Mindful Education Program
“We need to build throughout our lives the capabilities to develop ourselves
and together create a more humane, balanced and creative society.
The school must serve this glorious purpose, and all the educational guides
should actively participate in the creation of this model.
Educational teams should consist of people who deeply love their work
and even more deeply the children they are working for; their interaction
with children changes the physics and chemistry of their little brains
and has a colossal impact on their mental life.”
Director of the Mindful Education Program
Author of “Healing Education: Science and Consciousness of the New Educational Paradigm”
The studies about the impact of mindfulness on the educational environment cannot be more categorical: memory, attention, physical and mental health, creativity, safety and self-confidence, information processing, resilience, problem solving, emotional regulation, social skills, empathy and, of course, academic results, improve significantly.
Currently, this practice is considered an effective treatment for severe problems such as aggressiveness, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, absenteeism and anxiety, both in children and in adolescents. The social and emotional education, an approach that has been growing during recent years, combines perfectly with the practice of mindfulness. Both allow us to become conscious of what we feel, of what moves us moment to moment, and manage it in an intelligent way.
What makes our program unique?
Currently, many schools have successfully implemented mindfulness programs, transforming many aspects in the educational environment. However, most of them are lacking of what we believe are the core points of a mindfulness school program:
The current mindfulness school programs are not aware of the developmental stages of the brain, as pointed by modern neuroscience.
We determine the best mindfulness practices according to the developmental stages of the human being. In the same way that a paramedic, at the scene of an accident, won’t treat a new born, a 10 year old or an adult in the same manner (their physiology are different and they need different care), our mind-body mindfulness exercises are specifically designed for every different grade, adapted to what the human being really needs to receive at that age. Sometimes we sit in a chair and we practice focused attention through breathing, some other times we need to take a walk and look at the colors around or feel the grass under our naked feet, and some other times is all about creative mindful games. The mindfulness practices will have a bigger impact in the student when adapted to their needs, and their needs are always related to their age. Our coaching helps the educational teams to find the best way to daily implement mindfulness age-appropriate practices into the academic curriculum.
Identification of stress sources
The current mindfulness school programs are not pointing towards the sickness (stress) of the environment.
When the news shows these short clips about mindfulness practices in the classroom, with all the kids are sitting quietly, they contain a hidden and dangerous message: “these little devils, always making noise and messing around, are now finally quiet. They don’t bother us anymore!”. We find this application of mindfulness inappropriate. Many children (of course) find education to be meaningless, so they compulsively look for meaning, disturbing us the adults. Mindfulness practices are not only focused on sitting quietly in a chair. It’s all about looking for a mindful way of living our lives. In a healthy environment, kids are physically and mentally healthy. In a sick environment, they are diagnosed with ADHD or other diseases that will magically heal if we swallow the pills. Our program aims to create healthy, meaningful educational environments, and we coach teachers and families in the skillful practices that will create mindful environments in both schools and homes.
Teachers and administration staff
The integration of mindfulness in the educational environment must always begin with the training of the educational staff. Only after being properly trained and integrating the mindfulness practice on a daily basis (without practice there are no changes), will they be able to creatively apply this discipline into the academic curricula and encourage students to follow this path of introspection and psychophysiological regulation.
In fact, it has been proven that the efficacy of the implementation of mindfulness in the curriculum is directly related to the teacher’s ability to understand, integrate and regularly practice this discipline. When teachers, through practice, improve their flexibility, attention, open-mindedness, active listening, empathy, generosity, acceptance and patience in their relationship with the students, both children and adolescents show more willingness to practice mindfulness in order to acquire these same skills that they observe in their educational guides. A teacher who practices mindfulness connects with the students, and this connection allows the students to be open to the possibility of integrating this discipline in their lives.
Mindfulness has demonstrated to provide well-being, satisfaction and motivation to administrative and educational teams, and this is especially significant if we bear in mind that many of these professionals are living their darkest days, with alarming percentages of burn out, unmotivated and depressed professionals.
What about the parents? More of the same: by making this knowledge available to everyone, we favor the acquisition of the tools that allow us to mature emotionally, self-regulate our nervous system and strengthen the higher brain functions. The families receive direct immense benefits. Mindful families! This study shows that the parents who become emotional models for their children, allow them to manifest a higher activation of the cortical circuits associated with oxytocin –the “love hormone”, a biochemical that contributes to the recovery from conditioned fear and awakens the brain regions related to social, empathetic and self-less behaviors-. The amygdala also benefits from it, as well as the superior temporal sulcus (STS), a structure responsible for the interpretation of the emotions of others.
