When it comes to learning and succeeding in school, emotional stability matters. Nobody concentrates well when they feel angry, scared, or depressed. You don’t care about your stupid teacher’s verb conjugations if you’ve grown to resent authority figures.
In a previous post, I wrote about two misguided priorities in education: force feeding a monolithic approach to math and underestimating the importance of emotional intelligence.
Good news. There are some developments in the emotional intelligence department.
Earlier this week, NPR ran a story about a school in South Phoenix that implemented mindfulness practices into the curriculum. The segment described “an increasingly trendy program,” but mindfulness is an ancient practice. Rooted in Eastern spirituality, mindfulness has been revisited by modern research psychology and is now standard fare in therapy.
Mindfulness basically means slowing down and paying attention. Notice your thoughts. Focus on the immediate thing you are doing. Notice your breathing. All emotions have physiological correlates in the body. Being attuned to these allows a person to reduce “automatic” behavioral responses and to act in more purposeful, effective ways. So instead of lashing out, a student might take a deep breath, notice the feelings heating up, recognize their meaning, and decide to respond constructively. A student needs to recognize what an impulse feels like before learning to delay the impulse (to throw a paper ball across the room) for the greater reward (of mastering verb conjugations).
Students in the Phoenix school practice mindfulness for thirty minutes a week. In the first year of the program, the school saw a 37% decrease in school suspensions. The practice is also used during disciplinary moments. Teachers can remind students to take a “mindful minute” to reflect their behaviors.
How much credit the mindfulness program deserves for reducing suspensions is impossible to determine. They did not run a controlled experiment, so other factors might have caused the change.
But an experiment does exist which shows positive effects of therapeutic interventions for students. A study out of the University of Chicago called the Becoming a Man program randomly assigned at-risk male students to take cognitive behavior therapy, oriented around mindfulness, during the school day. For the nearly 5,000 high school students who received the therapy, violent crime arrests went down almost 50% compared to the control group who did not receive the therapy. Graduation rate increased 20%.
The intervention is also cost-effective, estimating the reduced tax burden from the criminal justice system and the increased earnings potential for the students.
According to motivation psychologist Abraham Maslow, there are psychological prerequisites to reaching your potential as a human being. Higher goals of “self-actualization” can only be reached when lower needs of safety and belonging are secure. As illustrated by his famous hierarchy:
For many students in struggling schools, those lower needs are not met on a consistent basis, causing major challenges in the classroom. Pouring money and technology into inner-city schools will not close any “achievement gaps” without addressing the psychological underpinnings of learning.
Breathing exercises are not a magic bullet for improved education. One shortcoming of the Chicago study was that the improvements did not endure after the therapy sessions ended.
These innovations, however, are steps in the right direction. Students are not cogs in a standardized testing machine. Students are dynamic human beings. The more mindful we are of that, the more they will thrive.