“Mindfulness is dumb”

I used to work for retreat center, marketing their contemplative (mostly meditation) practices. We were awarded federal funding early on for research into Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) in education. At that time, it was for teachers, as political concerns about pushing “namaste” messages on students were a little hot. So I’ve watched with sympathetic interest as top athletes have promoted meditation apps for improved performance and the important lessons of SEL have increasingly gone mainstream in our schools.

In schools, I’ve seen posters describing breathing techniques, heard teachers leading visualization, observed after-school yoga, and taken note of required SEL coursework. That’s all to the good; it’s probably also why I heard one seventh-grade boy practicing his newfound cynicism by declaring “Mindfulness is dumb.” I’m pretty sure he was referring to the school’s required Mindfulness sessions; as for mindfulness as an abstract concept, I can’t say! But his awareness that yet another academic agenda is being pushed on him can be counted as a measure of success, for even if the session in question was hard to stay awake through, at least a serious preventative effort is being made to address today’s stresses on young and growing lives.

As we emerge from the unique social challenges of the pandemic, we are warned that the marks left by a year+ of social distancing, masking, home schooling, and the shutdown of normal activities may remain with young people for a long time. We’ll have to see. At the same time, other concerns increasingly press upon them. The difficulty of addressing climate change in decisive ways is visible and demoralizing. Legitimate critiques of racism alive in America dent our capacity to celebrate all that is good here. Social media and internet-based possibilities may send friends and loved ones down less caring or self-caring rabbit holes. It’s worth keeping in mind what the goals of Social and Emotional Learning for young people generally are.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) tells us that SEL is:

the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.

While many teachers throughout history have intentionally or intuitively incorporated most of the elements of this growth process, it’s good that in our time the “how” of it has been extensively studied and brought forward. I recommend you take a look at CASEL’s website to learn more. Their framework addresses five areas of competence: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. It doesn’t just drop into place: quality SEL requires system-wide support addressing these elements:

  • Building foundational support and plan
  • Strengthening adult SEL competencies and capacity
  • Promoting SEL for students, and
  • Reflecting on data for continuous improvement.

It’s worth keeping in mind that focusing on adult competencies and capacity comes before bringing SEL to the students!