However, mindfulness by itself is not enough to create healthy educational environments. If the educational environment is stressful and features the aggressive characteristics that many schools have, nothing will make much sense. If we lock our students, day after day, in a classroom full of snakes, and by the end of the day we happily provide them with the antidote for all the poisonous bites they have suffered… what’s the point? Of course, the antidote is better than nothing, but we have to go beyond that. We have to get rid of the snakes. We have to stop allowing the poison and stress. We have to create educational environments that induce parasympathetic responses in human autonomic nervous system. Mindfulness has to be combined with a profound educational renewal.
In a society where emotions are the great unknown and human beings are not aware of what they feel –or, in case they do, they ignore the real reasons that move them to feel in a certain way-, receiving the simple mindfulness training, understanding its powerful effects at a holistic level, and integrating this practice into our everyday life, has the potential of changing the world within very few generations. The key for our freedom is the regulation of our emotions. Our intention is to provide these tools to as many people as possible, starting with schools and continuing through yet unknown paths. We believe, and will always believe, in a whole society where education shows its fullest expression by healthy expressing our greatest possible range of human emotions.
The will acts through directed attention, that magnifies, stabilizes, clarifies and gives prominence to a thought upon many other thoughts. The main achievement of the will is to attend to an object and keep it clear and strong in mind, letting everything else (its rivals for attention and subsequent action) dissolve as stars that fade before the blinding sunlight.
According to functional magnetic resonance imaging, neurons that respond to an objective that attracts our attention are more strongly activated that those activated in response to distraction. The act of paying attention physically counteracts the suppressive influences from nearby distractions. The visual information coming has not changed: what changes is the response that the brain gives to that information as a result of our directed attention. Voluntary attention filters out unwanted information.
Introspection, mindfulness and focused attention, redraw the contours of the mind, and by doing that reconnects the brain circuits. Attention is the element that makes neuroplasticity possible, and the will is the virtue that enables this transformation. This is what we basically teach in our program, whith a strong focus on modern neuroscience.
Volitional effort is the effort of attention… the effort of attention is, therefore, the essential phenomenon of will.
Coherence: psychophysiological balance
The cortical brain is not the only body structure involved in regulating our behavior
and our biological mechanisms of learning.
Neurocardiology found that the heart has a sophisticated neural network so extensive and complex that can be defined as the “brain in the heart” and that shows that it is much more than a blood pump: the heart can operate independently of the cranial brain by learning, remembering, making decisions and even feel. While the heart occasionally responds to the brain, the brain constantly responds to the heart signals (electromagnetic, neurological, biochemical and biophysical/pressure waves).
The term “coherence” is used to express psychophysiological balance. When we move into a state of coherence between heart and brain, both operate synergistically and maximize our higher functions.
This balance can be easily achieved through our mindfulness exercises and can be monitored through biofeedback technologies that measure the heart reate variability, mainly determined by the frequency and depth of breathing, so as a state of relaxation, security, trust and openness.
Moreover, this state of coherence is reinforced when we maintain positive emotional states and when we activate a relaxation response in our nervous system.
Through history, the heart had been metaphorically associated with certain emotional states such as compassion, kindness or altruism. Now science begins to show that this association is not metaphorical, but literal.
During times of stress or during processes where negative emotions arise, heart rate pattern is irregular and disordered, and the signals traveling from the heart to the brain inhibit higher cognitive functions. This limits our ability to think clearly, remember, learn, reason, make decisions, pay attention, solve problems or be compassionate. Students and teachers under this pattern simply cannot teach or learn. Their nervous system disables this capacity so it can be more focused on the threat that stress represents.
In contrast, a more orderly and stable pattern generated by conscious breathing or positive emotional states has the opposite effect: it facilitates cognitive function and reinforces positive feelings and emotional stability. Maintain positive emotions has the effect to benefit our health, the quality of our thoughts and our perception of reality. With the use of our biofeedback technology, we will be able to see coherence in real time and collect and analize the data to elicit it more effectively.
Did you know...?
When that feeling of permanent burden we call stress occurs, either in the form of real or imagined situation, a cascade of dramatic and instantaneous events take place in our body. Our nervous system, by detecting this fear, stress or anxiety, enters the fight or flight mode, called the sympathetic nervous system, causing more than 1,400 known physical and chemical responses, and activating over 30 different hormones.
