By Suzy DeYoung

Tuning to a recent talk radio broadcast, I happened upon an interview with actress Shirley Maclaine. As always, she offered entertaining and thought-provoking opinions on everything from relationships and careers, to UFO’s and re-incarnation.

When asked why she feels that it is often so difficult for people to accept others, her answer was surprisingly brief and uncomplicated.

Citing the lack of spiritual (not religious) education in our schools, she said, “If they would teach us from the time we’re little to meditate and get in touch with all that our souls know, we wouldn’t fight so much.”

Could it really be that simple?

I must admit I’m on the same page as Shirley. However, before writing us both off as new age wackadoos, it’s worth checking out the wave of current scientific research on meditation as well as the experiences of educators and children.

When Steve Reidman,a fourth grade teacher in California, found many of his students unfocused and agitated he introduced the teaching of “mindfulness” – which is meant to promote a greater awareness of one’s self and one’s environment. With eyes closed and deep breaths, students were led through 45 min­utes of exer­cises focused on breath­ing, lis­ten­ing, move­ment, and reflec­tion.

“I noticed a dif­fer­ence right away,” said Steve. “There was less con­flict on the play­ground and less test anx­i­ety. Our state test scores also went up that year, which I’d like to attribute to my teach­ing but I think had more to do with the breath­ing they did right before they took the test.”

The more I looked the more articles I found in which teachers described similar results. Nationwide, educators report that when kids are instructed in mindful awareness techniques and positive thinking skills, levels of aggression drastically decrease and levels of attention increase.

Also, children report feeling more optimistic and according to one study, “seem more introspective than children who were wait-listed for the training.”

This should not be surprising. In a world in which kids feel compelled to react rather than to respond and frequently feel the need to put aside their emotions in order to compete or “succeed,” it is easy to lose touch with their “inner compass” – a tool that can offer more genuine guidance than formal instruction.

Mind­ful­ness offers kids a way to under­stand­ how their brain works thus offering them more self-control.

There are a growing number of educators bringing “mindfulness training” and/or meditation into the school day. Although leery at first of how parents might feel about a practice rooted in spiritual traditions, most educators have been able to successfully remove mindfulness from any religious context.

Educator and author of The Mindful Child, Susan Kaiser Greenland explains that it’s about “teach­ing kids how to be in a state of atten­tion, where they can per­ceive thoughts, phys­i­cal sen­sa­tions, and emo­tions with­out judg­ment and with curios­ity and an open state of mind.”

Reed Intermediate School teacher Julie Shull is always looking for ways to incorporate stillness and awareness into the school day.

“Sometimes just five to ten minutes of simple breathing can be helpful,” said Julie.

Julie was impacted by an experience she had while taking a Yoga Ed. Workshop at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health. While there she met teachers from all over the country, many of who had incorporated yoga and meditation into their school’s curriculum with impressive results.

“I met a principal from a severely struggling school in Pittsburgh,” said Julie. “Within four years of implementing a yoga program they went from having the highest expulsion rate and lowest test scores in their district to having the lowest expulsion rate and highest test scores.”

There are a number of ways to incorporate mindfulness into a child’s day including yoga, meditation and nature walks. A number of Newtown students have already discovered the benefits.

“The reason I enjoy yoga so much is because I find it a very effective detox,” said Newtown teen, Emily Ashbolt. “It is very soothing on the mind. The music, the breathing, it reminds me that ‘this too will pass’, to live in the moment and that there are bigger things out there. After yoga, I always feel softer, more wholesome. I can still be tired and stressed, if those are the prevailing emotions in my life at that moment, but the volume, at least for a little while, is muted.”

Emily said she would support bringing yoga into the school curriculum.

“It would be great if yoga, real yoga, was part of a school’s curriculum,” she said. “I go crazy during the school year. That kind of release would be awesome!”

Frequently exasperated by the demands of school, and more recently the college application process, my daughter has also found yoga and meditation to be quite useful.

“It clears out the clutter of my mind,” she said when I asked what she has found helpful.

Researchers at The Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA are presently working to find out if by teaching mindfulness to young children they can thus help inoc­u­late them against psy­cho­log­i­cal prob­lems later in life.

In the last 10 years, research has shown mindfulness to help lower blood pressure; aid those suffering from ADHD; ease anxiety and depression, foster less emotional reactivity; and thicken the brain in areas in charge of decision making, emotional flexibility, and empathy.

If we know that mindfulness has the poten­tial to offer these benefits to adults why would we want to keep it from children?

Through offering mindfulness training to young children we could potentially influence the ways in which future generations relate to each other, handle disputes and understand each other’s differences.

The documentary, The Dhamma Brothers, depicts the influence a meditation program had on the inmates of an overcrowded, violent, maximum security prison. After completing the meditation program, the men, most of who were convicted for life, displayed a significant increase in emotional intelligence, physiological and psychological well being, as well as a decrease in anger and distress.

There was also a 20 percent reduction in institutional infractions and segregation time. Ultimately, there was a shift in prison culture from one of violence and despair toward hope and calm.

If mindfulness, awareness, yoga, meditation – whatever term one wants to use – can have a profound impact on a group of hardened criminals, I wonder what would happen if such techniques were introduced to young children. Possibly many of them may never reach the point of requiring a visit to such a prison.

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