While taking time off two years ago, Half Moon Bay High School teacher Sarah Bunkin began to feel different. She was more relaxed and clear-headed because of her regular practice with mindfulness.

Mindfulness is a broad term, but advocates say through techniques like meditation it helps people focus on the present moment, which in turn helps to manage emotions, gain mental clarity and reduce stress levels. When Bunkin returned to the school in 2019, she created her Positive Psychology class. During its first year, students incorporated mindful practices like guided meditations and breathing exercises into the classroom.

“I decided I’m committed,” Bunkin said of her practice. “It’s changed my life a lot, so I’m going to keep my practice going and share it with the students. Because I have to dive in somewhere, I can’t wait to be an expert to start.”

After briefly running her own curriculum, Bunkin got certified through Mindful Schools, an Oakland-based program. Since its inception in 2007, it has trained more than 60,000 public school educators. To Bunkin, Mindful Schools is effective because it emphasizes paying attention to students rather than the act of teaching mindfulness to the class. For example, she’s now more aware that kids who have undergone trauma may have a harder time regulating their emotions.

Ideally, Bunkin said the class would be practicing mindfulness consistently, but even short bursts — the Positive Psychology class meets twice a week — of noticing distressing thoughts or practicing compassion make an impact.

“I think any exposure is worth it,” Bunkin said. “And I’m so grateful that I have a full year so we don’t have to rush through it. I can teach them different kinds of mindfulness practices.”

There are a seemingly endless stream of sources online claiming how mindfulness can improve quality of life. The methods vary, from guided meditations to breathing exercises and body scans. A curriculum may include discussions on acceptance and equanimity or mental calmness.

During meditation sessions in Bunkin’s class, which last just a few minutes, students practice many of those same methods. Of the 23 students in the class who answered questions about their experience, most said it felt awkward in the beginning but they gradually began to enjoy it.

“I love doing meditation, but I have noticed that sometimes it's really hard to stay focused on the meditation,” said student Abigail Valle. “My mind always goes somewhere else and I get frustrated and then the whole time I'm just concentrating on not losing focus.”

Some students said it was difficult when they felt distracted or stressed. But over time, they started seeing some benefits and even gravitated to popular mobile applications like Calm and Headspace to continue outside of class.

“It can be challenging to do this because I, and a lot of people in my generation, feel the need to constantly be checking their phone,” said student Mayah Johnson. “Practicing meditation forces me to put my phone down for at least 15 to 20 minutes and focus on what is happening in the present moment.”

As practicing mindfulness has become more mainstream, either as a way to cope with anxiety or just take a few minutes to relax and as conversations of mental health rise to the forefront for schools, some students and faculty are taking steps to integrate mindfulness into the classroom. Advocates cite studies linking decreased stress levels, anxiety and impulsivity while increasing emotional resilience, cognitive control and social skills.

Critics say there is not enough evidence on its effects on children's developing brains. There is some research, however.

In 2019, the Boston Charter Research Initiative, a partnership from Harvard University’s Center for Educational Policy Research and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, studied the effects of meditation on sixth-graders from one middle school. The results showed that after eight weeks of four sessions per week, randomly selected students were less stressed than their peers who did not participate.

Some students volunteered for brain scans, which revealed their amygdalas, often referenced as the brain’s fear center that controls emotions, did not react as much to images of “fearful faces” as compared to eight weeks prior. The researchers suggested students’ brains were less susceptible to negative stimuli, meaning they were less likely to be stressed or have attention lapses. The control group that did not participate in the mindfulness practices did not experience the same results.

But those meditation sessions were led by professional instructors from Calmer Choice, a Massachusetts nonprofit specializing in mindfulness education. The ongoing discussion about schools adopting a mindfulness-based curriculum largely centers around how much personal experience teachers should have with meditation, and how best to apply that to students.

While practicing mindfulness in schools has become more popular, some educators stress that a one-size-fits-all approach may not benefit all students. Melissa Ambrose, currently the wellness coordinator for the Jefferson Union High School District, also took a certification program through Mindful Schools. Ambrose explained that one of the challenges is that, like any subject, the teacher should have a deep understanding of the material.

