What is mindfulness?
Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the groundbreaking Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, tells us that mindfulness is “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experiences moment by moment.”
Mindfulness has a long history. For thousands of years, contemplative traditions world-wide have used this practice to help reduce physical and emotional suffering. In the last thirty-five years, mindfulness emerged as a research-based intervention and now has applications in cognitive therapy, sports trainings, professional development, education, and more.
How does mindfulness work? By cultivating attention, we actually change brain function and structure. Areas of the brain associated with memory and empathy grow in volume. Areas of the brain corresponding to the stress response decrease in volume (Lazar, Harvard, 2011).
What does this mean for young people and children? The largest study to date on mindfulness with youth produced significant improvements in both attentional control and classroom engagement, key factors for academic success (University of California Davis, Mindful Schools, 2011).
A growing body of research and neuroscience has shown the benefits of mindfulness to include:
- Decreased stress & anxiety
- Better focus and concentration
- Improved impulse control and executive function
- Increased self-awareness
- Increased empathy for others
- Development of natural conflict resolution skills
- Improved school climate
What’s more, executive function has been shown to predict a child’s success as well as – if not better than – IQ (Diamond, 2012). This set of learnable skills enables young people to self-direct behavior, reflect deeply, and to consider things from multiple points of view.
Mindfulness is more than improved focus and concentration. It is also the capacity for self-compassion, which a growing body of empirical literature has shown to be powerfully associated with emotional wellbeing, motivation, health behaviors, personal responsibility, coping, and better interpersonal relationships (Neff and Davidson, 2016).
Why do teachers love mindfulness? Imagine your classroom, or your entire school, beginning each morning by entering into a place of open-hearted receptivity. Now imagine your students knowing how to return to this place on their own throughout the day.