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MF 33 – Simple and Highly Effective Ways to Reduce Destructive Behaviors like Gun Violence and Bullying in Schools using Mindfulness with Laura Bakosh
About Laura Bakosh
Laura obtained a Ph.D. in Transpersonal Psychology from Sofia University and has spent more than five years researching the academic and behavioral effects of mindful-awareness practices on children in k-12 schools. She has a Bachelors Degree in Business fromp Boston College and worked for 20 years in large, multinational companies, including Northern Telecom, EMC and GE. She was trained as a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Teacher at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness and co-developed the audio-guided Inner Explorer Programs. She has had a personal mindful awareness practice for more than 21 years.
Laura discovered the benefits of mindful awareness more than 20 years ago when she was trying to manage the stress of travel and long workdays. While working at GE, Laura had the insight to share her mindful awareness practice with hundreds of fellow employees. Upon seeing the many positive results the daily practice had on performance, creativity, and wellbeing, she realized it would be the perfect fit for education.
The practices can help children navigate the ups and downs of life with resilience, alleviating stress and anxiety, and can help them focus, allowing them to be ‘ready to learn’. — all with compassion, openness, and love. She can hardly wait for the first generation of kids going through this program to reach adulthood! Laura received a Bachelor of Science Degree from Boston College and a Doctoral Degree in Psychology from Sofia University. She was trained as a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) instructor through the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts.
When not working, Laura loves to spend time with family and friends, especially with her husband Rick and son Will. She loves being outside, which is much easier now that she moved from Illinois to Florida, going for a bike ride, running with her dog Scout, kayaking, or playing tennis.
About Inner Explorer
Janice L. Houlihan
Laura Co-Founded Inner Explorer with Janice L. Houlihan. Inner Explorer’s Vision is to inspire people to develop a daily mindful awareness practice, leading to a more compassionate, joyful, healthful, loving and peaceful world. They accomplish this by providing programs and tools, for children and their families worldwide, that inspire a daily mindful awareness practice. This practice will help lead the children and teens towards their highest potential by bolstering academic performance, creativity, social & emotional aptitude and well-being.
Laura Bakosh Interview Transcript
What follows is a summarized partial transcript. Listen to the audio to get the full conversation.
How did you get started with Meditation and Mindfulness?
Laura came to it in 1994 to manage the stress of long hours and travel when working for GE. She felt stressed out very often, not eating and sleeping well, unraveling and reactive.
She started reading about stress reduction, and one of the books was from John Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are. She found this incredibly eye opening. So then went to a retreat, and became very committed to practicing everyday. Started to notice lots of positive changes. She started feeling better, sleeping better, a lot more calm and level.
She continued to practice, and went to several training classes and retreats. As her colleagues began noticing changes in her, she realized it might help them too. She introduced MBSR to GE in 2001. Lisa Grady, an MBSR instructor created a program called the “Corporate Athlete”. Lisa conducted several retreats for the team and helped them develop a personal practice through audio-guided tapes, and weekly call-in’s. Over time, more and more GE employees asked to be included in the retreat sessions, to the point where they got 100 people to come in on their weekend retreat. The business outcomes were fantastic, higher orders, less employee turnover, and improved culture and collaboration. It transformed the entire team, from 2001-2004.
At the same time, Dr. Richard Davidson and his team at UW-Madison were conducting exciting mindfulness research using functional MRI (fMRI) equipment on the Buddhist monks. The results showed that the brain changes as a result of these practices. In general, the researchers found that there is less reactivity in limbic (fight/flight) system and increased activity in the prefrontal cortex (executive functioning). GE made the fMRI equipment, so there was a tie-in.
Through her own personal practice and the interactions with the team, she realized the biggest challenge is that it’s hard to practice every day. If you go to a seminar, it may be interesting, yet it’s hard to integrate that into your daily life. The practice is simple in that you are just sitting, but it’s not easy because most of us are not used to just “being”. Also, if your work environment doesn’t integrate mindfulness, it is difficult to find the time on your own.
So if the employees that came to these sessions didn’t have that support when they returned to their divisions/departments/teams, they ended up losing the practice.
Laura realized that regular practice is critical to integrating these skills and to realizing the health and well-being benefits. So if you teach them while their young, it’s going to be extremely useful to them when their young, but also for the rest of their lives. So then she decided to leave GE at that time.
