What Children Need in Lieu of Mindfulness

Mindfulness quote

The practice of mindfulness has crept its way into elementary and preschools.

Biologist, Jon Kabat-Zinn, coined the term “mindfulness” in the 1970s to describe the act of “paying attention on purpose” to the present moment, with a “non-judgmental” attitude.

Mindfulness techniques are being used in the classroom to help children cope with stress and anxiety as well as to help them calm their mind, find center, and focus attention.  Advocates believe designating school time to such training leads to improved behavior and academic performance.

As a teacher, I appreciate learning the art of mindfulness to enhance my classroom management repertoire.  As a mom, I welcome a daily dose of meditation as a respite for harried parenthood.  But I am a grown up.

Teaching preschool and elementary school aged children mindfulness is both redundant and a band-aid.  Why?  Because they are mindful by design and their stress is not self imposed.

Children live in the present.  Watch a 4 year old mix a leaf, grass and stone soup for the missing class tortoise or his classmate run wildly away from an invisible queen across the school yard.  Stop to observe a pair of nine year olds twirl until dizzy or a crew of fifth graders so engrossed in conversation they forget to heed a busy crossing guard and it will become apparent that children are led by heart and body in the moment.

Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget concluded children’s understanding of time and capacity to think in abstract terms are driven by cognitive development.

A preschooler’s foundation for time begins with a sense of what happens before and after a concrete experience.  His understanding of duration and the future does not match that of an adult.  That’s why a child under 4 is confused by words like “tonight” “later” “today” and “tomorrow,” and will often create ones like “yestertime.”   Even a child nearing Kindergarten will understand the phrase, “we are having lunch after I pick you up from school” over “we will have lunch at 12 o’clock.”  By elementary school, a first grader learns to tell time only to the hour and half hour.  Minutes are not introduced until second grade.

While children between ages 7-10 have a more mature sense of time, abstract, hypothetical thought is not fully developed until age eleven.  Up until early middle school, young people still benefit from a personal connection or concrete experience in order to make sense of a sophisticated idea.

For example, after reading Crenshaw, a middle grade novel which tackles the theme of homelessness, my ten year old went on to ask questions about our family’s financial condition and whether we have enough money to pay the rent in an effort to make sense of this cruel reality.  Even after I reassured him, the boy worried.

Encouraging my son to read a book I, the adult with my adult view of the world, thought would benefit his growth only produced anxiety.  He was not cognitively ready.

Adults can minimize the stress we create for and impose upon children by limiting its source.  But with poverty, trauma, and violence not as straightforward and repairable as developmentally rigorous academic standards, competitive athletic expectations, over scheduling, and the pressure to be well liked, well rounded and successful, we need to nurture their emotional health while simultaneously addressing the larger issues.

But meditation, deep breaths, and mantras are not the answer.

Children need love.

A veteran teaching colleague recently reminded me it is consistent love from a trusted adult whether it is a parent, relative, community member, or teacher that makes the difference for a child regardless of external forces.

Even as the family in the story Crenshaw struggled through hunger and financial hardship my son observed, “Living in a van didn’t seem so bad because the family loved each other.”

Children need time.

Time to move, play and socialize; time to create, discover and stretch their imagination; time to get from point A to B, be bored and to wonder.

The time scheduled for mindfulness  in school should be allocated to these activities because this is how children find their center.  This is what helps them focus.  This is what teaches body and environmental awareness.  This is how they were intended to manage stress.

Children are inherently present, non judgmental, and stress free.  So let’s give them love.  Give them time.  And then, let them be.

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10 thoughts on “What Children Need in Lieu of Mindfulness

  1. “Children need time.”
    “Children need love…consistent love from a trusted adult whether it is a parent, relative, community member or teacher…”

    As a mother of 2 teenagers and as a recently retired ESL teacher, I agree whole-heartedly. I live in Pleasantive, and my children have attended public school here since K. I taught just minutes away in a public school district that, in many respects, is a world away. I used to tell my friends and family that I live the 21st century version of Dickens’ “Tale of Two Cities.”

    The push for teaching “mindfulness” is the New York State Education Department’s inadequate response to the overwhelming numbers of parents who reported how stressful school has become for their children under Common Core, as evidenced by the 200,000 students across the state whose parents opted them out of testing. NYSED thinks that if they put a bandaid on it, parents will stop complaining and stop opting their children out of testing.

    To the immigrant population I taught (immigrant children from South America), my colleagues and I were those loving, trusted adults…and more times than I care to talk about, that wasn’t enough. Unfortunately, the testing machine that began with No Child Left Behind and metasticized under the Common Core meant that my students lost that gift of time. They were tested, and tested, but constantly failed. Common Core came with a new teacher evaluation system, APPR. Teachers are evaluated based upon their students test scores. So under Common Core, I failed along with my students.

