Q: Our daughter, a high-school sophomore, is smart but highly emotional, distractible and melts down when things aren't perfect. We're working with her school counselor to help her focus, prioritize and achieve her high expectations. We don't want her on attention-deficit drugs. He suggests that she could benefit from mindfulness training. What is it?
A: Psychologists define mindfulness as the nonjudgmental awareness of experiences in the present moment. Some call it learning how to regulate our inner compass.
While mindfulness techniques such as meditation have been around for thousands of years, in the last few decades scientists have begun to study their effects on our well-being.
Research shows that learning to be mindful can help adults reduce stress, manage pain, shorten migraines, get better sleep and control unproductive emotions. More and more cardiologists encourage heart-surgery patients to learn meditation as part of recovery. Some dietitians add "mindfulness training" to weight-loss programs.
The scientist who brought mindfulness into medicine's mainstream is Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor of medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and founder of its Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society.
Kabat-Zinn's work has inspired educators to include mindfulness training in social-emotional learning curricula.
"Any stressed-out parent who has read Zinn's book, 'Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting' (Hachette, 1998), has thought, 'Kids ought to be learning this stuff in school,'" says New York educator Miriam Kahn. "Teaching a class how to calm themselves with their breath can reduce stress, promote mutual respect and de-escalate discipline problems."
Several studies show the potential benefits of mindfulness practices for students' physical health, psychological well-being, social skills and academic performance, writes Emily Campbell, research assistant for education at the University of California Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center.
One published recently in Developmental Psychology describes how a program called MindUP taught fourth- and fifth-grade students to practice mindfulness. Over a four-month period, they improved their behavior and social skills and even got significantly higher math scores than the control group.
Richmond, California, teacher Jean-Gabrielle Larochette realized that the many minutes he spent getting kids to settle into the school day ate into their precious instructional time.
"We tell kids to be quiet, calm down, stay on task, regulate and make good choices, but we're not teaching them how to do that," he says.
A mindfulness practitioner himself, Larochette taught them the focused breathing techniques he used daily. The results were so compelling that he founded the Mindful Life Project (mindfullifeproject.org) to expand the program to area schools.
A program offered by the nonprofit group Mindful Schools (mindfulschools.org) promotes practices that help students pay attention, build empathy and self-awareness, improve self-control and reduce stress. Research has shown that after six weeks of training, student behavior can improve significantly in those areas and that the gains can be sustained with a few minutes of daily practice.
Will mindfulness training help your daughter? It may be worth a try. If you can't locate a qualified local trainer, find well-recommended resources by Kabat-Zinn at mindfulnesscds.com. Or consider a free eight-week online university course from the Greater Good Science Center called "The Science of Happiness." Enroll at greatergood.berkeley.edu.
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)