She went to the U-Mass teacher training program in MBSR. And went to grad school to further study and evaluate the impact in education. She then began to translate these mindfulness practices designed for adults into language that would be applicable to kids.
In 2011 she co-founded Inner Explorer with Janice Houlihan, to bring daily mindfulness practices into K-12 schools.
I’m curious about the struggles you experienced integrating the mindfulness practice into the GE workplace?
Yes, the key thing is some learning you can get from a seminar, but with mindfulness it is very critical that you practice every day. If you don’t practice it every day, or at least most days, the benefits will be more fleeting and won’t last. It’s similar to brushing your teeth every day, which leads to dental health. Practicing mindfulness every day leads to cognitive health (and physical health)
Your team has to be supported in your practice efforts. In her team, the practice was front and center in people’s mind. We encouraged them to dig in as they felt comfortable. As they did that, they found that it was very useful in their lives, so they embraced it. If you don’t have that kind of structure in your life, it is very hard to fit it in.
Most workplaces didn’t have acceptable policies or ways to do this mindfulness practice every day.
So many people have a hard time fitting this practice in. This is one of the reasons Laura and Janice started this company. Each of the tracks is just 10 minutes, the teacher simply presses play, and participates with the students.
So this program that you created with Inner Explorer, how does this work?
Each series (Pre-K- Kindergarten, Elementary School, Middle School, High School) are audio guided, where the first thing the recording (audio stream) says is “closing your eyes”, because we want them going inward. Each series has 90 separate tracks, 10 minutes for most of them, 5 minutes for the youngest kids. Students listen every school day.
We ask the teachers to consider when is the best time during the day is to re-engage the kids. Sometimes it’s early in the morning, sometimes after lunch, sometimes after recess. It depends on the class and the teacher, it’s flexible. The program is streamed into the classroom. The teacher just logs in and plays the program.
We encourage the teachers to participate with the students, so they get a chance for 10 minutes a day to reground themselves. The teachers consistently report to us that it’s their favorite time a day. Because they get a chance to settle.
Teachers are under a lot of challenges. Students report higher and higher levels of stress. We know also that the majority of US students are living in poverty (51% ). Teachers have to meet this stress, anxiety and trauma every day with multiple students. These practices teachers the chance to develop resilience in the face of these challenges.
And do you find in some cases where the class is particularly riled up that the teachers decide to use the meditation audio during those occasions?
Yes, definitely. It’s generally a time when it is difficult to get the student re-engaged. Like coming in from lunch for example. Sometimes it takes students a little longer to get settled. It depends on the student. Once a routine is established, students settle quickly, and over time, (within a few weeks) they will begin reminding the teacher to run the program.
Students are already pretty mindful in the moment. But they don’t operate in an inward sense. They’re not usually digging in to understand what’s going on in their inner world. Once they do, they realize that it feels good. To notice thoughts and emotions coming and going. They start to disconnect from the sense that they are their anger and frustration.
They see anger and frustration coming and going. It’s really healthy for them to separate the thought and the thinker.
Do the students learn this distinction from the audio meditations, in other words, are these narrated instructions in the audio?
Yes, the program follows the MBSR protocol, which has been well studied for the last 25-35 years or so. It’s been very well researched and received very well. We’ve taken that protocol and have created out of that these 90 bite-sized pieces. So yes, the program is guided. Each day different instructions.
The Inner Explorer program then builds. Starts with awareness of breathing, relaxation, moves to physical senses, then thoughts, then emotions, then connection and compassion.
As kids build more and more attention and focus, they can then do it longer and longer. And they can handle more complicated ideas, like noticing emotions come up.
What’s remarkable, is that children start to practice what it feels like to be angry. They for example notice a time that they were angry. They notice the bodily sensations of that emotions. They become familiar with how anger comes up for them. We’re used to reacting in those circumstances.
But in this case they have that momentary awareness, that, “Oh that’s anger, I recognize that sensation”. Giving them that little bit of pause, is giving them a chance to respond. To bring that pre-frontal cortex part of the brain back online.
And that de-escalates it..
Exactly. We’ve done a bunch of research and others have replicated it. Students have a 50% reduction in their behavior problems. Fewer principal office visits, fewer suspensions, fewer incidences of bullying, higher grades higher test scores.
Amazing improvements with a 10 minute a day intervention, very cost-effective too.
So how did you do the research?
