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Getting Schoolchildren to Meditate

A Principal's Cautionary Tale

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Matthew Auerbach, Principal at Mt. Pleasant Elementary School

Academics will always be important in the education of children.  But there is a growing conversation about equipping young people equally with social/emotional intelligence.  The hope is that acquiring these life skills will better help them deal with trauma, foster improved well-being and promote healthy relationships throughout their lifetime.  Change is never easy.  But Principal Matthew Auerbach of Mt. Pleasant Elementary School in Wilmington, Delaware has taken the lead by introducing mindfulness-based approaches that have started transforming the lives of the teachers and children in his community.  

I asked Matthew what particular challenges he faced as he tried to change the system.  What he shared with me is another inspiring example of how being open to our mistakes and failures often leads us to more powerful solutions.  Here is how he explained it:

“Being a school principal means never knowing what the new day is going to bring.  Things get thrown at you that you can never anticipate.  It’s exciting and inspiring as well.   To be a good principal, you have to love being with kids.   I am invested in them as a means to affect our future.  I want our children to grow up in a safe, strong and supportive community.  That is where I find my passion in being a principal.  I love the challenge. 

As you can imagine, the job also comes with a lot of stress and pressure.  I’m often caught in the crossfire of so many different interests—the kids, the parents, the teachers, the administrative staff, the district office and the community as a whole.  You have to listen to the needs they all have and try to find solutions.   On top of this is the normal everyday stress that comes with also being a father and a husband. 

I felt that something had to be done.  I kept hearing this noise in my brain and was almost at a breaking point.  “I want to be healthy.  I don’t want to be stressed.  And I don’t want the people around me to be stressed.”  Maybe it wasn’t so surprising that I came to mindfulness as a possible solution.  My wife and I went to yoga classes together.  My mother had taught it.  I was looking for something but I realized I always had it in me, standing by for me to grasp.  Fortunately, we had a group of people working at the school who came together on this concept of mindfulness that had started buzzing around the world.  So, it just serendipitously came to be. 

I would like to say that the story ends here and everyone lived happily ever after.  But that was not the immediate outcome here.  Instead, if you ever aspire with all the best intentions to introduce this kind of change on an institutional level, whether at a school or any place of work, I hope you will heed my words and learn from my mistakes. 

There was a mindfulness initiative at another school I was aware of and really bought into.  I thought it was a great program.  “I’m going to bring it to my school, and everyone is going to love it.”  Instead, I ended up with egg on my face.  A few months later, few had bought into it.  All the posters and books and staff trainings had been nothing short of a waste of time and money. 

A psychotherapist and meditation teacher named Dr. James Walsh met with me and helped me realize where I had gone wrong.  In fact, this top-down initiative had been doomed from the start.  He explained.  “The idea behind mindfulness is that it is an offering, not a mandate.”   We talked about the need to go slow and steady with this–moving forward as turtles and not as rabbits.

Back to the drawing board, we were very deliberate to start very small with people who my team and I identified would embrace mindfulness in their own practice.  We would allow that seed to grow.  That core group of about a dozen teachers received 20 hours or so of MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) training.  The ripple effects began happening through their conversations with other staff members, raising their awareness and curiosity of what mindfulness is.  They started noticing how this can benefit themselves personally and most importantly, how it can actually benefit our kids. 

One of the other insights we’ve gained working with children is the importance of starting mindfulness activities on the physical plane.  Stretching, focusing their intention by tracing their fingers on a piece of paper, or concentrating on the sensations of eating a raisin are just a few examples of these physical hooks.  Once they begin to change the way they think on a physical level, they get more into the higher cognitive levels of mindfulness, especially becoming aware of their own emotions and the emotions of those around them.  We know through developmental psychology that they will eventually understand that the world is greater than them, nurturing the seed of compassion, understanding and empathy that is embedded within them.”

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