Richard Davidson, professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is the Founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds (CIHM). He and his staff implemented a 12-week study where pre-kindergarten students learned a new type of ABC’s: Attention, Breath and Body and Caring Practice. The study involved four- and five-year-olds in the Madison Metropolitan School District taking part in a new curriculum meant to promote social, emotional and academic skills. Researchers found that kids who had participated in the curriculum earned higher marks in academic performance measures and showed greater improvements in areas that predict future success than kids who had not. The results were recently published in the journal Developmental Psychology.
The students learned how to be more aware of themselves and others through practices that encourage them to bring mindful attention to present moment experience. These practices, the researchers hypothesized, could enhance the children’s self-regulation skills – such as emotional control and the capacity to pay attention — and influence the positive development of traits like impulse control and kindness. This could help kids start out life in more positive ways.
One of the practices of awareness in the curriculum was when the teacher rang a bell in the classroom and asked the students to raise their hands when they “heard” the sound of the bell STOP. Another one was “Belly Buddies” in which the students listened to music while lying on their backs, and a small stone resting on their stomachs. They were asked to notice the sensation of the stone, and to feel it rising and falling as they breathed in and out.
In addition to improved academics, the 30 students who went through the curriculum showed less selfish behavior over time and greater mental flexibility than the 38 kids in the control group.
Ultimately, the researchers would like to see mindfulness-based practices become “woven into” the school day, adapted to students across grade levels, becoming a foundation for how teachers teach and how students approach learning.
“I think there’s increasing recognition of how social, emotional and cognitive functioning are intermingled; that kids may have difficulty in school when emotional challenges arise and that impacts learning,” one of the researchers states. “Can you imagine how this could shift the climate of our schools, our community, our world, if cultivating these qualities was at the forefront of education?”
Reflections From Meg Hanshaw
I have been coaching teachers at our pilot public Kindergarten classroom and our pilot Empowerment school for the past four years. What I have found is that when students learn to be kind to themselves and others, they feel more confident about themselves. They then can focus more on learning instead of worrying about what others think, how they are going to be treated, or how they are going to perform. It seems like focusing on learning first would build confident students, but that is not the case. Teaching them relationship skills with themselves and others that increase positive partnerships that are based in compassion and kindness is the key. The best way to do that is through free and structured play with other learning and life skills intermingled within.