    It wasn’t that failure that drove me away. It was the fact that in a school district with over 25% of its population receiving free and reduced price lunch, our kids were failing these tests which meant their schools were labeled failing, and under the Common Core, failure comes with harsh consequences. In this case, it is not just a prescribed curriculum, but a prescribed way of “lesson delivery”, and scripted teacher talk as well as prescribed time to spend on each “module” of the lesson.

    English Language Learners need the gift of time; time to be immersed in a rich and purposeful way, in their new language. I know. That’s what I did. And it worked. One of my students arrived here in 4th grade from a Carribean nation, under-schooled and illiterate in her native language. The deck was stacked against her. Her parents were illiterate in their native language. Her father died in a motorcycle accident six months after they arrived here. My student, her mother and brother ended up in a homeless shelter.

    Two years later she tested “Proficient” and exited the ESL program. She graduated from high school, attended community college, met and married a wonderful man, had two beautiful children, and is currently attending a four-year college. She was one of dozens of students like her, who “made it”. But she was my first, and she was especially determined.

    Most of my success stories took longer than 2 years and it wasn’t just me…it was the administrators, the classroom teacher, the special area teachers, the social worker, the psychologist, the guidance counselor, the librarian, the school secretaries, the nurse, the cafeteria workers and the custodians. It really does take a village!

    Research (Cummins et al) shows that it takes 2 years for a language learner to attain proficiency in the language needed for social communication; 7-10 years to attain language needed for academic proficiency. When I first started teaching 24 years ago, New York State gave immigrant children 2 school years from the time they arrived at school, before they had to participate in standardized tests. Under NCLB we were told that if a student showed up on our doorstep, the day of the exam, they had to remain in the testing room and we had to give them a test book, answer sheet and writing implement. With Common Core, the testing is 3 times a year.

    Administrators would enter our classrooms, unannounced, to make sure we were complying. Make no mistake, I would have been written up and had a disciplinary hearing if I wasn’t following the rules. What many people don’t know, is that NYS has a standardized test that ESL students K-12 must take at the end of each year, until they pass, in order to be deemed “Proficient” in English. These students are required to take that test on top of the Common Core tests. That means one thing if you’re an immigrant child who is literate in your native language, it means something entirely different if you’re not, and the overwhelming majority of my students were not. And no matter what we call it, “test” is a non-verbal word and children understand “test” in every language, no matter their age.

    If you’ve made it this far in my comment, THANK YOU! What I want you to take away from this is that Common Core affects ALL STUDENTS: Special needs students, and students in mainstream classes who struggle. NOT EVERY STUDENT IS A SUPERSTAR AND EDUCATION IS NOT ONE SIZE FITS ALL. These kids aren’t necessarily failing because their teachers are lousy, or because their schools are neglected, either. These kids are failing because EVERY ASPECT OF COMMON CORE IS PRESCRIBED, ESPECIALLY WHEN YOU FAIL.

    I don’t know if readers of this blog are too young to remember. There was a poster that emerged from the Vietnam war era protests, “War is not healthy for children and other living things.” Well, “COMMON CORE IS NOT HEALTHY FOR CHILDREN AND OTHER LIVING THINGS.”

    Finally, you cannot separate the standards from the tests; they are conjoined twins.

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    • Thank you for taking the time to write this and share your insight. I think your comments warrant a wide readership. Perhaps also consider posting it on Diane Ravitch’s blog. More people need to hear and learn from your experience. I feel very fortunate to live where I do and hope (pray, really) that under ESSA, the standards and testing requirements change.

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      • Thank you for reading, posting, and taking the time to comment! It’s taken me a year and a half to put into words, why I retired from teaching. In fact, I’ve been having difficulty moving on in my retirement because I felt that people need to know what’s going on in schools. Your article struck a chord in me! I’ve been following Diane Ravitch and came upon your article via Diane Ravitch’s blog…specifically her post on Paul Thomas’ response to Mitoko Rich’s article. In other words, “I heard it through the grapevine…” When an article resonates, I read the comments and that’s how I found your blog. Love it! Wish you had been around when my guys were little (now 19 and 17). Reading your articles is like sitting down with my best friend! I love this article…sharing your son’s experience reading Crenshaw really illuminates developmental appropriateness. Parents today need that understanding so desperately.

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      • Thank you so much for your kind words. And I probably just missed your children; I taught at BRS from 2002-2005 and then substituted there a bit after I had my first child 🙂

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