with careful and thoughtful planning and implementation, mindfulness training can work alongside structural and legislative reforms to foster self-awareness and social emotional health for every student.


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