Many schools are attempting to counter the busy, distracted, and often frenetic lives of students by teaching strategies they can use to help themselves get ready to learn. The importance of students being able to calm themselves, focus, concentrate, and fully engage in learning cannot be overstated.
Mindfulness, a popular approach to developing these skills, has been shown in multiple studies to be effective in helping students exercise greater control over their emotions and improve their ability to remain attentive. While helping students focus and concentrate has always been important, it is even more important now than in the past. Recent studies show that the average length of sustained attention among young people has dropped by as much as a third over the past couple of decades. Several factors have played a role in the loss of ability to sustain focus, including the emergence of readily accessible and near constant engagement with varied technologies.
Mindfulness is not a religion, cult, or spiritual movement. However, some parents—especially those who are not fully aware of the goals and what mindfulness activities involve—have become concerned and begun to push back against schools teaching and leading students in mindfulness strategies and activities. Specific concerns may be unique to individual parents. However, some of the most vocal pushback has come from conservative Christian parents who fear that there may be competition between these activities and religious activities such as prayer and seeking assistance from a higher power.
It probably is not possible to completely prevent and avoid parent concerns. However, there are steps schools can take to communicate proactively and minimize unnecessary resistance.
A good first step is to be certain that each activity and strategy is reviewed to ensure it is supported by the research on mindfulness. Sometimes activity leaders choose to add their own activities that may not be consistent with the goals of the initiative. Training for adults needs to be clear about what is to be included and what will not be a part of the program.
Also, before rolling out any activities with students, be certain that communication with parents includes the goals, activities, and research supporting the strategies. The communication may include in-person opportunities for parents to hear and ask questions about the activities in which their children will engage, but multiple communication strategies and venues should be leveraged to ensure that parents are aware of what is planned and any concerns they have about the program are addressed. Concerned parents might even be assured that the strategies students learn can be used in church, temple, synagogue, and other places of worship to improve focus and learning.
Establish metrics to gauge the benefits and monitor the effectiveness of mindfulness activities. While connecting the activities directly to academic outcomes may not be practical, you can collect student reactions to the activities, document the frequency with which students choose to use the activities independently, and collect adult observations about the impact of the activities on students and the classroom environment.
You also might designate opportunities for parents to observe and even participate in student mindfulness sessions. Adults, too, often struggle to calm themselves, focus, concentrate, and fully engage in important activities and can benefit from what their children are learning.
Ultimately, consider periodic reports to parents and the rest of the school community about the success and impact of the program. This process can also ensure that the vision and practices associated with the program do not begin to shift and lead to a loss of focus and the emergence of parent concerns.