There were 3 different research studies conducted with about 1000 children. There was an 8 week study, 10 week study. And then a 27 week study. The first quarter grades were the pre-condition. And then for the next 3 quarters the student went through the intervention. And then the 4th quarter grades were the post-condition. The first study was controlled, meaning some children participated, some didn’t.
The second and third study were randomized controlled. Some of the volunteers (teachers) were randomized into either the control or the intervention condition.
Randomization is considered the gold standard in research, you have more faith in those results, because the teachers didn’t pick to do it, or not do it. They all picked that they wanted to do it, and were then randomized. It avoids self selection bias.
You had an interesting article in Mindful magazine, about the programs that were created to combat bullying in schools. But you explain that these programs were intellectual understanding of bullying. There was a gap between knowing and doing with regards to bullying.
Yes, that’s the thing about listening to a lecture, going to the seminar, or reading the book. We all want to “know” to “check the box”, but with mindfulness, you don’t know it or embody it, until you practice it.
Many studies have shown that people who regularly practice mindfulness have greater sense of self of self awareness, greater sense of resilience, and greater sense of compassion. Those are all well documented outcomes.
If you consider
The bullying triad: the Bully, the victim, and bystander, or witness.
If all children practice mindful awareness, here’s what happens to these three parties.
The victim (suffer in silence, they don’t feel they deserve help)
- Mindfulness helps these children become more resilient.
- Which means, they’re more likely ask for help
- Less likely to become a target.
- These things alone will shift the dynamic.
- They start to become aware from a deep and profound level who they are, and understand their gift.
- They start acting differently, no longer the easy target, they are not their story anymore
- 90% think bullying think it’s wrong and that they would intervene.
- Only 11% actually do intervene.
- So it’s a fight flight response, they don’t want to get bullied, they get nervous, they don’t know what to do in that situation. When push comes to shove, they don’t know what to do.
- But with mindfulness there is tons of research that people/kids become more compassionate. This part of the brain becomes more active.
- They start to act more compassionately, even with people they don’t know. You end up with bystanders that are much more inclined to engage to help, they have this growing sense of compassion.
- They’re more wiling to touch base with the victim, if anything give a word of support to the victim or report it, or get someone else to help.
An enlargement of self idea is going on here too right, with the bystander not just thinking of themselves any longer?
- When kids practice mindfulness on a regular basis, they shift. You can see it. The kids become more engaged with each other.
- All of the people in the triad, are developing all these skills. The bystanders are also becoming more resilient, more willing to not let situations put them down.
- Bully’s have all kinds of complicated situations in their backgrounds, that propel them into this role to begin with.
- The practice foundation is awareness.
- The bully’s are so disconnected from the actions they’re causing, especially with online cyber bullying.
- A developing sense of awareness of their own actions are bound to connect them at a different level with their victim.
- They’ll be able to understand, my actions have a consequence, they can tune into that more.
As a result of the mindfulness practice, we’ve seen the number of bullying incidences go down.
When I was at GE, the team of adults had bullying going on as well. This cat fighting and backstabbing. Not unusual in a corporate environment.
However, what ended up happening after this mindful practice, it all changed, cohesive, highly loyal team. The team became loyal, the “dream team”. The team was so much changed after the mindfulness practice.
And we see that in the classrooms, the teams become this connected, cohesive unit.
Wonderful. Especially now, this is so relevant, with these school shootings. I can see how mindfulness programs in school would also have a beneficial effect on school shootings. School shootings, the perpetrators feel alienated and disconnected, and so they seek attention in a very negative way. I can see how mindful programs would de-escalate would make them feel more connected, rather than less connected.
Yeah, I have a story about that. Here in Florida, we have an after school program for girls at-risk, Girls Inc. They inspire all girls to be strong, smart, and bold through enrichment programming like finance, business, leadership. The idea is to give these girls a chance at a better life.
There was one girl who’d been going for some 5 years, a girl who was so difficult. She was violent, mean, she stole, was angry, and unhelpful. Literally the antithesis of what they were trying to promote as an organization. But they wouldn’t give up on a child. So the staff had meetings every 2/3 weeks for 5 years, to figure out a new plan to try to reach this girl. They’d been trying everything to help her. This girl has a traumatic life, both parents in jail, lives with aunt in a chaotic household, health issues, diabetic, a challenged girl in many ways.
