All of the talk lately about school shootings and arming teachers reminded me of one of my heroes. Antoinette Tuff was the school bookkeeper in DeKalb County Georgia who in 2013 single-handedly prevented a school shooting by disarming the potential gunman. Did she have a weapon? No. But she was armed with calm, kindness, and compassion. These crucial social and emotional skills helped her to save the lives of countless children and their teachers.
As the full-time Peace Teacher at my school teaching more than five hundred kids every week I see a big part of my role as triage. I do my best to look out for the lonely, angry ones, the ones who always seem to be alone, the ones who aren’t connecting with the other kids. I don’t know anything about their reading or math skills. There are other wonderful teachers to take care of that. All I’m concerned with is their hearts and happiness. I’m lucky to work with an amazing SEL team who can take it from there and dig in and help. Why are schools spending more and more money on guards and staff whose sole purpose is to break up fights and discipline kids? Why doesn’t every school have a Peace teacher? Why isn’t this the most urgent need?
My students started calling me the “Peace Teacher” years ago and the title has stuck. At Lafayette Elementary school here in DC, all of the kids take a weekly Peace Class, based on a mindfulness-based social-emotional learning curriculum that I developed. I started out fifteen years ago teaching conflict resolution but I realized that the children had a hard time remembering how to use their conflict resolution skills when they were in a real conflict and were actually angry. They didn’t have any skills to help them to recognize their emotions and calm down enough to work things out peacefully. This is what led me to bring mindfulness into my classes.
I wasn’t a mindfulness practitioner back then but my research led me to believe that the skills children can develop through mindfulness were exactly what they needed to help them achieve our conflict resolution goals. I took a crash course in mindfulness over the summer and dove in warily with my first class. I was surprised and thrilled to learn that the children loved it. They were totally open and didn’t have any preconceived notions. They could see it for what it really is, a set of skills that we can learn to help us to focus better, to manage our emotions, to calm ourselves down, to become kinder and more compassionate. To be more peaceful. After a year of teaching mindfulness to my students, I realized that the mindfulness practice was deepening every aspect of my curriculum.
The combination of more traditional social-emotional learning lessons with mindfulness was like magic. The results we were seeing were remarkable. The reports of fights and bullying were way down, kids were reporting that they were practicing mindfulness because it made them feel kinder, less anxious, less nervous, more confident, sleep better, have less anxiety about tests, the list goes on. Teachers reported that their classrooms were calmer and their students were more focused and kind.
What started out as a little experiment quickly grew to be a school-wide program with all of the classroom teachers leading daily Mindful Moments, a team of 5th graders going into first grade classrooms to teach mindfulness, faculty members beginning to have their own mindfulness practices, an alternative recess space called Peace Club, and our school rules being reframed as “Speak Mindfully, Act Mindfully, Move Mindfully.”
I believe that social-emotional skills are some of the most important skills that children can learn in school and that mindfulness is the best foundation for that learning. But I also believe that having a dedicated Peace Teacher in a school really makes a difference.
This work is critical. All children need to learn these skills – not just the ones who are referred to the school counselor for extra help. Children in DC and across the country are living in an increasingly scary, uncertain world and it shows. Children are anxious and stressed. Active shooter drills are terrifying and it is harder and harder for parents to keep kids sheltered from the mess our world is in. Yes, we must make sure our schools are safe, but what our kids need to be armed with are the skills to deal with these difficult times.
Mindfulness-based social-emotional learning programs are not expensive, they benefit all children and they are backed up by research. These skills help children be happier, healthier and more ready to learn. I believe that this kind of school-wide social-emotional learning intervention helps to prevent some of these smaller problems from becoming the kind of big problems that sometimes lead to unnecessary tragedy. Of course, no amount of school-based intervention can completely compensate for serious problems in the home or the community but I believe we owe it to our students to give their hearts as much attention as we give their heads.
Neuroscientists have shown that happiness is a skill that can be learned and that mindfulness is the best way to learn this skill. This is life-changing information. There is much that we can do in school to help all of our students learn the skills they need to cope with challenges, to become more resilient, and to be happier and healthier people for life. I see firsthand every day how important this work is to my students. What could be more important?
Here’s what you can do to bring mindfulness and SEL to your children and your school:
- Introduce mindfulness to your family. Mindfulness doesn’t have to be serious. We have lots of fun in Peace Class. There are wonderful books such as Mindful Monkey, Happy Panda by Kerry MacLean and Anh’s Anger by Gail Silver to help kids learn some of the basic concepts. I’ve written two books for kids (and have two more on the way) called Rosie’s Brain and Henry is Kind that introduce kids to brain science and compassion practice respectively. There are apps like Calm, Headspace and Mind Yeti that have recorded lessons for children to try. For free you can try watching mindfulness practice videos by me at www.teachpeaceofmind.com/students or by my friend mindfulness hip-hop artist JusT me at www.yomind.com.
2. Take Five – One of the simplest but most useful mindfulness practice I teach in Peace class is called Take Five Breathing. All you do is trace your hand slowly while breathing in and out. Breathe in as you trace up starting at your thumb, breathe out as you trace down. It’s simple, fun, and it really works.
3. Advocate for Mindfulness-based SEL in your school. Mindfulness is having a moment right now and more and more schools are beginning to catch on, However, not all mindfulness programs are created equal. Research is showing more and more that it is the combination of mindfulness and social-emotional learning that makes the difference. Many programs offer 8-week introductions to mindfulness. This is a great start, but as someone who has been teaching mindfulness weekly to children from pre-k to 5th grade I can say that this is where the real change starts. It’s ongoing and it’s school-wide. That commitment is why we are seeing the real changes. If you want to learn more about how to bring mindfulness-based SEL to your school check out www.teachpeaceofmind.com.