Mindful Schools Helps Children Deal with Toxic Stress

In 2007 a small group of people who believed passionately in education, social justice, and mindfulness came together in California and founded Mindful Schools.  The program was founded on the belief that young people face stress daily.  Stress is not necessarily a bad thing.  It often helps motivate us to grow, change, and learn new things.  However, when stress is overwhelming or trauma based, it becomes toxic.  Toxic stress occurs when life’s demands outpace our ability to cope on an ongoing basis.  At Mindful Schools, they believe that children need the skills to deal with toxic stress and a compass with which to navigate their lives.

The Mindful Schools program began in one classroom at Emerson Elementary School in Oakland, California in 2007, and expanded to a training program for educators.  As of 2018 Mindful Schools has trained over 25,000 educators, parents, and mental health professionals working with children.  The program boasts having graduates spanning over 100 countries reaching over 2 million children worldwide.  Christina Costello, head of community engagement at Mindful Schools, explained the switch from in-person, direct classroom training to an online format for their programs as a way to reach more interested individuals and spread the fundamentals of teaching mindfulness to children to a broader community.  Christine added, “There was so much organic interest in our programs that was not local that we needed to develop our training in an online format to meet the demand.”

Mindful Schools presents a curriculum for teaching mindfulness that is a framework, presenting the fundamentals, so educators understand the basics of mindfulness and the movement to introduce it in school-based settings.  From there, each educator is encouraged to adapt the curriculum to meet the needs of their school setting and their own, unique teaching style.  “One size does not fit all,” said Christina.

The basics of the Mindful Schools approach include the premise that assisting teachers to develop their own mindfulness practice is the first step.  The teacher must be teaching mindfully and not introducing stress into the classroom.  Next, the curriculum is designed to fit into an already packed and busy classroom day.  Their website states, “Our curriculum requires no heavy prep, no big manuals, only limited class-time. And it integrates easily into your school day.”  The lessons stick to one simple concept at a time, so it is simple for students to grasp and incorporate into their daily mindfulness practice.  Christine described the core tenets of the Mindful Schools program as, “Invitational – it is up to you, you choose to participate; relational – understanding a range of emotions, non-judgmentally; and experiential – a couple of short practice times daily.”

Mindfulness taught in a school-based setting has been shown through scholarly research to decrease stress and anxiety, improve emotion regulation, increase attention, reinforce compassion, and have a calming effect on students.  This helps foster an improved learning environment in the classroom and provides students with the skills to better handle stressful situations both in school and at home.

In 2011 Mindful Schools partnered with the University of California – Davis to conduct a randomized control study on the impact of mindfulness on children.  The study involved 937 students and 47 teachers in 3 Oakland, CA public elementary schools.  The results are summarized below:

What’s next for Mindful Schools?  Christine said that they are, “focused on developing successful, integrated, and sustainable mindfulness programs, with a focus on developing schools which teach everything through the lens of mindfulness.”  Their focus remains committed to spreading mindfulness education to as many students as possible, one educator at a time.

Suggested readings and videos

  • Just Breathe – by Julie Bayer.  Children talk about handling difficult emotions with Mindfulness.
  • May I Be Happy (trailer): Mindfulness in the Classroom and Beyond – by Eric Georgeault and Helene Walter.  A documentary on the very real challenges American children face.
  • Teachers: Use Mindfulness to Help Students’ Academics.  By Alexandra Pannoni, Staff Writer, US News & World Report.  Jan. 1, 2018.
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About the Author

Melissa V. Sirola

How Mindfulness Impacts Mental Health and Wellbeing of Children
Melissa V. Sirola is a registered nurse with over 20 years of experience in the healthcare field. Melissa has worked as a staff nurse, a nurse administrator, and an educator, teaching nursing leadership at several local universities. Melissa is currently pursuing a Doctor of Nursing Practice in Leadership and Health Care Innovations at the University of Missouri Sinclair School of Nursing. For her internship with the Children’s Mental Health Network, Melissa is researching the effects of Mindfulness on behavioral and mental health issues with children in rural primary school settings. Melissa is excited for the opportunity to work with the Children’s Mental Health Network to research, explore, and report on innovative Mindfulness programs that exist in various parts of the country and around the world.

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