Tuesday, June 19, 2007

'Mindfulness' training might help schoolchildren relax, pay attention

Patricia Leigh Brown's article in The New York Times Saturday explained a promising approach to quieting the minds of schoolchildren.

OAKLAND, Calif., June 12 — The lesson began with the striking of a Tibetan singing bowl to induce mindful awareness.

With the sound of their new school bell, the fifth graders at Piedmont Avenue Elementary School here closed their eyes and focused on their breathing, as they tried to imagine “loving kindness” on the playground....

As summer looms, students at dozens of schools across the country are trying hard to be in the present moment. This is what is known as mindfulness training, in which stress-reducing techniques drawn from Buddhist meditation are wedged between reading and spelling tests.

Mindfulness, while common in hospitals, corporations, professional sports and even prisons, is relatively new in the education of squirming children. But a small but growing number of schools in places like Oakland and Lancaster, Pa., are slowly embracing the concept...

Brown wrote that some big research institutions are studying "mindfulness" and how it works.

“Parents and teachers tell kids 100 times a day to pay attention,” said Philippe R. Goldin, a [Stanford University] researcher. “But we never teach them how.”

That's not to say that "mindfulness" training is completely advocated by researchers.

Although some students take naturally to mindfulness, it is “not a magic bullet,” said Diana Winston, the director of mindfulness education at the U.C.L.A. center. She said the research thus far was “inconclusive” about how effective mindfulness was for children who suffered from trauma-related disorders, for example. It is “a slow process,” Ms. Winston added. “Just because kids sit and listen to the bell doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be more kind.”

A-ha! So moral, ethical and religious trainings are still necessary. As Winston suggests, there never really is a single silver bullet to human problems, is there? But this research indicates that "mindfulness" can be a tool.

Some teachers told Brown that the techniques have not worked for every student.

But [Yolanda Steel, a second-grade teacher at Piedmont,] noted that some students tapped pencils and drummed on desks instead of closing their eyes and listening to the bell. “The premise is nice,” Ms. Steel concluded. “But mindfulness can’t do it all.”

Words like "Tibetan" and "Buddhist" and "mindfulness" will alarm some parents, especially many more conservative religious folk, but I think they could suspend worry until they have considered two points.

First, focusing attention is not the same as "emptying" the mind, which produces a state that might make children more susceptible to manipulation -- or, as some religious folks will contend, dark spiritual influences. Focusing the imagination on something healthy and positive is not, at very least, the same as emptying the mind. I cannot remember who told me this, but somewhere along the way I heard someone define the Biblical word for meditation as "mulling over" or "chewing over" a certain idea. Could relaxing and repeating certain Biblical or liturgical phrases be detrimental? To me, this is not the same as repeating songs over and over in a revival service.

Second, some research suggests that focused meditation strengthens the brain. An article in the June edition of Men's Journal addressed meditation techniques in which a person will relax and focus on a repeated phrase. "When Harvard researcher Sara Lazar recently compared the brains of American meditators to a control group, she found that parts of the cortex responsible for attention were on average 5 percent thicker," the article said.

To me, techniques for focusing attention (as long as they do not involve "emptying" the mind) involve the same electrical patterns in the brain that are addressed in neurofeedback. Neurofeedback helps people redo the electrical patterns in their brains. Before neurofeedback can begin, the clinician must record the electrical patterns in the brain (an electroencephalograph). Clusters of electrical activity in certain parts of the brain can indicate attention-deficit disorder, depression, anxiety, bi-polar disorder, and other problems. After the diagnosis, to help remedy these problems, a clinician specializing in neurofeedback will program a computer system based on the diagnosis. When the time comes for the patient's office visit, the clinician will attach sensors to the head of the patient. The patient will sit in front of a screen that might have a video-game style race track or a movie. When the patient's relaxation and focus get into the right zone -- when the electrical patterns move away from those clusters and into other parts of the brain -- a car will move along the race track or the movie will fill the entire screen.

Exciting times for brain research.

Read Brown's article at:
http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/16/us/16mindful.html?ex=1182830400&en=981d7c4981c880cc&ei=5070

-Colin Burch

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