When we become angry, the amygdala in our brains fires up, while our muscles tense. Thinking ahead becomes harder as the body rushes to react to a perceived threat. An outburst of violence becomes more likely.
But there is a way to control the amygdala, which reacts to fear, and engage the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain which controls decision making. Mindfulness is the “intentional awareness of the present moment without judgement,” according to Dr Molly Lawlor, a leading expert in the practice.
The practice is gaining traction globally as a violence prevention intervention in schools which improves prosocial behaviours and contributes to improved educational attainment. But programs must be properly adapted to local contexts and work to reassure sceptical teachers, particularly in conservative religious cultures.
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In the present
Mindfulness practice is based around breathing and thought exercises in which “attention is placed on the present” said Lawlor. “You don’t have any judgement about whether it’s good or bad or you like it or you don’t.”
It is often taught as part of social emotional learning (SEL), which teaches youngsters to recognise and manage their feelings.
With the right preparation, research suggests it can be implemented effectively across diverse contexts and help reduce bullying and aggression, sexual harassment and corporal punishment.
Lawlor, senior advisor to the Goldie Hawn Foundation, helped design the MindUp program, which draws on decades of scientific research and has taught mindfulness and SEL to children in North America and Europe through the Foundation.
The program has elements of mindfulness, SEL, neuroscience and positive psychology, and follows 15 lessons, such as mindful listening and focused awareness, which can be adapted across the curriculum. Research has shown children who undergo the program experience less aggression and stress and display more prosocial behaviour.
Lawlor said there are two main ways mindfulness can contribute to peer-to-peer violence reduction among children.
“When you are more present in the moment, you are more aware of others and you’re more aware of what their experience might be,” said Lawlor. “So that might facilitate empathetic or compassionate response.”
Secondly, frequent practitioners of mindfulness improve their “response flexibility”. “This is the space and time between impulse and a response,” said Lawlor, giving children “breathing room” to discourage them from reacting to an emotion.
This can shift children’s response from: “’I feel angry, I’m going to hit that other kid’ to ‘I feel angry, I’m going take a deep breath and let my prefrontal cortex manage that anger,’” Lawlor added.
The group activities the program is based around also help foster a sense of community among students.
“If you are in a dog eat dog class, to survive you’ve got to adopt that stance. If you are in a supportive classroom then you’re more likely to adopt a prosocial stance,” said Lawlor.
MindUp has also been linked to better educational attainment, which Lawlor partly attributed to lower stress levels which “enables kids to learn and retain information.”
But she added that mindfulness, when practiced consistently, also improves focus and working memory.
Learning about the brain and its functions, like neuroplasticity, also encourages a “mindset shift” meaning students are “less likely to fall into ‘learned helplessness’ where they believe no matter what they do they’ll never get smarter,” said Lawlor.
The program has been beneficial in complex developing settings.
Dr Kyle Matsuba, psychology professor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, adapted and implemented a greatly simplified version of MindUp in Gulu, northern Uganda, a region recovering from conflict.
Students had “lots of exposure to violence in different forms”, said Matsuba, including domestic abuse and caning in schools, but following the intervention, classroom corporal punishment fell. Prosocial behaviours among students also increased and aggression declined.
Matsuba’s team condensed the MindUp material for teachers, who were often poor readers, turning chapters from the program handbook into a bullet pointed two-page document for them to take to class.
Freely available local materials were also used in appropriate lessons, such as flowers or cut grass for the mindful smelling session.
His team were sensitive to local religious beliefs and worked to relate the program to them. “Various forms of prayer could be considered mindfulness practices as well,” Matsuba said.
Tackling sexual violence
Mindfulness also formed a key element of the Safe Schools for Teens program, developed by the University of the Philippines and Ataneo University and Child Protection Network Foundation, an NGO.
The program marks the first time mindfulness has been taught in public schools in the country and also trained teachers and students aged 13-15 in identifying and reporting gender-based violence.
“There’s still some really conservative people who are afraid this might be the devil’s work”
Alongside lessons and student-centric activities on sex, relationships and abuse, mindfulness and SEL were taught to adolescents help themselves avoid peer-to-peer sexual violence.
Especially when dating, hormonal teenagers experience “raging emotions and body sensations, so it’s hard to think,” said Dr Gilda Lopez, a clinical psychologist and Mindfulness Lead on the Safe Schools program.
“That’s basically what we target: how to bring down these emotions, so you can think better before you act,” she added.
It aims to help girls think more clearly —through improved response flexibility — and avoid putting themselves in a potentially dangerous situation, according to Lopez. The same principle encourages boys to stop and think about their actions, rather than reacting to their impulses and potentially sexually harassing girls.
Following the study, students were found to have better impulse control, and levels of reported physical violence and bullying fell. Reports of gender-based violence also decreased, though Lopez also attributed this to other interventions which took place as part of the program.
Despite the promising results of both interventions, they also faced significant challenges. While in the west, an explanation of the scientific evidence behind MindUp is often enough to secure buy-in from schools, according to Lawlor, doing this in other contexts can be much more complex.
“Teachers began to let go of their control to allow the students to do some of this stuff”
In the Philippines, a strongly conservative Catholic nation, Lopez and her team had to work hard to convince teachers practicing mindfulness and teaching students about sex was not contrary to their religion, and adapt some elements of the program.
“We had to find ways on how to make sure mindfulness is not contrary to Catholicism and praying and not a ‘new age’ or evil thing,” said Lopez. “There’s still some really conservative people who are afraid this might be the devil’s work.”
Lopez would provide research evidence supporting mindfulness to cynics, and let them make a decision on using it.
While mindfulness is irreligious, Lopez would also integrate it with the Catholic culture by relating it to prayer practice, where people sometimes had an introduction to the concept of meditation.
She often said mindfulness helped to focus better during prayers “so the mind does not stray.”
As in Uganda, relinquishing some control to allow students to think for themselves was also challenging for teachers. In schools where teachers traditionally have total control, implementing student-centric programs such as MindUp can actually change the institutional culture.
“Activities where students are actually involved is a different idea of teaching,” said Matsuba. While challenging to begin with, Matsuba said that “teachers began to let go of their control to allow the students to do some of this stuff”.
He recommends outsiders spend at least a year learning about a culture before attempting the implementation of mindfulness and SEL.
But he stands by the program. “It will be effective in many if not all contexts,” he added. “It doesn’t require a lot of resources.”
Turning mindfulness and SEL programs into a priority will be challenging for some policymakers.
But its backers believe it’s worth the effort for the numerous and lasting benefits beyond reducing violence. Later in life, students who experience it are more likely to perform better at school, be less antisocial and have improved overall social outcomes.
For Matsuba, the point is even more salient. In societies where conflict is common, he said: “we can give children the skills that will allow them to deal with situations without relying on physical violence”. — Will Worley
(Picture credit: Unsplash)
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