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Meeting the Needs of a Stressed Generation

“Our children are our greatest treasure. They are our future…” Nelson Mandela spoke those words at a march in Pretoria, South Africa, in November of 1997. Twenty-two years later, those words are just as true. As leaders, teachers, parents and, quite frankly, just humans, it is our duty to lead them towards the acknowledgement of their own great worth. 

Yeah . . . Okay, but what does that mean? That sounds awesome, doesn’t it? Lead them towards the acknowledgement of their own great worthDoesn’t that just make you warm and fuzzy? Probably not. My husband would quote the Grinch here (“Oh. Bleeding hearts of the world unite!”) But if you genuinely care about kids, that’s what you’re ultimately doing, or trying to do (even if you don’t realize it)! You want them to see the potential you see when you look at them. Instead, kids see what people tell them to see. Maybe it’s abusive parents, maybe it’s the media, or worse…social media…*shudders*. Kids have young, malleable minds. They will take on whatever persona you tell them they have. They become so conscious that they will lie to themselves and others just to fit in, until they believe it, or they will be so confused about who they are that they will struggle with their own identity until they have zero self-worth and no clue where they belong in this huge, out-of-control, demanding world.

Sounds dramatic *eyeroll*. It’s not. The stress these kids are facing day in and day out–no matter how trivial it is to you– is real to them. I hear it all the time, “These kids don’t know what real stress is.” Yes, some kids’ stress is minimal, but some kids go through and see more, than the average person does in their whole year, all before you’ve even taken your first sip of coffee for the day.

If you start to read the next paragraph and begin dozing off, scroll ahead to the bullet point portion. Otherwise–keep going, I believe in you!

Children and adolescents face an alarming number of pressures at school, home, and from their own peers. Childhood stress is definitely on the rise; there are academic pressures, domestic problems, financial issues, family illness, or, quite frankly, just living in a culture that values product over process. It is crucial these students learn stress management skills for both now and as they move into adulthood. Stay with me! The skills learned from a mindfulness curriculum can make all the difference in students’ lives. Research suggests that the benefits of adopting a mindfulness based curriculum for classrooms are profoundly transformative because students learn to focus their attention, become less reactive, and learn to be more compassionate with themselves and others–ultimately leading students to a more engaging and fulfilling life of lower stress and anxiety.

Are you ready for the next couple of sentences?

Hold on, sit down.

According to the Children’s Defense Fund (2010), 

  • once every second, a child is suspended; 
  • every eleven seconds, a high school student drops out; 
  • every twenty seconds, a student is corporally punished;
  • every three hours, a child or teen is killed by a firearm; 
  • every five hours, a child or teen commits suicide; 
  • and every six hours, a child or teen dies of abuse or neglect.

No . . . Seriously.

These statistics are alarming, and they hurt my heart.

Parents. Teachers. And schools. Must. Do. Better.

Students are not being given adequate resources to help alleviate the stress of their everyday life. Although mindfulness cannot stop these events from happening, it can help in students’ abilities to cope with the stressors of life.

Regardless of class, educational opportunities, or race, a substantial number of students are being labeled as ADHD, depressed, anxious, obese, having addictive personalities, and taking part in other self-mutilating or destructive behaviors, including suicide. 

More often than not, negative responses to stress are: unconscious, impulsive and automatic responses born out of anger, anxiety, or sometimes, simply, boredom.

Students’ ability to think before they act is limited. Mindfulness can be the preventative measure schools need to assist in creating the space between impulse and action. 

Mindfulness-based curricula can teach far more than focusing attention and emotional impulse control; students can also develop compassion for themselves and their peers. By better understanding how their mind works, students can recognize those same emotions in their peers and have a greater sense of empathy for their troubles.

Mindfulness can teach compassion. Students are taught just how powerful self-talk really is. By learning to pay attention when their mind starts to think negative thoughts and redirecting those thoughts into positive ideas, students can learn they must be kind to others, but also compassionate with themselves. How often do we hear kids say things about themselves that they would never say to a friend?! Mindfulness can teach students to retrain their brain so they can notice when that negative self talk creeps in.

Here it comes . . . You knew I was going to mention it.

Diagnosis for attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children is on the rise. *Gasp* (Don’t look at me like that)

Now, I’m not all essential oils and meditations, there are certainly situations that call for medicating students with this particular diagnosis; however, paying attention is something that can be taught, and amplified with the right skills. It takes practice. There have already been several successful trials in which medication doses were lowered, or even completely removed! There was a study in 2008 in which mindful awareness practices were offered to a mixed group of adults and adolescents with ADHD, findings included improvements in self-reported ADHD symptoms, anxiety, depressive symptoms, and working memory. 

In a controlled study by M. Napoli, in 2005, 194 first, second, and third graders who participated in a twice a week mindfulness and relaxation program showed increases in their ability to pay attention, and in their social skills; while at the same time displaying decreases in test anxiety and ADHD behaviors (Note: Decreased ADHD behaviors essentially mean an increase in executive function.) 

The results speak for themselves. Although more research is needed to definitively say mindfulness increases a student’s ability to focus, one thing is for certain — it cannot hurt. 

Aside from teaching students to focus their attention, teaching mindfulness in schools also trains children and adolescents how to be less reactive. With training, students are better able to regulate their emotions — to take that pause before reacting and find out the why behind their, often destructive, outbursts. Emotional regulation uses strategies to guide anxiety, worry, distress so as to harness those feelings and achieve specific goals in life, and in the classroom. Troubles with emotion regulation are a core reason for many adolescent emotional and behavioral issues, including depression, anxiety, self-harm, eating disorders, and drug/alcohol use and abuse.

I mean, if these are all facts proven by research, then it would make sense to act now in the name of preventative measures. Right? Right.

Teaching emotional regulation in schools should be a systemic response to a nationwide mental health epidemic among the youth of this nation.


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