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Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Helping Teens Find Mindfulness and Meaning

Amy Edelstein is the founder of The Inner Strength Foundation, which trains adolescents to work with the tools of mindfulness and a developmental perspective so they can realize their highest potentials. 

She is the author of The Conscious Classroom: The Inner Strength System™ for Transforming the Teenage Mind.

Inner Strength Education offers free online courses on COVID-19 Stress Supports for Teachers and Teens.

In this Q+A, Amy discusses the Inner Strength approach to culturally-responsive mindfulness teaching and integrating mindfulness with academic content.

Some mindfulness programs in inner city public schools have been criticized for focusing on ‘fixing’ the kids, or for not understanding and appreciating the local community. Could you give some tips on culturally-responsive mindfulness teaching?

Cultural sensitivity has always been important, and this time of national protests regarding systemic racism and implicit bias has exposed the dark underbelly of dominant white privilege and negative stereotypes of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) students. 

In many parts of the country students are speaking out, making demands, and have brought into the light of public scrutiny/social media the many racial incidents they have experienced in even the best or supposedly most progressive schools. 

Mindfulness instructors, especially those who identify as white, need to undergo their own process of self-reflection around implicit bias and racial triggers. There are excellent programs on Racial Literacy, learning to read and recast racially-charged moments and interactions. 

We aren’t all called to advocate at the level of policy but we all encounter racial stress and tension and we can prepare to deal - in the moment - much better than we do. Then mindfulness instructors can serve as allies and create a welcoming and safe space for all students. 

Understanding trauma and how it affects the brain, nervous system, emotional health, and ability to practice mindfulness is foundational training for all school mindfulness instructors. Far too many of our students have experienced trauma, even those who appear to come from financial stability. Families have alcoholism, opioid addiction, and domestic violence issues that affect students from all socio-economic backgrounds, but our children who come from poverty experience a level of instability that is hard to take in.

Mindfulness tools, sensitively applied, can help resolve trauma. However, mindfulness tools can also exacerbate anxiety and trauma. It is not always helpful for children to focus on sensations, even the breath, if it increases their anxiety or brings up memories of current or past trauma. Instructors need to be aware of contraindications, signs and symptoms, and be prepared to skillfully bring exercises to a close if they are creating anxiety for students. 

While recognizing these issues and the wounds they create, it remains essential that we teach to the inherent wholeness or goodness of our students. When we teach to that part of the student, we are cultivating and coaxing out their resilience. Even in the midst of the cracked and broken sidewalks of the city, grass still pokes up to reach to the sun. The life force animates us and the human heart wants to love and connect. 

That foundation of goodness and wholeness enables students to understand and grow beyond hardship that they may have experienced. When we, as mindfulness instructors, teach to that, miracles start to unfold. Students who seemed bent on disruption and negativity, because of the harshness or violence they have witnessed and experienced, can start being kids again, filled with curiosity, love of learning, and desire to be happy. When that happens, we have done our job well. 

You have a long-standing interest in both Eastern and Western contemplative practices. In your opinion, what’s the connection between mindfulness and spirituality? 

Of course it depends on what we mean by spirituality. If we take spirituality to refer to the moral compass of human beings, our need - and our yearning - to cultivate our higher human nature, to grow in love and kindness, to realize humility and generosity then we all, regardless of our cultural background, would want to cultivate health and well-being of body, mind, and spirit. That seems to be foundational to create a culture that we would want to live in. A culture of peace and non-violence, of generosity and support, of learning and development. 

But mindfulness does not need to be tied to any particular philosophical or spiritual path. Mindfulness describes the human capacity to be aware, to observe, and to contemplate. It is a human quality that peoples from any culture have and can practice or develop in different ways. 

Neuroscience and behavioral science show that the practice of mindfulness results in positive physical, neurological, psychological, and social changes. This scientific research is  beneficial, and has resulted in making a secular practice of mindfulness uniquely suited to Western culture.

That being said, it is also important to acknowledge that the popular mindfulness practices that are now part of American and Western culture were brought here from Asia. It's important to pay respect to those systems and the cultures that gave rise to them. 

While Western science has contributed to our understanding and adoption of these tools, we also run the risk of colonization or appropriation of techniques that have been practiced, studied, and refined over 2500 years. When we do that, we lose dimensionality and depth that comes from so much experience. 

Have any parents expressed concerns that your teachings might conflict with their religious beliefs? How do you (or would you) respond to such concerns?

Inner Strength instructors are trained to respect and to understand the religious backgrounds of the students we work with. If you don’t understand their religious beliefs, you won’t understand how you might be teaching, unnecessarily, in a way that is against those beliefs. For example, there is a way to teach a Love & Kindness practice that respects certain Christian beliefs that only God can grant Grace, Mercy, and Unconditional Love. 

To date we have never had issues. We also always make sure students know that they have to participate in class discussions but they do not have to do any exercises that they are uncomfortable with. 

The last thing a mindfulness instructor would want to do is pressure a student to do something that would cause conflict with their parents or their beliefs. That would be counterproductive and would go against the very goal of the mindfulness practice, which is to help students grow into the full flowering of their creativity, sense of wholeness and well-being, and optimism.

photo courtesy Inner Strength Foundation

How does The Inner Strength System™ fit in with the overall curriculum of the schools you serve?

Embedding science, history, social studies, psychology, reflective writing, and health in the The Inner Strength System™ enables the program to be taught in a variety of academic classrooms. 

Students learn the evolutionary development of the brain, and the science of adolescent brain development. Instructors can make the connection to a variety of science classes from biology to anatomy to chemistry. 

We also emphasize our emotional well-being and how we can actually practice exercises to develop our own sense of optimism, compassion, belonging, or self-regulation. This connects with the social sciences, psychology, and even diversity and inclusion courses. 

The health connections include the emphasis on physical, mental, and emotional health, seeing the interrelationship between those three areas and how students can learn to take care of themselves through mindful awareness and self-knowledge. 

Since 2014, the teen program has been embedded in each of these subjects and worked well in the school environment. 

The Inner Strength System™ combines mindful awareness with contextual thinking. How does this benefit teens in their studies and in their lives?

None of us live in a vacuum. We are all always experiencing input and reactions to the world around us. We make sense of our lives according to the culture we live in and the times we are a part of. 

Teaching mindfulness together with contextual thinking enables students to self reflect on their own experience and recognize the influence of their surroundings on how they feel - as well as on how they are interpreting their experience.

For example, it is common to hear students groan about the homework they have to do. In one of the Inner Strength lessons, they learn about the great shifts in culture over the last 600 years. They do a guided visualization and go back in time, when life was simpler -- and they wouldn’t have homework. In fact, the vast majority of the boys, and all of the girls, would not even have the opportunity to be educated. 

The stress of homework goes hand in hand with the opportunity of universal education. Seeing in context helps students realize their opportunities and the challenges that come with them.

It's important for adults to 'practice what we teach' and be good role models. What do you do personally to practice mindfulness and self-care in the midst of all of your commitments?

I have been a meditator since 1978, when I was in high school. I still enjoy practicing every day. I love walking in the woods (though I live in the inner city right now), reflecting on inspirational writings of all kinds, writing myself, and living in a way that has balance. I am definitely very busy these days, but my life has balance and ease at the foundation.


related posts by Amy Edelstein:

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