Mindfulness in Schools and Education with Alan Brown
Alan Brown is a Dean at Grace Church School in New York City, where he also leads the 9th-12th grade mindfulness program as well as the parent mindfulness program. Alan has taught in both public and private settings as a humanities instructor, and has worked with many other schools andp districts as a trainer for GLSEN (the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network). In addition to his academic degrees in the humanities from Johns Hopkins University and the University of Chicago and a Fulbright Fellowship to Italy, Alan holds additional certifications in teaching mindfulness, positive psychology, and yoga. He works with schools as well as with families to help bring mindfulness into the lives of youth and their caregivers.
What follows is a summarized transcript. Listen to the audio to get the full conversation.
Interview with Alan Brown
How did you get started with a meditation practice (Mindfulness Schools recommended I talk with you)
Alan got started by way of his Yoga practice and Yoga teacher training, in which he started to get more familiar with meditation through a sitting component. He got more familiar then with the contemplative practice.
At the time he was working in high schools, he was then teaching in a particular high-anxiety, high stress high achieving school population. He realized this makes so much sense, both in terms of how he was feeling, he found himself craving a lot more stillness. And of course with the kids spinning their wheels and going nuts and feeling this would be helpful practice for them too.
It wasn’t really until he wanted to share this practice with his students that he felt he had to learn to deepen his own practice first.
Just out of curiosity, what type of yoga were you practicing?
(also called flow or “breath-synchronized movement”)
So you were already doing an already more deep type of yoga practice then say power yoga.
Yes, in his practice although 100% movement based, it was already contemplative, and exploring the inner landscape.
Were there aha moments, or particular experiences that you had that convinced you what direction to go next with this?
In terms of what he’s doing now, for Alan who loves teaching. With mindful schools he did their yearlong training program. And their yearlong program really emphasizes the teacher’s personal practice as an intervention in the school.
The notion that your presence, your ability to be non-reactive, to find calm, and show up in that way for your colleagues, peers, the people you work with, talking to, is already something of importance already. That was huge for Alan.
So his first Aha moment in his first retreat, they weren’t allowed to talk about the kids. When they came out of silence. The premise was, let’s just talk about our personal practice. As caregivers and educators, they’re really in a rush to talk about how this will work in a classroom, or how you can do this with other people. You can’t poor from an empty cup.
That was a big moment for him, and continues to resonate as his sort of philosophical alignment to what he’s doing. You bring a calm and steady presence first. Then I can also share our practice with you. But that comes from a place of trying to create a certain energy in my own person, in the room, and work from there.
Yes, like Ghandi said, you have to “Be that change” first if you want to affect others .
So then when you got to this meditation practice, how did you end up utilizing “Mindful Schools”?
His interest at the time was with stress specifically. Working with a population with 11-12th graders that he teaches and works with, getting ready to go to college. All this cultural baggage associated with this stage, the amount of uncertainty and anxiety. The heaviness of judgement and expectation that they’re feeling. Wanting to help these folks out. Dragging themselves to the ground at what cost?
So in his own life, this is something that was very powerful, how does he share that.
How could he as an educator create some sense of perspective, some sense of space, a greater sense of ease with what is going on (for these stressed kids about to go to college)?
That was the motivation. Ironically that was what deepened Alan’s own practice. Luckily. It was motivated out of the interest to teach them, but he had a lot more to learn more himself.
In terms those stress and expectation, what do you see as the biggest stressors?
When he first began this work, both public and private settings, urban and suburban settings. At that time I would have said that it was the actual pressure of applying to college. As far as his interactions in the school and classroom setting.
Nowadays the trend towards the smart phone has become a bigger stressor. The anxiety of missing out, the FOMO, fear of missing out. Kids are not alone in this, adults too. The extend of this, like texting while showering, or sleeping next to your head. The ability to have not any moment to yourself, to not have any moment of stillness. Those maybe extremes. But the norm is that their attention, our attention is pulled in so many different directions, without the ability to recover. To have stillness, the ability to be able to hear yourself think, or even hear yourself not think. That is the bigger and more pressing issue as he sees it now.
The fragmented attention, the attention span keeps getting shorter and shorter.
Yeah, it’s very hard. When you create the conditions to not have those pressures on them. Like in a classroom where you even collect the mobile devices where you let them rest for a while. The first time he became an administrator, started doing detentions. Surprisingly, the number of kids that actually thanked him for an hour (of detention) without their device, it was like Wow!
This detention is not the thing that you want to come to! But they actually got a lot done, so they wanted to come back the next week voluntarily for an hour of detention!
That was very telling for Alan. That this (space, not being connected to your devices and distractions) is something that you are actually seeking. Its something that you have a hard time creating for yourself. But when the adults around you impose this on to you, you have to go away from your device, so you can’t respond to your friends AND parents texting is also a common occurrence throughout the day.
It keeps the brain in kind of that stress mode, it needs to be constantly at the ready, constantly ready for stimulus. This stimulus which is constant.
Which makes it really hard to delve into something, to concentrate for a chunk of time.. Yes.
So the kids have to get permission to un-tether, they have to learn to give themselves permission to unplug for a while?
