Mindfulness and Learning: What’s the Connection?

Patricia Jennings, an expert you met at the 2011 Creating a Mindful Society, explains. Watch the conference livestream here.

More and more educators are exploring the use of contemplative or mindfulness-based approaches to teaching. Through these approaches they are learning to reduce stress (for teacher and student alike), enhance and improve classroom climates, and are helping students to calm their bodies and minds, focus their attention, and even open their hearts. Much of the success of these approaches is about being able to recognize and properly tend to behavioral patterns.

Many of our automatic reactions arise, habitually, from emotionally difficult experiences in our pasts. When we take time to experience our thoughts and feelings with a present-centered, non-judgmental attitude, we begin to see such patterned behaviors for what they are and they naturally subside, rather than drive us to react in ways we may later regret.

Evidence suggests that regular mindful awareness practice changes how our body and brain respond to stress, possibly strengthening connections in the prefrontal cortex and reducing reactivity in our limbic system, supporting self-reflection and self-regulation. These functions play a critical role in education. To learn, a student must engage her prefrontal cortex to focus and monitor her attention and to inhibit impulsive tendencies towards distraction. Given this, many children come to school with nervous systems that are unprepared to learn.

The modern lifestyle—with huge doses of real and/or imaginary violence, constant media exposure, general busyness, and high pressure—can trigger the fight-flight-freeze response in us, making learning more difficult. Furthermore, when the human limbic system is hyperreactive, it’s difficult to engage the prefrontal cortex—making it difficult to absorb and process new information. As we now know, neuroplasticity allows us to make profound changes in the way our bodies and minds function at any age, but especially during development. So helping students learn to calm their bodies and minds through the use of developmentally appropriate mindful awareness practices, which can be skillfully integrated into curricula, can make a real difference, not just in individual children’s lives, but educational reform on the whole.

Mindful awareness can certainly be experienced during formal practice sessions, but it’s worth noting that they can also be cultivated during activities of daily life. For example, interpersonal mindfulness involves applying mindful awareness to our interactions with others and already does play an important role in educational settings. The informal but essential practice of living mindfully involves keeping one’s mind open to possibilities and maintaining the recognition that the level of our awareness at any given moment is mediated by our thoughts, emotions, and past experiences. This meta-awareness helps us to live in a way that is more reflective and accepting of diverse views, qualities that are critical in a world of growing global integration and communication.

At the Garrison Institute, my colleagues and I are working to further support the integration of mindfulness-based and contemplative approaches in our teaching and learning systems. Garrison Institute will host a public symposium, “Advancing the Science and Practice of Contemplative Education” on Nov. 4-6, 2011. The purpose of the meeting is to promote the science, practice, implementation and dissemination of contemplative education in K-12 schools, and we hope that anyone who works for a better world for students or teachers will attend or follow our work. 


For more on education and mindfulness, read these other stories on our site:

Teachers Tuning In

Please Help Me Learn Who I Am

Teach Our Children Well

A documentary you might also be interested in, called Project Happiness, follows a group of teenagers in search of happiness. See it here.

Photo © iStockPhoto.com/kate_sept2004