Why Not Incorporate Mindfulness Into Sri Lankan Education?

Courtesy Photo by Lesly Juarez on Unsplash

HGS Prematunge

One of the most intriguing success stories behind the benefits of mindfulness is probably that of George Mumford. Mumford had been a star high school basketball player who’d subsequently developed a heroin addiction. But by the early 1980s, he’d embraced meditation and gotten clean. Mumford later taught meditation to prison inmates and other sporting giants like him, such as Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, who in turn became an outspoken adherent of meditation. But Mumford is by no means alone, famous practitioners include Oprah, Jerry Seinfeld and George Stephanopoulos. It’s being taught at companies from Google to Target and lately at schools.

Mindfulness practises in school is growing internationally. Western countries in particular have found mindfulness so useful that they have incorporated it into the educational curriculum. Examples of standardized school mindfulness schemes include the popular US-based Mindful Schools program, the UK-based Mindfulness in Schools Project and the Canada-based MindUP..   Albrecht et al. reports in ‘Mindfully teaching in the classroom: A literature review’ that mindfulness is implemented across Bhutan’s education sector to improve the country’s “Gross National Happiness.” Mindfulness exercises are also increasingly used in Singapore.

International scenario

But probably the most successful examples come from the US. The Robert W. Coleman School in Baltimore, US which sends their kids to the ‘Mindful Moment Room’, instead of detention, where kids are taught about mindful meditation is one of the best success stories. The scheme is part of an after-school programme in the US called ‘Holistic Me’.

The programme was such a success that an after- school programme was introduced for the benefit of those who were not in detention. Moreover, kids were taught to use what they learned in real life, such as in anger management. For example, one 11-year-old said about the programme, “This morning I got mad at my dad, but then I remembered to breathe and then I didn’t shout.” A nearby school, Patterson Park High, experienced drop of suspension rate and increase in attendance after the introduction of their mindfulness programme.

What is it?

Major reasons for the popularity of mindfulness is probably its simplicity and the fact that although it’s essentially a Buddhist meditation practice, it is secularly adaptable. It’s also inexpensive, and can be practiced by anyone, any time and even anywhere.

Kabat-Zinn, J. in ‘Mindfulness-based interventions in context: Past, present, and future’, explains that mindfulness refers to a quality of attention to the full spectrum of each moment’s experience in an open, non-judgmental manner.

According to ‘Mindfulness-based interventions in schools – a systematic review and meta-analysis’ by C. Zenner, Herrnleben-Kurz and H. Walach, common components of mindfulness practised in the West include breath awareness, working with thoughts and emotions, psycho-education, awareness of senses, practices of daily life, kindness practices and mindful movement.

How to do it

It might seem like a futile endeavor to teach a bunch of unruly children, mindfulness. But it’s perfectly suited to educational settings as ‘Mindfulness in Education: 31+ Ways of Teaching’ points out. Commonly used mindfulness exercises include the body scan, where students are asked to focus on the body and posture; mindful breathing and mindful awareness of the senses.

Cassie Nguyen of Teach Starter describes several quick mindfulness activities that can be perfected in a classroom setting. Students can watch their breath while focusing on how breath passes through one’s nose and fills the lungs, how it moves out of the lungs and back out the nose, whether one can hear the breath and if so how it sounds. Another effective method is the body scan, where students are asked to lay on the floor, eyes closed or staring at the ceiling, focusing first on the feet, whether they are warm or cold, tight or relaxed, which part of the feet are touching the floor, how the clothes on the feet feel, so on and so forth. Students are then asked to move upward focusing on each separate body part.

Another method is walking meditation. While doing this exercise students are asked to focus on how the ground feels on their feet, which part of your foot touches the ground first and if the foot is heavy or light, all without altering one’s natural manner of walking.

Psychologists like Karen Young are trying to make mindful meditation a bit more fun for kids using methods such as the ‘Mindful Jar’. Mindful Jar involves filling a jar with water and adding glitter and glue to it. The jar is then closed and shaken. The students are then asked to imagine that the glitter is like ones’ thoughts when stressed, angry or upset. Students learn how it’s easy to make silly decisions when one’s judgement is clouded by all those negative thoughts like the glitter now clouding the water. They learn that decisions are better made when the mind is clear, like the water clears in the jar with the passage of a few moments.

Why such exercises are so effective is that kids learn about human emotions, while engaging in the mindful exercise of watching the glitter settle to the bottom of the jar. The lesson being fun is another bonus. Likewise, kids can be taught to be mindful in many of their day to day activities, such as when they are eating at school (christened mindful snack in US schools).

Is it time mindfulness is introduced in Sri Lankan schools?
Is it time mindfulness is introduced in Sri Lankan schools?

Benefits

The objectives of mindfulness education are to help students learn self-awareness, empathy, techniques to calm and focus the mind, mindful communication and applying mindfulness skills to life in general. Research suggests that mindfulness meditation can improve cognitive performance as well as an enhanced ability to cope with stress.

According to Surya Chandra Healing Yoga researcher Erica Baxter, mindfulness meditation helps students reduce anxiety, manage stress, improve attention and focus, manage emotion reactivity, encourage emotional regulation, improving executive function and higher-order abilities such as planning and strategic thinking, decrease exam anxiety through enhancing memory and concentration, and reduce mind-wandering and daydreaming. Mindfulness has also been found to mitigate Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms.

Meiklejohn et al. point out in ‘Integrating mindfulness training into K-12 education: Fostering the resilience of teachers and students.’ that mindfulness results in cognitive, social, and psychological benefits to elementary and high-school children, including improvements in working memory, attention, creativity, academic performance, mind wandering, stress and coping, among a host of other psychological benefits.

According to ‘Smiling Mind – Establishing an evidence base for the Smiling Mind Education Program’, preliminary results from a large study conducted by Deakin University and InsightSRC, mindfulness has a direct effect on engagement in learning and positive wellbeing. The study found that mindfulness assists students’ concentration and that more consistent practice resulted in greater benefit for students.

According to ‘Student engagement with school: Critical conceptual and methodological issues of the construct’, by J.J. Appleton, S.L. Christenson and M.J. Furlong published in Psychology in the Schools it is the day-to-day experience of students that underpins their school performance. Meditation or mindfulness can create a more positive experience at school and life in general, which would result in better emotional and academic outcomes.

It’s obvious upon reading most of the mindfulness education techniques practiced in the West that they are by no means of western origin, these are essentially Buddhist teachings adopted into the western classroom. In a country where Buddhism thrives, Sri Lanka is surprisingly slow on the uptake of mindfulness now making headway in the world education sector. It’s not just a popular research topic anymore. Mindfulness has become quite the mainstream phenomenon, which begs the question, why the Education Ministry not yet introduced it to the local education sector.

(This article is the 15th instalment in a series of articles which discusses education related issues on a fortnightly basis in counterpoint.)

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