Why is mindfulness needed in education?
Why is mindfulness needed in education, or in any group environment? It’s all about managing our stress. Healthy stress is a natural part of life, including childhood. Children and adults alike need to be challenged in order to grow and develop. However, in the modern education system, healthy stress is frequently displaced by toxic stress. Toxic stress occurs when life’s demands consistently outpace our ability to cope with those demands.
Toxic stress impairs attention, emotion and mood regulation, sleep, and learning readiness daily in American classrooms. Even more troubling, prolonged exposure to childhood toxic stress has lifelong impacts on mental and physical health.
Toxic stress starts as decreased productivity and creativity, escalating to more serious symptoms like frequent anxiety, dissociation, frustration, and, eventually,burnout. Roughly half a million U.S. teachers leave the profession each year – a turnover rate of over 20 percent.
Toxic stress can lead to a parenting style that looks more like a “to-do” list, rather than an empathic, present-centered relationship with a developing child. Exposure to parental stress in early childhood has been shown to impact gene expression even years later in adolescence.
Toxic stress is challenging to work with because our stress response taps into some very old survival hardware in our evolutionary biology. When a 4th grader reports that she felt she “was going to die” from test anxiety, she’s telling the truth. The responses of her autonomic nervous system are the same whether she’s taking a math test or sensing actual physical danger.
Even children who have not suffered adverse childhood experiences may struggle with frequent “mismatches” between the severity of a stimulus (a routine pop quiz) and their response (loss of peripheral vision, sweating, nausea, terror and immobility). In children suffering from trauma, these “mismatches” become chronic and habitual.
Because the roots of toxic stress lie deep in the nervous system, we need tools that go beyond the conceptual mind to directly target that system. To transform our habitual responses, we need to regularly practice our skills when we are not in “fight – flight – freeze” mode. Mindful Schools courses establish two forms of training as the foundation for teaching other methods of stress management, emotion regulation and interpersonal skills: the development of mindfulness (a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, emotions, sensations and surrounding environment), and the development of heartfulness (the intentional nurturing of positive mind states such as kindness and compassion.)
Calgary Mindfulness uses the curriculum of Mindful Schools, from whom this article was excerpted.