An Attack on Mindfulness in Schools

How Christian organizations are attempting to get rid of mindfulness programs in our public schools.

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“We’ve been waiting for this to happen somewhere, and we drew the short straw,” says Fiona Jensen, the founder and executive director of Calmer Choice a non-profit organization providing mindfulness education to 8 school districts in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

The short straw she’s referring to is a recent legal notice claiming that the Calmer Choice program “is dangerous for children and violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by promoting Buddhism.” An attack on mindfulness in schools.

This legal opinion was submitted by the National Center for Law and Policy (NCLP), a right-leaning, legal defense organization focusing on religious freedom and civil liberties. It calls for the Dennis-Yarmouth Regional School District to end its mindfulness program and cancel all contracts with Calmer Choice. This action was carried out on behalf of a parent, Michelle Conover, a Christian conservative author and recent addition to the Dennis-Yarmouth district school board.

The NCLP’s president and chief counsel Dean Broyles issued a statement, declaring, “State schools have no place conducting dangerous psychological and spiritual experiments on our children.” He went on to compare mindfulness to “rainbows, sunshine, and unicorns,” saying that the marketing of mindfulness overshadows the research showing that it can do serious psychological harm and even lead to psychotic breaks.

The Research on Mindfulness and School Kids

The assertion that mindfulness can harm children hasn’t been proven yet in peer-reviewed research. “This notion is currently based on anecdotal reports,” says Jensen. “It is the very beginning of looking into something by one researcher who may be publishing some data on this soon. This is really important research and we’re following it closely.” The researcher Jensen is referring to is Dr. Willoughby Britton, assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University Medical School.

Dr. Willoughby was profiled inThe Atlantic in 2014 and the NCLP opinion actually cites her commentary from this article, and its anecdotal stories from meditators, as proof of the harm caused by mindfulness. (It’s interesting to note that Willoughby, a 20-year meditation practitioner herself, is actually the author of some peer-reviewed research finding that “mindfulness training actually improves well-being.) Despite Willoughby’s work on the potential dangers involved in mindfulness practice, when approached by educators who want to bring mindfulness to their schools, her response is: “Be prepared to be wildly successful.” She’s referring to the excitement most students have when mindfulness is introduced, at the same time, cautioning that psychological material can come up during meditation. So far, her studies into the adverse effects of meditation have been on long-time practitioners.

“The article about Britton is entirely anecdotal,” says Jensen. “And when you weigh that against the work that has been done in quantitative research over the last 14 years on the positive benefit for mindfulness in education, the quality and rigor of the positive research clearly indicates that there is a benefit for mindfulness in education.” A few recent studies are:

  • A 2016 study in Frontiers in Psychology measured emotional well-being of 7 to 9 year-olds and found that a school-based mindfulness program improves higher order thinking, and helps students become more engaged, positive learners.
  • A randomized controlled study in the Journal of School Psychology on more than 100 sixth grade students found those who completed classroom-based, teacher-implemented mindfulness meditation, were significantly less likely to develop suicidal ideation or thoughts of self-harm than the control groups.
  • A study of 4th and 5th graders published in Developmental Psychology found that students who received mindfulness training improved their cognitive ability and stress physiology, reported greater empathy, perspective-taking, emotional control, and optimism, showed greater decreases in self-reported symptoms of depression and peer-rated aggression, and were more popular.

But the NCLP doesn’t just warn that Calmer Choice might be harming children with mindfulness. The legal opinion goes even further, suggesting that Calmer Choice is actually teaching Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), which is, they assert, a form of “stealth Buddhism.”

“We do not teach MBSR,” says Jensen. “We are not certified to teach MBSR, nobody who works at Calmer Choice has been trained at UMass Medical or anywhere else where they are teaching MBSR.” Despite this claim, the NCLP opinion accuses Calmer Choice of teaching MBSR 79 times.

“MBSR is rooted in Buddhism. Even purportedly ‘secular’ MBSR programs have been documented as having a religiously transformative impact, acting as a ‘gateway’ to Buddhism and a Buddhist worldview.” –Dean Broyles, president and chief counsel of the NCLP

“Without question,” argues Broyles, of the NCLP, “in spite of extensive camouflaging efforts, MBSR is rooted in Buddhism. Even purportedly ‘secular’ MBSR programs have been documented as having a religiously transformative impact, acting as a ‘gateway’ to Buddhism and a Buddhist worldview,” he continues. “MBSR simply does not belong in public schools.” The NCLP contends that teaching mindfulness in public schools is in direct violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

“There’s just no question in the way that the constitution is currently being interpreted,” says Susan Kaiser Greenland, JD, lawyer, author, and former co-investigator on a multi-year, multi-site research study at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center on the impact of mindfulness in education. “Just because an activity might be shown to have roots in a religion, doesn’t necessarily mean it violates the Establishment Clause,” she argues.

What is the Establishment Clause?

For those of you who don’t remember your constitutional law, the Establishment Clause prohibits the government from “establishing” a religion. And what constitutes the “establishment of religion” is often decided by a three-part test that came out of the US Supreme Court in a case called Lemon v. Kurtzman. The so-called “Lemon Test” allows the government to sidle up next to religion only if (1) the primary purpose of the assistance is secular, (2) the assistance must neither promote nor inhibit religion, and (3) there is no excessive entanglement between church and state.

“The test for whether something violates the Establishment Clause is never whether an activity has roots in a religion. The first thing you look at is whether the program has a secular purpose—whether what is actually being taught to the children is secular or religious,” says Greenland.

“When you audit these mindfulness programs, what you find is that they are teaching about focus, and physiological resilience, and breath for stress reduction.”

