In a bright room at Robert W. Coleman Elementary School in Baltimore, a group of kids sit around the edge of a colorful checkerboard rug. They close their eyes, and an instructor walks them through a belly breathing exercise.
Technically, they’re there because they acted out: they got in a scuffle on the playground, or spoke out of turn in class. But this is not detention: the Mindful Moment Room is Robert W. Coleman Elementary’s attempt to break the entrenched cycle of disruption and punishment in schools.
Since 2014, the school has partnered with the local nonprofit Holistic Life Foundation to bring meditation and mindfulness to students. Around 120 students sign up to participate in the free after-school program, Holistic Me, where they practice yoga, reflection, and breathing exercises. And instead of the traditional sit-at-your-desk-and-watch-the-clock-tick mode of detention, disruptive students are brought to the Mindful Moment Room to breathe and talk with a counselor.
For the kids in the program, who range from pre-K to fifth grade, the lessons have had a positive effect: compared to four suspensions in the 2012-2013 school year, last year, there were none. The nearby Patterson High School, which introduced the Mindful Moment program around the same time, saw overall suspensions drop by around half.
The reduction in suspensions, says Holistic Life co-founder Andres Gonzalez, is a byproduct of what the kids are learning through mindfulness. “We’re seeing kids being less impulsive, we’re seeing kids dealing with conflicts peacefully, we’re seeing kids learning to regulate their emotions in situations of heightened stress, and being responsive rather than reactive,” he says. Mindfulness-based programs in the Bay Area and New York City have produced similar results. Cesar Chavez Academy is based in East Palo Alto, California—a high-crime neighborhood, where as many as 50 percent of the students are homeless, according to the school’s principal. Researchers at nearby Stanford University found that mindfulness and yoga helped alleviate the observed symptoms of PTSD among Cesar Chavez students, who were also encouraged to translate the practices to their lives at home.
For a kid growing up in poverty, stress is pervasive and pernicious. At a Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health symposium earlier this year, researchers noted that sustained exposure to adverse childhood experiences—such as growing up in a rough neighborhood or an unstable home—alter the architecture of a child’s brain, impairing cognitive function, attention span, and the ability to regulate emotions.
At the same symposium, researchers insisted that “the most obvious ways to alleviate the toxic consequences of poverty-related stress [are] by helping families be more financially secure, such as through a living wage, affordable housing, or targeted help with education and nutrition.” This vision is easier to imagine than it will be to realize. While advocates continue to push for the policy reforms necessary to accomplish it, educators are hopeful that mindfulness will give schoolkids tools to combat stress from the inside out.
Kristen Johnson, a senior director at the National Association for the Education of Young Children, says that apart from the calming and reflective benefits of yoga and mindfulness, kids learn to trust themselves and develop their own responses to stress. Conversely, “when children are suspended or expelled,” Johnson says, “it disrupts the learning process and breaks down trust. It’s cyclical: in addition to not allowing a child to learn at his or her best, these practices create anxiety that can cause more disruptive behavior.”
This cycle, Johnson notes, unfairly affects African American boys, starting from a young age: according to research from the Yale Child Study Center, black children make up only 19 percent of preschoolers, but comprise 47 percent of suspensions, and boys are three times more likely to be suspended than girls. Johnson believes that detention alternatives can reshape the cycle of disruption and punishment that has become ingrained across the school system, and improve children’s outcomes later in life. “The best disciplinary strategy is really redirection,” Johnson says. The focus should be on bolstering social and emotional skills, rather than punishing bygone behaviors, she adds.
The New York Times notes that while the positive effects of mindfulness practice on students have been well-documented on a case-by-case basis, such as at Robert W. Coleman Elementary, it’s still a relatively new area of study. “It definitely doesn’t address poverty, and it may not work for everybody,” Patricia Jennings, an associate professor at University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, told The Times.
But for educators like Gonzalez at Holistic Life, the response from the kids they work with is enough to convince them to keep their programs running. “We hear people say to us all the time that we’re saving these kids’ lives,” he says. “We’re not saving anybody’s lives. We’re giving individuals the tools they need to save their own.”