Sonora, CA — Would the world be a better place if more of us were trained to take a mindful moment to connect emotions we are feeling to our brains before we act?
After recently learning mindful behavioral training in their classrooms, a number of elementary school students think so. When asked if the learning is making any difference in their lives, almost every one of them indicates it has. Equally impressive, the sentiments of queried local educators and counselors working with Mindful Schools teacher and mentor Sally Arnold, a Sonora resident, also seem to lean that way.
Advocates say that mindfulness, a behavioral learning approach that is experiencing exponential growth in schools across the country, develops a moment-by-moment awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, sensations and surrounding environment. It has been shown to strengthen our ability to pay attention where and when we want. It can also help us regulate our emotions; grow understanding and compassion for what others are experiencing; wisely adapt behavior patterns; increase our ability to calm ourselves; and build resilience to life’s ups and downs. Hand-in-hand with this learning comes the nurturing of kindness and compassion to create a positive mind state called “heartfulness.”
Initially hired to bring her Oakland-based Mindful Schools training to West Point Elementary in Calaveras County, as part of a pilot program through First 5 Calaveras, with funding through the Mental Health Service Act (MHSA), Arnold now spends two days a week visiting classrooms there as a mentor. A board-trained holistic nurse for the past two decades, Arnold earned her masters in psychology and brings an extensive background in pediatrics, hospice and public health into her teaching. While she continues to instruct foster and adoptive parent certification programs at Columbia College, as a certified Mindful Schools instructor, she has honed her focus these past three years towards providing mindful behavioral learning to students, teachers and counselors.
A ‘Mindful’ Calaveras Campus
Among the many variables that may induce toxic stress among kids are when they are living in foster care or have been removed from their primary home. However, since all of the teachers at West Point chose to become trained in Mindful Schools fundamentals and curriculum, they actively integrate it throughout the day. As a result, Arnold says she sees — and hears from teachers, staff and parents — that the on-campus learning environment and climate have undergone a transformative change for the better. Happily she notes, “They say they are not doing any triage this year because they have tools and common language and agreements…and when the kids understand [the training] they just get it.”
Arnold points to a recent Harvard University study, which identifies that we spend about 52 percent of our lives outside of the present moment — and the balance of it either worrying about the future or ruminating about the past, even more so when we are under stress. As she explains it, by not paying enough thoughtful attention to the here-and-now, we set up ourselves to lead with our emotions from the primitive “caveman” part of our brain — the amygdala — which is geared to impulsively respond to stimulation in “fight or flight” mode.
“Mindfulness is about being present in this moment, such as through doing stillness and breathing [exercises],” Arnold explains. “We talk about this so kids can understand…[learn to] identify where their thoughts are — and where their emotions are.”
Over a few weeks of training, Arnold says that even very young kids learn the terminology and come to understand that by getting out of their “amygdala,” they can engage their whole brain by tapping the logic and other tools in their “prefrontal cortex.” By learning to take the time for doing this, they are able to reflect, creating the space and power to think first. As she puts it, “If you are stressed, you ‘flip your lid’ and so you are not in your whole brain — and so you don’t make those good choices. So then it is the awareness…kids being aware to make a good choice before making a bad [one].”
Brain Training Kids To Make Better Choices
There are no “bad” kids, Arnold maintains, calling bullying and other negative behaviors simply “making poor choices.” Often she sees that parents are doing the best they can with their children but may lack the tools, due to deficit of education, overwhelming personal or domestic issues, or substance abuse problems. While behavioral interventions for bullying and suicide prevention with older students have their place, Arnold states, starting kids younger with mindfulness training can, from a neuroscience perspective, actually evolve their neural pathways.
For a visual, all-ages “nutshell” overview of how kids describe their own mindfulness training experiences, Arnold points to “Just Breathe,” a very short, unscripted video made by two of her Oakland colleagues, Julie Bayer Salzman and Josh Salzman (click to view it here).