Chris McKenna, Program Director for Mindful Schools, a non-profit mindfulness training organization for educators, says that most of people who train to teach mindfulness are public school educators and the majority of them do not self-identify as Buddhists. “Our graduates are teaching mindfulness in every single US state and 60 countries,” says McKenna. “And when you audit these mindfulness programs, what you find is that they are teaching about focus, and physiological resilience, and breath for stress reduction.”

At Calmer Choice, they have done their due diligence, working with the school districts to create a curriculum to help students succeed. “We’re providing a primary level public health service where we are working in schools, with the teachers, with the guidance counselors, the school psychologists, and the parents to deliver educational tools,” says Jensen.

The fact that this legal action is happening in Massachusetts, one of the most liberal, most educated, and most open-minded states, is not lost on Dr. Christopher Willard, a clinical psychologist, who teaches at Harvard Medical School, and works at the Center for Mindfulness and Compassion at Cambridge Hospital. “We think of ourselves as pretty open to new ideas and open to the best technologies of learning and mental health, so it’s upsetting to see this happening here locally,” says Dr. Willard.

Translation: If this attack on mindfulness can happen in Massachusetts, it can (and probably will) happen anywhere.

Best Practices for Mindfulness in Schools

And most mindfulness experts concede that they can imagine situations where there might be some problems with respect to how some mindfulness programs are being introduced into public schools. But as a general rule, all agree that bringing a properly constructed mindfulness program to a public school is a good idea.

“One of the things that everybody has to understand is that this is a very new field,” says Greenland. “And because of all of the positive research and clear results, the field has galloped so quickly that there are aspects of it that need to catch up with itself.” Coming up with a set of best practices is one of the things that needs to be done.

“Mindfulness in education not only supports teacher’s well-being and resilience, as well as their ability to handle the challenges in a classroom, it also improves the quality of their classroom relations and helps students become more productive.”

At the Curry School of Education in the University of Virginia, you’ll find Dr. Patricia (Tish) Jennings, one of the leaders in bringing mindfulness into the classroom to benefit students and teachers. She is about to publish a paper saying that mindfulness in education not only supports teachers’ well-being and resilience, as well as their ability to handle the challenges in a classroom, it also improves the quality of their classroom relations and helps students become more productive.

In December 2015 Jennings published a paper in the journal Mindfulness, titled: “Mindfulness-Based Programs and the American Public School System: Recommendations for Best Practices to Ensure Secularity.” In it, she outlines the argument for why having mindfulness programs in public schools doesn’t violate the separation of church and state. And she describes some steps that mindfulness programs can take to make sure they are not straying from the secularity of mindfulness:

  1. Build on the science: Programs should design their curriculums based on evidence from scientific studies showing the cognitive, neurological, social and behavioral benefits of mindfulness.
  2. Err on the side of secularity: To avoid misunderstandings, avoid using any language, artifacts, or beliefs that are associated with practices in religious contexts—none of these should be brought into a public school. That means no Tibetan bowls or cymbals. These things may give the impression that the practice has religious significance, when the intention is purely secular.
  3. Describe areas of focus in secular ways: Introducing names, words, or sounds that come from a religious tradition to focus attention during practice is unsuitable for public schools. While you might want to focus attention on the center of the chest or the center of gravity in the body, teaching the associations these areas of the body have in a religious context is unnecessary and inappropriate.
  4. Leave energy where it belongs: Take care not to give the impression that mindfulness involves the transmission of any sort of spiritual or metaphysical energy. Loving-kindness practice, for example, is not meant to transmit something to someone else, but to simply generate positive and caring feelings within oneself for oneself and others.

These steps aren’t meant to conceal associations with religious traditions, says Jennings. They are meant to help educators to ensure that the programs they’re introducing are indeed completely secular and science-based—that the reason you want a mindfulness practice in your school is based on science, rather than belief.

“It’s almost crazy that we have to teach mindfulness,” says Dr. Willard. “We should just have the space to sit and do nothing. But we actually have to make the space now.”

“It’s almost crazy that we have to teach mindfulness,” says Dr. Willard. “We should just have the space to sit and do nothing. But we actually have to make the space now. It’s like teaching physical education. We used to get our bodies into shape through physical labor and the activities of daily life. Now we have to drive ourselves to the gym and work out. Or go to gym class.”

Teaching Kids to Sit and Do Nothing

We have to teach kids to sit still and learn how to listen to what’s happening around them and inside them. “We’re combating an educational culture that is 50 years out of date in terms of developmental biology,” says McKenna. “We’re taking basic biology and mental health and trying to stitch them into the classroom.”

Kids are dealing with a complicated, high-pressure world that they need to navigate starting at a very early age. “Well-formed mindfulness programs give kids a set of life skills that allow them to manage their stress response and help them learn to adapt and stay steady. There’s nothing else out there that develops these very basic life skills in such a direct way,” says Greenland

Mindfulness practice teaches the specific faculty of attention training, of concentration training. It allows children to identify their different emotional reactions, the different responses they’re having to what they’re thinking, what they’re feeling, and what they’re experiencing. “That is an extraordinarily important skill that can and should be taught to children,” says Jensen.

On Wednesday, February 10, 2016, hundreds of parents and children packed the Dennis-Yarmouth Regional School committee meeting, armed with a petition containing 2,500 signatures supporting the Calmer Choice program. When the committee voted on whether to keep the program, only one of the 7 members, Ms. Conover, voted against it.

“In some ways I wish we weren’t going through this legal situation with NCLP,” Jensen adds. “But I do believe this is a conversation we need to have. And as we walk through this process we’re going to be able to add to the body of knowledge of how to create a secular mindfulness program that is watertight for public school systems.”

Mindful’s Editor-in-Chief, Barry Boyce, weighs in on this debate in our podcast, Point of View: