I started working with the 8th graders at the Madison Junior School, a few weeks before they began their PARCC testing. We began with an overview of mindfulness and the first skill set in the Mindful Schools curriculum: listening. The kids closed their eyes and listened to the sound of the singing bowl as it rang out, loudly, inside the stillness of the 40 students. They waited until they heard the last traces of its chime before they quietly raised their hands. It took about 30 seconds. After they opened their eyes, there was a palpable difference in the feeling in the room.
“How do you feel?” I asked. A boy in the back row raised his hand and said, “So relaxed.” Another boy, sitting closer to the front added, “Like I went away.”
In the next two weeks, I taught the kids a little brain science: how our brains freeze up when we get nervous or scared during test-taking and hijack our ability to reason or retrieve memories. “To turn off the fight-or-flight response, come back to the present moment,” I told them. “Take a breath or take a moment to just listen to the sounds in the room. Once your awareness is back in the present moment, your brain will be released and all your great thinking and learning will once again be available to you.”
Mindfulness is about putting attention where our feet are — right here, in this room, in this moment. When our attention is placed in the present moment, it’s impossible for the chemicals in our brain, that create stress, to be released. The more it is practiced, the more mindfulness becomes available, as a habit, something we do, automatically, to help us stay grounded in the here and now. Mindfulness helps students think without a rush of toxic anxiety or nervousness. It helps kids feel more curious and open to the topic in front of them. It teaches our young people to develop kindness for themselves and for others. Empathy helps them see that when they struggle with a math problem, they are struggling with one problem: they are not doomed to fail math.