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Students of Stillness

By Alice C. Chen

Kids have a new tool, beyond meds or a trip to the principal’s office, to deal with depression, stress, and lack of focus. It’s called mindfulness, and Laurie Grossman, community outreach coordinator at Oakland’s Park Day School, is one of its biggest advocates, having launched an effort in East Bay schools to help kids be mindful—to find an inner stillness.

Grossman has introduced a five-week program in 10 low-income Oakland public schools and three private schools around the Bay Area. It draws on the stress reduction techniques developed by medical researcher and best-selling author Jon Kabat-Zinn to help people deal with pain, anxiety, and depression. Grossman plans to expand the program to a dozen more Bay Area schools this year, possibly including one in Orinda, and to work on a study to document the benefits of mindfulness for children.

What is mindfulness?

Paying attention, on purpose, to the present moment, without judgment. We start by teaching children to listen to sound. The second lesson is focusing on breath. We teach them that if they start thinking, they should say, “Thinking, thinking.” Then mindful eating, mindful movement, and body scan. Can you feel your left foot? What does it feel like? Is it touching the ground? What sensations do you feel? That typically relaxes you. We have 15, 15-minute sessions. Several lessons are on kindness and caring. We say to them, “Imagine someone in your life. Imagine them really happy.” It opens their heart, makes them kinder.

What sort of results have you seen?

One class had substitutes all year, and the kids were out of control. We came back for a one-day refresher course, and the teacher said, “It’s not going to work.” Well, a [mindfulness] teacher the kids had never seen pulled out [a Tibetan singing] bowl and rang it. Suddenly, it was completely quiet. These kids wanted this so badly.

Are the benefits for children supported by medical research?

There’s tons of research on adults. It all shows amazing results in medical conditions. Gina Biegel, a marriage and family therapist with Kaiser San Jose, is the only person who’s researched adolescents and mindfulness-based stress reduction. She worked with 100 adolescents, and after eight weeks, 80 percent no longer showed symptoms of depression, suicidal tendencies, mania, or OCD.

You’ve mainly used this program to help low-income, at-risk kids. Would this program work in schools in more affluent areas? Is there stress in upper-income areas?

Wherever there’s stress, this is useful. How do you get students to embrace the idea of being in the moment when they are constantly getting the message that multitasking, being busy, and learning time management are necessary for scoring higher test scores and getting ahead in life? They’ll do better. They’re learning to focus. When you’re taking your test, you’re taking your test. You’re not worrying about it.

How could public school teachers justify devoting 15 minutes when they have so much material to cover so that their students can meet state standards?

The program takes a total of three hours and 45 minutes to teach a lifetime skill. It helps classroom management.

If this program is based on Buddhist practices, is this bringing religion into schools?

We’ve taken the Buddhism completely out. What we’re doing is completely secular. We had Christian ministers look at this. They said, “There’s no religion there.” I’m Jewish. I don’t know Buddhism at all.

What are your long-term plans?

I have sought social justice in education for over 30 years and have found mindfulness to be the most effective tool ever. I would like to see mindfulness in every classroom in the country, from preschool to grad school. Mindfulness mitigates the stress we all face. The younger we are when we learn it, the better equipped we will be to be present for our lives, to greet the joys, and to as gracefully as possible address the challenges we will inevitably encounter.


Published: Diablo, August 2008

Author bio: Alice Chen is an Oakland-based freelance writer.

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