Thought focuses intensely in the stressful situation, and any other stimulus are quickly rejected by the brain. Our intellectual capacity is affected, since the brain areas most needed to make proper decisions have no blood supply. States such as compassion, gratitude and generosity are also turned off because they do not help resolve the conflict.
More importantly, our biological mechanisms for learning literally shut down. We can’t learn. The fight or flight response is not a time for learning, but for fighting or escaping the conflict.
Once the conflict is resolved, the nervous system returns naturally to the call relaxation response, the parasympathetic nervous system, and our higher brain functions start operating again at their full potential.
Stress is absolutely necessary. However, our society (and our schools in many many cases) have conditioned a lifestyle where stress levels are not balanced with the levels of restore and repair, the so-called relaxation response.
Teachers, students and parents need to learn how to elicit this relaxation response in order to create a healthy educational environment. Otherwise, all the efforts will fall on deaf ears.
All this (and much more) is what we teach in our Mindful Education Program.
The Mindful Education Program is developed through 3 phases:
- Mindfulness exercises & neurofeedback training (8 weeks).
- Set up for implementation of the mindfulness practice into the academic curriculum (open debate with the educational teams; 2-4 sessions).
- Implementation and follow up/coaching (1 school year).
During 8 weeks (9 sessions) we teach teachers and parents the core of the mindfulness practice. In a daily basis our participants will practice focused attention and objective awareness skills, regulating their emotional states by using biofeedback (eyes open) and practicing specific mindfulness exercises (eyes closed). Every day the participants will journal to the facilitator and receive real time personal feedback. Our program is designed to maximize our effort to establish or reinvigorate a daily practice.
COURSE SESSIONS PROVIDE:
- A weekly session describing the body/mind connection and the natural mechanisms we all have available to regulate our nervous systems
- The physiological science about what is taking place in the body, with a strong focus on modern neuroscience
- Biological aspects of attention and awareness
- Developing the ability to observe, notice and be aware the thoughts, the feelings and the neuropeptides/emotions
- Emotional and social intelligence
- Biofeedback technology
- Through the exercises the participants are educated on how to un-condition their attention from unconscious habitual thought and emotional patterns
- Daily mindfulness exercises using ‘eyes closed’ guided audio practice and ‘eyes open’ biofeedback practice
- Breathing Assistant
- Use of biofeedback technology to aide in deeper coherence
- Weekly 1.5 hour group practice sessions
- Daily journal support – report or questions by email or Skype
After 8 weeks of mindfulness training and practice, the participants and our program facilitator will meet to discuss the implementation of mindfulness in the academic curriculum.
- Closed eyes practice: mindfulness exercises
- Use of biofeedback technology (open eyes practice)
- Mindful group games
- Mindful 1-on-1 games (for students in need of personal support)
- Identifying stress factors in the school and home
- Focus is on the student’s emotional state to feel safe throughout the process. Security triggers a parasympathetic response in the autonomic nervous system
During the next school year, the mindfulness practices will be implemented in the school curriculum. Our team will follow up with:
- Skype calls
- Biofeedback data support
Our program is a living entity. After the 8 week core training, teachers and parents participate in the conversation on how to create a mindful educational community in a more meaningful way. With the skills, the daily practice and the experience, we work together to secure that the mindfulness program leads to our overall goal: the creation of a healthy school that will reflect the expectations of the souls of our children. Participating in a healthy school, they will then go out to the world seeking to create a healthy, harmonic, just society. If our school continues being sick, they will reproduce the same patterns in the future and will participate in sick societies, accepting them as the normal because they were conditioned to believe that.
We don’t use mindfulness to numb the children’s activity; we use mindfulness to become aware of our needs and co-create the educational environments that will lead us to a healthy life.
Jorge Benito is co-author of the book “Healing Education: Science and Consciousness of the New Educational Paradigm”. His wide experience in the field of artistic creation, including theatre, poetry, illustration and design, led him to become Development Director of Escuela Caracol, an intercultural Waldorf school located in San Marcos La Laguna, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala.
An experienced meditator, neuroscience student (HarvardX – Harvard online training), facilitator of diverse mindfulness programs, writer and independent scientific researcher, Jorge is the creator and director of the Mindful Education Program (MEP).
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