One morning after 8 weeks of the running a daily mindfulness program, this girl was voted unanimously “Girl of the month”. And the Executive Director read through the comments, from the students and staff, she couldn’t believe what she was reading. They said this girl was “helpful, kind, goes out of her way, caring, team player” etc. It’s as if she found herself for the first time, at just 12 years old.
Children from really challenging environments don’t know how to process what is happening to them. They don’t have the tools, and don’t know where to turn. Sometimes, the people who are supposed to be taking care of them are not able. The result is mental and physical health disorders, destructive and bullying behaviors, poor academic performance and often, engagement in the juvenile justice system.
So when you give them the chance to dig deeply, into whatever their essence is. Most often what’s there is really good. They just have to tap into that, and start to trust what’s there.
They then emerge from this beautiful amazing place, and they’re unstoppable. These former bully’s become these forces of good, positive momentum. We see this all the time.
That’s amazing, the transformation of a bully into a force for good!
Yes, it’s the regular practice that’s so important. Once they get that habit, it’s fantastic, and they love it. But it takes a little time to develop this practice.
How much time is involved?
We have a sense. Broadly, the littler kids the pre-KK, elementary. Within a week, week-and-a-half the kids are used to it. Teacher just hits the button and go. It’s also easier to fit it in those age-ranges, because the kids are in the same room usually throughout the day. The teacher can fit it in easier.
In the older grades, middle and high school, it’s a bit more challenging, because the courses are typically 45 minutes, so harder to fit in 10 minutes. But it can be fit into the study hour or home room type thing. The other thing is that with those ages, it takes a little longer before the pre teens and teens get the sense that this is helping them. They don’t immediately feel a difference, so they question it. So it might take 3 weeks or so.
So we guide the teachers to not give up, even if there’s push back initially.
Most students who get deeply engaged in it, do so because they really can feel a profound difference.
And if they did it in earlier grades, then the transition must be even smoother? Yes.
Do they continue to practice mindfulness once they leave school?
Yes, we know that 40-50% of the students bring their mindfulness practices home and teach someone in their household. They can see the stress that their families are under, not just families in poverty. All families have lots of stress. So they bring it home to teach their siblings and parents. So they have lots of students ask Laura and Janice if they could make an at-home program for the people in the households.
Ideally, we try to give them the skills and the tools through the Inner Explorer program. Our program is nice and easy, it’s guided. But they also mention in the program that, “Hey you can do this at home!” Try this at home. Because not everyone needs or wants the guidance, or guided meditation. They don’t need the guidance once they’re experienced with mindfulness. Some just want to sit at home, and do some of the practices at home. We’d love for every child to do these practices at home. The world would change.
Where do you see this mindfulness in schools development 5-10 years from now? With all the recent gun violence and other violence, folks talk all about controlling violence, and mental institutions, however, I think what your doing is much better, taking care of the root problem, rather than treating the symptoms.
What would be fantastic for us, would be to have the awareness, educators and parents need to be aware. Programs like ours and others are very cost effective, easy to implement, and can literally transform classrooms and schools today! We ought to be doing this everywhere.
There’s no reason why every school shouldn’t run a program like this.
It’s not just the academic and behavioral improvements. But there’s also health and well-being improvements. They reduce depression, anxiety, all kinds of mental health issues. This has been documented.
1 in 5 kids has a mental health disorder that inhibits their ability to succeed in school. Kids today report so much stress, which is linked to other disease states and immune system dysfunctions. This stuff is simple, and yet, I don’t know what we’re all waiting for.
We’re trying to reach 1 million children by 2019. There’s 55 million kids in this country. We’ve served close to 15.000 children so far that are practicing mindfulness every day. We’re not doing it fast enough. It’s all about funding and all. But we’re working on it.
I think it just needs to hit critical mass, and it will go quickly.
Exactly, we’re working on our systems, to make them easy to scale and robust. Streaming, and that the price point per classroom is low enough that it’s a strong value proposition for schools (The cost of the Inner Explorer program is now $100 per classroom for a one year license.* International rates differ). And that we’re ready when they’re ready.
Yes, it comes back to employers, saving sick leave and other costs by investing in a mindfulness program.
Yes, it is hard to get people to do this in the workplace as initiatives. So if we get these children to do mindfulness through school, we’ve improved the likelihood, that the habit will be developed and will be solid by the time they’re adults. And we wouldn’t even need a mindfulness workplace program for adults. Because it will already be done.
Yes, one generation should be able to do it.
Yes, that’s what we believe as well. It’s exciting work!
Thanks so much!