Being Mindful: 30 Minutes at a Time
A group of gifted third graders at Rampello Downtown Partnership School entered the library one November Thursday morning and headed toward the corner reading nook. But the children weren’t there to hear a story.
They were led through several exercises to promote mindfulness — yoga, deep breathing, meditation and thinking of things for which to be grateful. Their energy, which was palpable when they entered the space, leveled out with a visible focus.
“They are wiggly and crazy, and we want them to be that way, but mindfulness helps them be more resilient,” said UT alum Sarah Lesch ’97, a trained mindfulness instructor whose has two children at Rampello. “It helps them learn how to deal with traumatic experiences. Mindfulness helps them be not just better students but better members of society.”
Lesch was there as a volunteer with a pilot research study, which was given formal approval from the Hillsborough County School District, by UT Associate Professor Patricia O’Grady and Rampello gifted teacher and University of South Florida doctoral candidate Steve Haberlin. Haberlin has been practicing meditation for many years for its ability to give him focus, and he thought the practice would be particularly helpful for gifted students who tend to have high performance anxiety and perfectionism.
O’Grady, who has been studying social-emotional learning and positive psychology in education for decades, described mindfulness in learning on her blog as “conscious and conscientious awareness of self, other, and subject… To learn, a student must be mindful of her personal purpose in learning: mindful of self. A student must be mindful of his social engagement in learning: mindful of other. A student must also be mindful of the content whether it is studying the newest NASA Pluto photos or the power of adjectives: mindful of substance.”
For their study, O’Grady and Haberlin delivered 10 mindfulness lessons to gifted students in grades 3-8 in the form of mindfulness exercises like mindful eating and walking, visualization and yoga. Haberlin said the students reported experiencing calmness, enjoyment, heightened awareness, creativity and discomfort when practicing the techniques.
A fourth grader said, “Like when I ate the marshmallow. Usually I shoved it in — I don’t even taste it. But when I tasted it, I felt like I had a 1,000 marshmallows in my mouth.”
And one fifth-grader said, “It’s let me see things I didn’t normally get to see. When we were doing the mindful walking, if I were walking fast on the track, I probably would have never noticed the plane or the shade of the flowers.”
“These students are highly charged learners — neurons firing all over the place — and they need to be taught to slow down,” said O’Grady, adding that mindfulness/mediation research on students with regard to positive effect across numerous success variables is impressive. However, not much has been done with gifted students.
“Culturally we don’t take the time to slow down, even our gifted kids are go go go,” Haberlin said. “They have an intensity to them. I think mindfulness helps flatten that, focuses it.”
Haberlin uses the metaphor of a bow and arrow for how mindfulness works. If you only pull the string on a bow back partially, the arrow won’t fly as far. Mindfulness works to pull the bow to its full capacity, helping people excel in their everyday functions.
He said many gifted students tend to have a higher level of awareness, so really blossomed with the mindfulness activities, which only lasted 30 minutes, once a week. Even in those small increments, research has shown lasting impacts.
“The neuroscience has proven with hard data that mindfulness strategies like yoga and meditation change the function and structure of the brain,” O’Grady said. “Back in the 1970s this was all warm and fuzzy stuff, but now there is hard science behind it. These are ancient ideas. Plato said all is learning is emotional learning.”
O’Grady and Haberlin’s study is a pilot practice they hope to scale up, continuing their research with greater depth on the most effective exercises to use for the greatest impact in areas like increased impulse control and stress reduction. But for this small study, the evidence points to positive impacts with just a small investment of time once a week of slowing down, breathing deeply and finding focus.
It’s a practice the researchers hope at least some of the kids remember and use to cope with their feelings down the road.
“This would be a unique approach for teachers to use and gives students a strategy to cope before a test,” O’Grady said. “Pervasive stress affects almost all students today, and they have a hard time finding constructive strategies to manage that stress so that they can focus on academic work. Mindfulness strategies would help students have a more functional way to handle stress.”