When I asked the Eighth Grade students at the Madison Junior School how many of them felt nervous before tests, almost all the hands in the room went up. (There were 40 kids in the room.) How many of you feel like you can’t remember what you learned? (Same amount of hands.) Do you freeze?
“It’s like I just can’t think anymore,” said one boy, sitting on the side.
“Well, you can’t,” I told him. “That’s exactly the problem. Your system flips its nervous setting to high-alert, and your brain shuts down.”
It’s a scary reality: one I hope that every student will see as normal and easy to fix. Often, kids blame themselves for freezing before a test or presentation. Their internal critics take over and berate them for “being so stupid” or “messing up.” Children need to know that freezing in times of stress is a biological reaction, not a weak-minded choice. We all do it, and it’s hard to control. And, most importantly, we can recognize this automatic brain reaction and turn it off.
Mindfulness, I told the students, is a practice that helps you take control of your brain and help it perform at its very best. The students eyed me suspiciously. I held a big, singing bowl: something you’d find in a yoga store. I’m somebody’s parent; and I have that nurturing Mom-voice you don’t find in a middle school. What can I teach them about science?
So let’s pretend you’re sitting down to take a test, I started. You get nervous — really nervous — and your system, which is already in a low-level of stress, activates the amygdala: the tiny, almond-shaped part of your brain, which is responsible for keeping you safe. (I point to the side of my head, just above my ear.) Once the amygdala goes on, everything else shuts down: the hippocampus (I touch the left and right sides of my head), which is responsible for memory, and the prefrontal cortex (I place one palm flat against my forehead), which is the CEO of the entire operation. It’s just you, the test, and a full onslaught of adrenaline: do you attack the teacher? Fake a stomach-ache and flee? Or freeze, in place, and chew down your fingernails?
You can power off the amygdala by using mindfulness. Mindfulness is the practice of placing your attention on the present moment, on purpose. The neurological result: your nervous system returns to “open and relaxed,” and the stress response shuts down.
How do you do this mindfulness thing? I taught the students to disengage from the fight-flight activation that hijacks their brains, by closing their eyes and placing their attention on their breathing. It takes just a few moments. As they focus on what’s happening inside them — right at that moment — the amygdala de-activates, and the other brain functions come back online. Even better: when our minds are in the present moment, we do our best thinking.
I don’t expect students to take just my word for this “magical practice.” I showed the Eighth Graders pictures of Derek Jeter, Katy Perry, and Anderson Cooper. And, of course, Steve Jobs. Who doesn’t want to be as smart as Steve Jobs? All of these people have used mindfulness, regularly, to perform at their very best.
Over a period of weeks, I led the students through different skills they could use to take control of their minds, while explaining the neuroscience behind those skills. They learned how to return their attention to the present moment, to notice what kinds of thoughts they were having, and to pause before reacting to a given situation.
When we are in the present moment, we are most able to see things in a larger context, approach situations with curiosity and patience, and choose our responses. With mindfulness, we wire our brains for more joy, less stress and better thinking.
We already own the SMARTest technology known to man. Let’s teach students how to use it.