“You wouldn’t have a math teacher teach algebra if they didn’t know how to do algebra,” she said. “You wouldn’t have a Spanish teacher who doesn’t speak Spanish. We have people teaching mindfulness all over the place who don’t have a mindfulness practice.”

Ambrose taught at Oceana High School for nine years starting in 1998 before getting her master’s in social work. She was a wellness counselor for the district for 12 years. Ambrose said she heard from students who both loved and hated the mindfulness programs.

The potential pitfall, she said, is that in the rush to get mindfulness into schools, teachers and students lose sight of its true purpose and benefit. Like an entry-level class, a canned curriculum can prevent students from grasping the flexible nature of meditation. If students are told to let their minds “go blank” yet are unable to, they will be less inclined to keep up the practice.

“In my opinion, the end-all-be-all is not relaxation and soothing,” Ambrose said. “That is a step on the way that can be incredibly beneficial. But not everybody finds the benefit of relaxation. If it’s not taught well, you could think ‘I’m bad at this, I’m broken, or everybody else gets this and I don’t.’”

While three minutes of silence a day can be a healthy break from the daily routine, Ambrose noted that regular practitioners say the purpose of mindfulness is to “deeply learn about ourselves.” Without that understanding, she says, some students miss the point of the exercise.

Researchers suggested that the benefits of this kind of emotional training are transferable to other facets of the participants’ lives.

There’s at least one person on the Coastside who agrees. Jude Wolf, a Ph.D and educational consultant in Half Moon Bay, who has spent the past 23 years in education, has seen firsthand how mindfulness practices impact compassion in both teachers and students in the long term. Much of her research focuses on the causes and effects of “teacher burnout” on both educators and high school students, and how mindfulness impacts students with attention deficit disorders. Wolf believes that cultivating compassion is the most effective way to reduce anxiety for teachers, even if they aren’t “master meditators.”

She uses mindful techniques in her Cultivating Compassion Training, a public eight-week course aimed at improving emotional awareness and self-kindness. Wolf noted that those who’ve gone through trauma may need more specialized services when practicing mindfulness. But she believes that it can still be effective for “at-risk” students, particularly if there are trained counselors within a supportive school culture.

“If (teachers) don’t know how to emotionally regulate and don’t have enough compassion for themselves, then they will burn out most of the time,” Wolf said. “Less compassionate teachers tend to blame students for everything that goes wrong.”

Megan Sweet, a senior director at Mindful Schools, applies this same principle to the nationwide program. She explained that while students are free to learn about mindfulness, it’s the teachers who set the tone in the classroom. When students follow the lead of a more mindful teacher, Sweet said, this ideally leads to a better learning environment.

Sweet believes the pandemic has created more discussions about social-emotional learning and general well-being, leading people to take up mindfulness as a path to becoming more at ease. But she said for a few reasons, it’s been easier to get schoolwide policies and practitioners into private rather than public schools. Although the Mindful Schools curriculum is secular, Sweet said some families have raised concerns about meditation’s links to religion, particularly Buddhism. And because of the personal nature of the practice, it’s difficult to gather data on the impact of mindfulness, creating challenges pitching to administrators who want to see cost-effective outcomes.

At Sea Crest School in Half Moon Bay, teachers who implement mindful techniques in the classroom say it helps students with social-emotional skills and builds longer attention spans. In Scott Murphy’s fifth-grade class, mindfulness comes in the form of open dialogue before class and three-minute meditations. Murphy, who has been a teacher for 12 years but only recently joined Sea Crest’s staff, uses the school’s account with Headspace, an online meditation program. Murphy said there is more emphasis on “thinking about thinking” in the classroom.

“That’s something I would have loved to have had growing up,” Murphy said. “There’s just this awareness about what it means to think and what it means to recognize your thoughts and not be controlled by them. It’s like anything with education. With being a teacher, you need to know your content area. If you don’t, you need to do your research.”

Sweet said one of the goals of the program is to dispel cultural stereotypes of someone sitting cross-legged for hours on end, forcing their mind to go blank. She said if meditation is considered an intentional process of applying focus to the present moment, then mindfulness is the day-to-day application of attention.

“Because of that, mindfulness can be practiced five minutes a day,” Sweet said. “It doesn’t have to be sitting on a mat unless that works for you. We really try to open up the possibilities of what mindfulness can look like.” r

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