A philanthropic foundation is offering to subsidize a “mindfulness” program for some Ohio schools. The practice of daily meditation is already being used in some schools, and backers say the simple bit of self-reflection has been improving behavior and test scores.
Congressman Tim Ryan has been such a fan of mindfulness that he wrote a book about it. The Democrat says the deep breathing exercises that he does every day are not about religion.
“These are basic techniques that Marines are using, police officers are using, athletes have been using it," Ryan says. "You don’t have to change any of your beliefs, you don’t have to join a church, you don’t have to do anything. You know, I’m still Catholic."
Ryan came to Cleveland with members of a Massachusetts company called Inner Explorer to promote mindfulness in schools. The non-profit organization produces a 10-minute exercise that students listen to online each day as school starts.
“Taking deep breaths is a great way to calm down when you’re angry or upset. It even helps when you’re about to take a test, play a sport, or play a musical instrument," Laura Bakosh, Inner Explorer co-founder, says.
At the end of each exercise, pupils write in a journal.
Bakosh says relieving stress can help kids learn. She cites brain research from the University of Wisconsin.
“There’s neuro-scientific research (that) stress inhibits learning, poverty inhibits learning. And more than half of our children are in high-poverty environments," Bakosh says. "So 51 percent of our kids are in those environments that have such significant stressors that they struggle with learning.”
Spreading the word
The Cleveland-based DBJ Foundation, named for David and Barbara Jacobs, is a supporter of mindfulness-based relaxation and wants to spread the practice, says Managing Director Joe Hudson.
“Now we’re working really specifically to allow Northeast Ohio to have the benefit of this program, so we’re paying for half the cost of any classroom who wants to be involved in Northeast Ohio," Hudson says.
The total cost for the daily lesson is $450 per year for each school.
Putting it into practice
The foundation has been underwriting such lessons for three years at Melrose Elementary, in Wooster City Schools.
Two third grade teachers there, Ashley Tomassetti and Amber Cupples, swear by it. They team-teach a class that includes kids with emotional disabilities. They call the improvement in behavior they saw in the first year “incredible.”
"I would say their attention is definitely what was improving their emotion," Tomassetti says. “Being able to deescalate themselves. If they’re crying or upset, they’re able to deescalate without an adult.”
“And emotional awareness, then using the practices at home with their siblings, trying to go to sleep at night," Cupples adds.
Emotional and measurable results
Each teacher got emotional when recalling specific cases where children with problems at home would come to school and ask to do the mindfulness exercises.
Tomasetti mentioned one boy whose mother had been taken to jail the night before. At school, he asked his teacher to help him breathe.
“He wanted to do it on his own with us there with him. And he journaled. He was able to get it all out. And that was huge because we teach third grade," Tomasetti says. "For an eight-year-old boy to go through that and come out successful at the end of the day, get through everything...that was huge for us.”
And that, says Tomasetti, has meant much less time spent on behavioral problems.
Congressman Ryan says Warren City Schools, using another version of mindfulness exercises, saw out-of-school suspensions five years ago drop from 250 five years ago to 14 last year.
He notes that the Marines and Army use a similar program for soldiers returning from the stress of combat. He says it’s not surprising that stress keeps kids from learning.
“Of course your brain is not going to work properly if you have domestic violence in your home or you have a tough neighborhood or gangs or whatever. Your brain’s not going to function properly," Ryan says.
Concerns about religion
But there has been pushback in Ohio. Educators at Warstler Elementary in Stark County said they got good results using mindfulness in 2012, but the program was shut down when parents feared meditation may have religious connotations.
The teachers in Wooster say they’ve had zero complaints because they made the recordings available to all the parents.
Still, supporting meditation or mindfulness could have political repercussions for Ryan. A conservative blogger has already mocked him as “Congressman Moonbeam.” But the Democrat laughs it off.
“People will say what they want, but again, I would have a couple vets around me to make sure everybody knew how helpful this was," Ryan says.
The Inner Explorer organization is now offering the exercises in over 900 schools in 44 states. It plans a pilot program at Cleveland’s Campus International School.