Mindful Ripples: Mindfulness in Public Education

Vlad Moskovski interview with Megan Cowan, co-found and executive director of programs at Mindful Schools.

Imagine a classroom in a public inner- city elementary school. Perhaps images of loud screaming kids comes to mind. Nope, this is not the classroom we are talking about. In this mindfulness classroom the kids are quiet and contemplative. They are learning to noticing their feelings and observe their thoughts. This is happening in every classroom, spreading like wildfire across many schools, with teachers and staff learning along side the kids. Welcome to the world of Mindful Schools. A non-profit that is integrating mindfulness into education.

Vlad: How did Mindful Schools start, and what was your involvement?

In 2007, at the first Mindfulness in Education Conferences I met Laurie Grossman and Richard Shaknman who had just started a pilot program teaching mindfulness at Emerson Elementary School in Oakland. My whole background is in mindfulness meditation and kids and I have been teaching kids mindfulness in a variety of context for a while and was looking to get more into the public arena. So I went and saw Richard teach at that first school and I think the three of us knew right away, “Oh yeah, a perfect fit”. At the time teaching mindfulness in schools was new and for us it was just an experiment, but it was very evident that the impact was powerful. I taught the second school that we piloted and things just flowed from there. My involvement was from the beginning, but it evolved from us doing a program to us really starting to learn something that was going to become an organization. Since then, there has been a strong surge in the field. In a way, we caught the wave.

Vlad: What inspires you to continue going into schools?

The classroom is why I do this work. If I haven’t been in the classroom in a while then I start to get depressed. I feel like I get more from the kids then they get from me. For me it is such an honor and such a gift to be able to work with them. We work primarily with elementary schools, and I think that age group feels very healing to me. I get a tremendous amount of joy from being able to connect with them, and teach them a skill that I find valuable and see them embrace it and take in on in a way that is improving the way they relate to their life. There is a magic of seeing how they apply mindfulness on their own.

Vlad: Is there an underlying assumption underneath the work that Mindful Schools does – an ideology?

I think it is a fundamental assumption that self awareness does improve the quality of your life. I guess we could say it all comes down to a preventative mental health tool that gives young people the capacity to notice and navigate their experiences and emotions. If you teach that to them while they are young, you are giving them a much stronger foundation from which to approach challenges and difficulties and recognize and appreciate the things that are good and going well in life.

Part of what happens when you are self aware is that you don’t take yourself or your thoughts as personally or as seriously so you can rebound more quickly from being depressed or being caught in an obsessive thought pattern. You can catch it sooner, and you can see it more objectively, and are much more empowered to make choice around those thoughts and emotions.

Vlad: How do you imagine mindfulness will help and change this generation of kids?

I don’t feel like I am operating in this work with an idealized vision of how we are going to change the world. If we are building one interactions to the next then I feel like we are connecting with kids. We are embowering them, giving them a tools that help them navigate through life maybe in a way they did not have before. There is this ripple effect in how they relate to their classmates, their teacher, their families, and the challenges in their life and the decisions that they make. When you follow it out step by step, I guess theoretically we could be looking at a more peaceful world. But you know, it is a big world and there are a lot of people and it is a big jump.

Vlad: How is mindfulness being regarded in the public school system? Do teachers, staff, and principals get it?

We have been, as of this Fall, in just over 50 schools and work with about 14,000 kids all in the Bay Area. I think that I have encountered every single reaction, from incredibly supporting and engaged in the work to not interested or even objecting to the work, but the large majority are really interested and responsive. My general sense is that there is something intuitive that people recognize about the potential benefits of teaching kids mindfulness.

Living in our culture that is moving full speed ahead constantly, people don’t allow themselves any down time to stop and deliberately let their body become still and bring awareness into their physical experience to start to notice the content of their mind. There is a relief in that, just the stopping. We teach the program to the kids and the teachers. And then, over the course of the two months, or however long we are at a school we are preparing the kids to take ownership over leading mindfulness in the classroom.

Vlad: I’ve been seeing a lot of articles about meditation and the brain. Is mindfulness gaining popularity-recognition?

It is hard to say when you are in it, I think it is everywhere! Every time I’m at a staff meeting in a school I ask, “Raise your had if you’ve never heard of mindfulness and usually plenty of hands go up”. You look in any arena, mindfulness based things are popping up everywhere. Most notably in medicine and psychology.

Vlad: Is mindfulness a set of skills or can it also be part of a spiritual path? In other words, what is the relationship between learning mindfulness and spirituality?

I think that ultimately mindfulness still holds a place in both of those worlds. That mindfulness is used as a spiritual practice in deepening ones own understanding and wisdom in a spiritual context, and it will continue to be utilized as a life skills or a mental health tool. When you pull it apart, mindfulness is a universal human capacity to pay attention. It just so happens that certain contemplative traditions have utilized that capacity with spiritual means. And it is found most obviously in Buddhism, but looking at oneself in a contemplative way is found within all contemplative traditions. I think we are really fortunate that it got such a methodical laid out structure in Buddhism. That is what makes it really accessible.

Vlad: Do you think anything is lost in taking it out of the Buddhist or spiritual context?

I think it depends on what your intention is. I think there is this concern that Buddhists are co-opting education, they are trying to sneak in the back door or something. For Mindful Schools, our intention is to give kids tools that help them navigate their world more easily and that is really sincere. And in that way, I absolute do not think anything is lost. You don’t need a religious context for that at all.

And then I can say for people, for myself, that learning mindfulness when I was young as a life skills would not have been enough for me. I wanted something more out of it and I like that there is a place to pursue that.

For more info and to get involved check out: http://mindfulschools.org/

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