Rhetorically, she asks, “If we can offer you tools that maybe take 30 seconds or three minutes maximum and change the outcome of your day, would you do it? Of course, you would.” Through teaching what she calls “the ABCs of Mindfulness (Awareness, Being present and Compassionate), Arnold says that kids learn self-compassion, which allows them to feel good about themselves for who they are, enabling them to shift from a reactive survival existence to one where they can use their brains to think and thrive. Students practicing mindfulness, Arnold says, realize that if emotions escalate it is all to easy to “flip our lid.” By taking time to calm down and think, they are able to remove themselves from a situation where they might make a regretful response.
In addressing bullying, for example, Arnold remarks, “Mindfulness creates awareness of the situation…of our power and, I think, in bullying situations, you need to remove yourself…and determine when to get an adult, when to walk away, and when to just say ‘hey, I’m not going to [escalate] this — it is so important to keep things simple.” In helping students understand the nature of bullying, Arnold tells them that hurt people hurt people.
‘Pulling The Sheet’ On Bullies
“We talk about people who bully, that they do not feel good about themselves — or it is is a learned behavior, so they are not being raised in a loving, supportive environment,” Arnold explains. She adds, what happens then is that students realize, if they are being bullied, the aggressor is not stronger but weaker, which may spark a hint of compassion. Students are encouraged to use their tools to walk away; or if they feel strongly enough about the situation, and take their emotions and thoughts to a grown up.
“When you look at bullying, if we honored our sense of self and felt valued…it is almost contagious…we will value our human relationships,” Arnold says simply. “There is not need to bully somebody, if we are all realize we are in the same camp, having to struggle, but [are] okay.” On the other side of the coin, according to Arnold, are the kids who, lacking a strong sense of self, may make choices based on their role models. An example, as she puts it, is if someone’s parent hits in anger, he or she may choose to do the same. But, as she notes, “If we [learned to value] ourselves, we wouldn’t hit somebody else– because they have a self, too. [Through mindfulness], that level of compassion is brought into so many parts of our lives.”
Aside from her educational experience, Arnold knows, firsthand, how family dynamics and issues can impact students’ well-being. She is a mother of four children, of which two were adopted through the foster care system. She, herself, recounts growing up in foster families, also sharing that she was initially found running in the streets at the age of two-and-a-half. “That is why [Mindfulness training] is something I am passionate about — I feel like we have a choice,” Arnold enthuses. Without pausing, she emphatically states, “I am not a victim of my past — I had a victory over it…I have an amazing life — but there were some bumpy times. But, we would not be who we are today, if we did not have our past.”
According to Tuolumne County Schools Superintendent Margie Bulkin, “When classrooms are healthy socio-emotionally, it makes common sense for students to do better.” This year, mindful learning classes became an add-on program component to a three-year, $950,000 federal grant won by Bulkin’s office that specifically targets improving the socio-emotional well-being of certain student populations; in this case, Native Americans. Once secured, she says, the grant became applicable to the overall population within the three school districts that met the minimum percentage requirements for Native American student attendance: Summerville, Jamestown and Curtis Creek.
Connecting Kids With Their Inner, Wiser Selves
In choosing to add mindfulness to the behavioral training, Bulkin says her office heard of the positive impacts experienced at West Point and additionally points to a growing national trend that supports the approach. “[Mindfulness training] is getting unbelievable positive response from those people implementing it, and in what the kids say,” she states. “Rules aren’t enough; it gives them tools how to get control of some of [their] behaviors and learn to connect their brain with their emotions.” So far, the training has been introduced to four targeted classes at Jamestown and Curtis Creek elementary schools, where Arnold and three counselors involved in the program are reporting strong results and parent support. Come January, the program will commence at Summerville Elementary.
Curtis Creek counselor Joane Job reports that, in addition to improving the students’ mental health and helping them deal with stresses, the mindfulness training is helping them “settle in better” on their academics. She says the overall results are impressive enough that teachers in the grades where the programs have not yet been introduced are proactively beginning their own online training through Mindful Schools. Looking ahead, whether there are allocated monies for it or not, programs in local schools look to be seeding through such instruction, which is available to teachers and counselors for well under $500.
Bulkin shares, now that California schools’ new Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) is in place, school districts are required to gather and consider stakeholder input before adopting their budgets. This enables parents and district employees to weigh in with their thoughts on funding mindfulness training — or any other program expenditures. While she says it is difficult to gauge where additional grant funding might come from, she states, “In my experience, the very best practices continue, regardless [of funding].”