Summary: Mindfulness and meditation emerge as one tool in schools’ slow grapple with the psychological and neurobiological consequences of poverty in student lives.
Poverty, and particularly hard core inner city poverty, particularly that trapping kids of color, we know can have an early and lasting deleterious effect, by way of the anxiety and stress such kids experience from the day they draw their first breath.
Put yourself in the prototypical kid’s shoes, and imagine some or many of the blows you might experience that together create your inner world, punctuated by the chaotic and the unexpected and the frightening. A parent may be gone working long hours in the best of circumstances, so the child is tended by another family member, sometimes an older sibling. Neglect, as absence of parental comforting give and take, may be the outfall. Worse, substance abuse by a family member introduces conflict and destabilizing emotional violence. Typically Mom only is in the picture, perhaps visited by a succession of boyfriends. Money is short, always an emotional roller coaster on the background, whether through shortage of food or perpetual transition from one living quarter to another. Mean streets introduce anxiety to the others in the house, even if one is young and not particularly ambulatory.
So this young soul is in a chronic state of emotional arousal, what we know colloquially as the “fight or flight” response, a tone of anxiety and vigilance to the environment. The expectation of crisis has its analog in endocrine and prefrontal cortex changes in the brain that work well to confront danger, but handicap the school age child’s cognitive skills and presage eventual health problems, for example via elevated blood pressure. The encumbered development of the prefrontal cortex leaves our young being deficient in cognitive executive capacities requisite for school success – importantly, the ability simply to sit still and self-regulate emotions, a capacity for sustained attention, and a competent working memory.
Slowly, ever so slowly if we are to measure by the politics of the moment, schools and policy types are coming around to the brute truth that the road to improved test scores and broad academic progress travels through emotional sustenance for underperforming low income students.
To that end in some states funding has improved in low income districts for heightened counseling services. Class sizes drop here and there, to allow teachers the time to once again, as they did once before, to serve as nurturer to young students. Districts with coordinated nurse services reach out to new mothers in an effort to help them parent as they were not themselves.
Now we have an at once new and ancient entrant to the solace sweepstakes. Here and there schools are experimenting with meditation and its intended outcome, mindfulness, as a means to quiet young minds, lessen their anxiety, still their reactivity, and focus attention on school tasks.
Mindfulness can be a difficult concept to pin down, for one such as I who cannot claim to be adept. But it is commonly understood as being focused on the moment, attending closely to an awareness of the present, without constant changes of focus toward events on the periphery of awareness or in one’s own mind. Doing so is seen as a route to greater tranquility, and for our current purposes, alleviation of stress and anxiety.
The practice can be as deceptively simple as sitting quietly and attending to one’s breathing. According to researchers, calm breathing can have an immediate physiological response by lowering both heart rate and blood pressure, which are pillars of anxiety. Mindfulness also is seen as instruction in attention for the student population that presents an epidemic level of ADHD.
Schools as widespread as Louisville and Seattle are well down the road to implementation. Louisville in particular has launched a seven year study to buttress its early anecdotal findings that mindfulness can impact their young charges in a positive manner.
The research basis for mindfulness training is more advanced with adults than with kids. Studies in both the United States and the United Kingdom have demonstrated mindfulness training in fact enhances attention, reduces stress and anxiety, promotes self-regulation of emotions, and reinforces capacity for compassion and empathy. Moreover, on the neurobiological side of the same question, brain imaging studies of adult practitioners of mindfulness have shown an increased mass and enhanced blood flow in certain areas of the prefrontal cortex, while the density of areas of the brain associated with anxiety and stress was diminished. Such findings imply a psychophysiological reversal of the cognitive limitations secondary to stress that cripple too many low income kids.
With the growing certainty of utility with adults, practitioners and researchers seem to assume it will only be a matter of time before mindfulness will be soundly grounded as a tool for working with children, as well.
The goal is to draw a clear arc of mindfulness from our troubled youth born into low income family chaos to a fully functioning student healed of his toxified brain structure and its associated maladaptations. While the state of the art is not yet so developed, this ancient technique, no doubt a response to psychic pain millennia ago, seems poised to serve children of this day.