Meditation in the classroom, the new approach to 'emotional learning'

Students in nearly 175 schools in Canada and 75 in the U.S. are being taught 'mindfulness' and other psychological techniques to try to enhance the learning experience. Richard Handler says these tools are just as valid as letting kids be kids.

Canadian schools in forefront of adding psychology to the curriculum

As kids head back to school in September, some will find their teachers focusing not just on developing their intellects but also their "mental brawn," to help adolescent brains cope better with today's digitalized world.

It seems that as our modern-day culture grows more frenzied, some schools at least are trying to redesign education so kids can be better equipped to function amid the constant bombardment of media messages and gadgets with all their maddening stimuli.

Already students from kindergarten to Grade 8 in Vancouver, and in nearly 175 schools in Canada and 75 in the U.S., are being given training in brain lingo, according to a current article in Scientific American Mind.

To increase what the magazine calls mental brawn, these brain exercises are being provided so students can strengthen their ability to stay focused and "persevere."

It turns out that stress creates a big barrier to learning, according to cognitive scientists (and, frankly, common sense).

So, instead of schools just promoting hard work, the basics and the three R's, there's a new pedagogical approach called "social and emotional learning" — SEL for short — making the rounds.

In one program called MindUP, which is being promoted by the American actress and celebrity Goldie Hawn through her foundation, elementary school children are taught to follow their breath with "mindfulness" exercises, which are basically scaled-down, kid-tailored versions of meditation. 

Actress Goldie Hawn is a big promoter of 'mindfulness' in schools and has just published a new book, with British poet Wendy Holden, called '10 Mindful Minutes.' (Joel Ryan / Associated Press)

The aim is to develop what is called "non-judgmental awareness," to begin teaching a child to stay with a thought or feeling while resisting the urge to run away from it.

That's hard enough for an adult to do, let alone a child.

Students are also taught strategies for "deferred gratification" and "self-regulation" — the psychological terms being used to replace more old-fashioned words like self-control and patience.

The object of these exercises is to develop "executive function," another $10 term for the proper management of our thoughts and feelings.

This occurs, anatomically speaking, in the prefrontal cortex, which is the last portion of the brain to fully develop in humans and often not until well into one's 20s.

Whether these exercises will help turn young children into cool little Barack Obamas, well, this remains is to be seen.

There is a debate among researchers about how much of this kind of early cognitive training really sticks.

Positive results in early remedial education programs in the U.S. such as Head Start have been shown to "decay" when children are returned to their regular classrooms.

Still, according to the optimistic MindUP folks and other promoters, early results look promising, over the short term at least.

OK to be angry?

Of course it is just possible that that all this fancy brain talk signals a cultural shift occurring, again, underneath our very noses.

In the countercultural sixties, for example, we were told to bare our thoughts and inhibited feelings. Repression was the enemy, denial a sin.

The expression of true and raw emotion even became a political category deemed "authentic." So it was perfectly fine to become angry, and those at whom we screamed deserved it anyway.

At one point it was discovered that expressing torrents of anger could be useful in some cases, selectively applied.

But make it habit? Psychologists discovered that anger only begat the desire to express more anger.

In fact, the whole safety-valve theory of emotion ended up being revised. The mind was not a seething cauldron that had to be vented on occasion for safety.

But in those heady days (oh, I remember) there seemed to be no limit to the glorification of impulse and what we'd do to satisfy a need. And besides, our burgeoning generational appetites sure helped keep the economy humming.

But now, at least in some places, there's a longing for such old-fashioned traits as maturity, character and self-control, often wrapped in the hip jargon of social science and management.

Having a well functioning "executive function" is now seen as a net benefit for all concerned — and good for your long-term health, too, studies now suggest.

That means we must all now become the buttoned-down CEOs of our own minds if we want to graduate and ditch those primal displays of emotion.

Discretion and maturity must be valued, repackaged and taught in our schools.

Let kids be kids

Now, I've heard it said on talk shows, that all this SEL stuff — all the funny breathing and gratitude exercises (like writing down five things every day that you are grateful for) — are just another way to dampen the spirits of children who have too much energy to sit still.


Some of the key concepts of social and emotional learning, according to the latest edition of Scientific American Mind magazine, include:

  • mindfulness, which it calls a "dispassionate focus on the present" that helps to keep stress at bay;
  • and metagcognition, or thinking about thinking, which may help kids control their emotions better and in ways that can help with learning. 

One side says that these kids must be taught strategies to pacify them in order to turn them into polite creatures ready to learn from teacher.

The other side says give them a real gym, not brain gyms but physical exercise to let some of the everyday stress out.

Let kids be kids, as one puzzled caller I heard on American public radio put it.

The problem is, it's all true, every point that everyone makes. Sure, kids need to be kids. But they also have to be taught strategies to learn and concentrate.

For as long as education has been practiced, teachers have been filling in for parents who are hard-pressed all on their own to do the job of creating character and values for their kids.

So when your child comes back from school talking about their brain regions — like the amygdala, the almond-shaped cluster of neurons that functions as a clearing house for emotion, and the pre-frontal cortex, the hub for executive function — think of this as just another sign of today's complex world with all its often conflicting messages.

It is not only parents and teachers who must negotiate between the poles of desire and restraint. It's all of us. So breathe deeply and count to 10 before you reply to this column.