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Sunday, May 10, 2015

Mindfulness for Every Student (interview)

photo courtesy Meghan Dutton
Meghan Dutton works with elementary, middle, and high school students in Rhode Island as a special education teacher and mindfulness trainer. She is currently raising funds for a summer program implementing Mindful Schools’ curriculum at the YMCA in Middletown and The Boys and Girls Club in Newport, as well as providing mindfulness training to the crew of the Oliver Hazard Perry Education at Sea program.

How did you get involved with Mindful Schools, and what has your experience been like?

After I’d been practicing mindfulness myself for a few years, I started teaching it during lunchtime to some of the special education kids at my school. When I went to a mindfulness in education conference, it was incredibly inspiring to meet teachers and administrators from the movement. That’s also where I found out about Mindful Schools. After I did their online courses on Mindfulness Fundamentals and Curriculum Training, I decided to take the year-long certificate program.

There’s an East-Coast Cohort and a West-Coast Cohort, with 80 teachers and administrators in each group. I’m in the East-Coast Cohort, and we have participants from 20 states and 10 different countries.

The program kicked off with a week-long retreat in New York. I didn’t know what to expect, since I’d never done more than a one-day retreat before that. We started with two and a half days of silence, mindful sitting and walking practices, and we listened to a talk each night. I was blown away by the whole experience

For the rest of the year, we’ve had a webinar every week, covering topics like trauma, nonviolent communication, and teacher burnout. There was also a session on working with kids on the autism spectrum—as a special education teacher, that was really helpful.

One of the great things about the program is that we get to watch videos of the lessons being implemented. We can see what other teachers have done and spin off from there to create lessons for our own classrooms.

How will you be implementing the Mindful Schools curriculum this summer?

Mindful Schools recommends starting a new program at a school where you already have some kind of connection. Since I knew the directors of the Boys and Girls Club, the YMCA, and Education at Sea, it was easy to approach them and ask if they’d like me to teach mindfulness to their students.

In order to see if the kids would be interested in a longer program, at the Boys and Girls Club I did a 2-week pilot program, and at the YMCA I gave four sample lessons. Before we started, none of the kids knew what mindfulness was. At the end of our time together, I could sense a shift in the atmosphere. 

I never forced the students to participate in a particular mindfulness activity, but I did tell them “if you choose not to participate, please sit in stillness and in silence” so they wouldn’t disrupt the rest of the group. Even the students who were reluctant at first appreciated the stillness and wanted to learn more.

The summer curriculum will have 16 lessons, including mindful eating, walking, breathing, emotions, and thoughts. People sometimes think that Newport is full of big mansions, and there certainly are a lot of them, but there’s also a lot of low-income housing. Quite a few of the kids at the Boys and Girls Club and the YMCA are living below the poverty line, which is why I want to raise money through Kickstarter rather than charging for the program.

At the Oliver Hazard Perry Education at Sea program, the education director asked me to provide mindfulness lessons to the crew. There are 30 of them living on board with 20 youth, in very tight quarters, and not all of them have training in teaching or in working with teens. 

I gave them a pre-assessment to see whether they’re familiar with mindfulness and have ever practiced before; that will give me a good idea of where to start with the training and what kind of instruction they need.

You mentioned above that you work with kids on the autism spectrum. How is mindfulness helpful for them?

One of the reasons I’m so passionate about bringing mindfulness into schools is because, as a special education teacher, I’ve seen how difficulty in managing anxiety and stress affects the kids’ learning. There’s a lot of research now showing that mindfulness training can actually help to rewire the brain, especially the prefrontal cortex, which helps with executive function.

Students on the autism spectrum have a particularly tough time in these areas. From my experience, I can see that when the kids practice mindfulness, there’s a settling in. They’re better able to focus in class.

One of my students was having a really tough time handling his emotions. He would bother other students and sometimes get really mad and yell at them. In mindfulness classes and meeting with him one-on-one, we talked about noticing emotions. Mindfulness creates a space to respond rather than react. 

Now he’s managing his emotions a lot better. His teachers have certainly noticed it, and he’s started to notice it himself.

What does “mindful teaching” mean to you?

To me, mindful teaching means first, being present yourself, being there with the students in the present moment. I think that’s key.

Second, a mindful teacher offers an experience for students to feel a stillness they may never have been able to access before. It’s powerful, allowing students the space to be, and be still.

Third, it means providing tools to manage stress, thoughts, and emotions.

I was never taught this in school. I would suppress my emotions, trying to act like nothing was wrong. I may have seemed “okay,” but it was actually really unhealthy.

What do you do in your personal mindfulness practice, and how does it help you in your work?

I practice for thirty minutes every morning, or 20 minutes if I’m running short on time. I’ll do a “sit” (seated meditation), a body scan, and listen to one of Tara Brach’s podcasts

I’ll also try to pause in moments of transition. For example, when I’m warming my car, I’ll pause for a minute, or I’ll do a 2-minute meditation in the ladies’ room.

And if I’m feeling keyed up at night, I’ll practice for ten minutes or thirty minutes before I go to sleep.

While I was studying in London, I was on the Underground during some bomb scares. When I came home, I had a constant feeling of anxiety, always wondering “Where’s the exit?” It took me a while to realize I had symptoms of PTSD. That’s one of the ways I’ve been transformed by my mindfulness practice. It helped me heal.

related posts:

Teach, Breathe, Learn: Mindfulness in and out of the Classroom (recommended book)

The Autism Playbook for Teens (recommended book)

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