Mindfullness in Academia

I had another blog planned and prepped, but followed a more current line of thought and last minute switched to the topic of mindfulness.

Google’s definition for mindfulness is “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.”

The school where I volunteer at Anna Julia Cooper School (see Carly’s last blog!), which models prioritizing mindfulness in an academic setting. Though so many of the kids at this school came from “failing” schools and are behind national standards, the school does not pursue a “successful” education by focusing on teaching to standardized tests. They recognize that the kids at our school are struggling with more than academic shortcomings- they have also lacked environments promoting personal emotional health, whether at home or in their neighborhoods. AJCES teachers are trained to work with kids who have/are experiencing trauma, striving to make the school a physical place of support even as they challenge them intellectually, socially, and emotionally. In these neighborhoods where most people focus on physical lack, and schools focus on academic lack, I’ve seen AJCES promote an environment to teach kids they do have power over their own minds and reactions in any environment- and this is mindfulness. They hold them to high standards- dress code, respectful behavior- to promote an environment where they can cry in class and have spaces and people available for them to process, and a space where their classmates shouldn’t bully them for doing so.

Pursuing a state of awareness of my present and recognizing my own feelings is hard enough for me, even though my environments and family structure have been incredibly stable. But from what I’m hearing from the kids, and what I’m told of their lives, it is chaotic. Though I know I’m only getting a small and incomplete picture, I still think the generalization is not untrue- some kids are passed around between extended family members because a parent is not available for raising them, the fourth graders talk about the frequent shootings in their neighborhoods, the 7th graders are constantly building their social esteem by talking about fights, some see drug deals across the hall, and they comment on how the police are always present in their neighborhoods, complete with flashy mobile command units and horses. When the teachers at AJCES make house calls to families homes they are most commonly mistaken for some version of child protective services.

In the overwhelming face of this lack of stability, whatever form it comes in for each kid, AJCES provides a good education to prepare for future academic success, breakfast lunch and 2 snacks every day to combat malnutrition, and requires everyone to do a sport to promote health. And as part of their whole child focus, they also invite mindfulness experts to promote processing for the students once a week. They have a very active school counselor, and all the staff makes themselves available to talk to the students, who ask to leave class to talk to so-and-so about something far too frequently. Their ‘punishment” for acting out is cooling down in Coach’s room and writing reflection letters when ready.

Monday morning, a 4th grader told me she would probably cry throughout the day.  I asked her if she would tell my why when she was ready, and she did. Later, while crying, she asked to leave class to talk to the principal- I was worried about sending her to “bother’ him since there were other people specifically there for such moments as part of their job, so I asked if she would talk to them.  But she insisted he had promised to always be there if she needed to talk… and at that moment he actually arrived to check on the class, and asked if she wanted to talk. The staff’s reactions to these kids is awesome, but so is the fact that this little girl had the insight to tell me school would be hard for her that day, and the bravery and communication skills to tell me why as well. And she has the lowest academic performance of everyone in her grade.

I’ve been reevaluate what should be prioritized in a school. I am still frustrated that the 8th grade students I am assigning assignments for SSAT (a standardized entry for private high schools) preparation are mostly incredibly behind academically, even the ones who have been at the school for years. But what I’ve been realizing is that they are gaining so much more than a quantifiable education at this school, and their practice of mindfulness can carry them through disadvantaged environments in an even more direct and powerful way than academic success alone.

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