Yes, that’s exactly right. It’s really hard for teens in particular. They’re developmentally where the social world matter so much, that’s appropriate, that’s how it goes in those years. Figuring out who they are, and how they are in terms of their peers, families, individuating from their parents and families, and come into their own. Not a negative, but that makes it that much harder for them to be away from this thing that connects them at all moments to the social network, that is so powerful and so all-important.
So yeah, when there is that permission to put the always-connected devices away, it is for many folks a sigh of relief, there is this nice exhale. I can just be here, I don’t have to be anywhere else.
How do you implement this mindfulness practice in the classroom?
For starters for some classes actually need their devices, otherwise they go away. You remember your notes better when you write them by hand. Let’s put everything away so we can be right here. Then yes, we do begin with something that is contemplative. Usually it is silence, it depends also on the time of day. Right after lunch movement is much more helpful, or they’ll fall asleep. They don’t get much sleep to begin with.
Alan usually invites a student to lead us into the practice. For example:
- The “5 finger meditation”
Which is to meet one finger to your palm of the opposite hand. And as you breathe in, you trace up the pinkie, breathe out, and come back down. And then as you breathe in, you come up the forefinger, and back down. And so on and so forth, and then we switch hands. There’s something really nice and tactile about this practice, you just follow the finger along the palm. There’s movement involved without being too much of a big deal, no extra noise or anything special involved. By the time you’re finished you’ve taken 10 nice slow breaths, you’re likely to have arrived!
- Also have a bell, it’s an easy and fun one for kids to lead. We just listen to the bell for 1-3 times. Even an 18 year old feels great leading with the bell. We have a schedule who gets to ring the bell.
So that way you’re helping them invest take ownership of this ritual.
Yes, right, and every class has a slightly different personality. And every room is different, it’s a little bit of trial and error. Usually the group responds to something. They feel, how can I get the teacher off topic, to not teach us. This is something students love to do, getting the teacher off track, off topic. They’re feeling like awesome, I got the teacher to not teach! What they don’t realize that those 3 minutes spent doing a meditation, makes them better at the things we’re going to do. We’re now able to do more, rather than less.
It’s a worthwhile investment in the actual stuff of teaching.
What are you finding to be the most effective with the teens in terms of their minds going off wandering. you already mentioned tactile meditations, and using sounds, like the bell.
In Alan’s own teaching, humanities classes, English, History and Philosophy. And also teach specifically to the 9th and 10th grade, he teaches specifically mindfulness. So they’re already familiar with these practices. In terms what is most effective in mindfulness practice, it’s not just one thing that is most useful.
At the beginning of class or just for a quick calm down activity, for Alan the finger to palm meditation works best for him. It’s not for everyone, but has the widest appeal as he has practiced it.
At the beginning when I talk to kids, about mindfulness. I tell them, you can see it as a buffet, he as the teacher provides lots of exercises. Try them all, so you can you know how they feel and taste, and hopefully one or two of these sticks out the most for you. And that will be different to everyone. Even how you breathe, where do you pay attention when you’re breathing. Do you feel it in your nose, mouth, belly, etc. That sensation is going to be different for everyone of us.
We all have different ways of learning. Just as you have different learning styles, we all have different things that will hold our attention, different things to be mindful off, or to use as an anchor, use as a practice. None is more right than anything else.
Do you find some of the students taking these mindfulness/meditation techniques, and taking them for example home, where there might be a stressful situation?
Yes, that’s the most gratifying. To hear when, where, and how these kids are using this in their lives. For example, a kid uses mindful breathing before a test put down their pen, and took a couple deep breaths, and then they were able to come back to the test, and on track again, and do better on their tests. Or a student had a swim meet, and beforehand closed their eyes, visualized what they were going to do, and took some breaths before their test.
So they are actually applying this. And he talks about this in class. But if you’re able to use this in your life, like one student the other day struggled with acting out in school, as a symptom of conflict at home. This was upsetting the family, but the student could do this in family when arguing. The student realized their feelings and behavior or how he chose to react about it, are two different things. And this is better for me, as I was getting myself into trouble. So Alan was blown away by that, that the students had these insights and were able to make those connections.
Very trans formative…
Yes, in teaching social and emotional learning, we want students to name their experience, but then what do you do with that? In the world of social-emotional education, we spent a lot of time talking about emotional intelligence. Being able to identify your inner landscape, which is a huge first step. But then what do I do about that. If I then able to create a behavioral change, something that I do differently. That is where mindfulness is a often a very helpful tool for kids. It’s a great addition to the social emotional toolbox for teachers.
Like education is not the filling of a pail, but the lightening of a fire, and Aristotle’s quote about education without educating the heart is no education at all..The approach your school and yourself are doing, is much more about integration, instead of compartmentalization.
That’s right. And something that I try to emphasize, when he works with teachers. It’s great that we have our classrooms and this content that we want to deliver. The students are not just content receivers. They show up as a whole person, they bring their whole person to class. If that’s an argument from lunch time carrying over, or nerves about the game afterwards. All of that is sitting at that desk, trying to learn history or trying to learn physics. The more we can provide the space and the tools to deal with one aspect of their lives, and be successful. It does carry over. It is one integrated whole at the end of the day, or at least better integrated, if we help them.
You’re also helping them see learning as a joy, rather than as a means to get to the next level, or piece of paper, etc.
I would hope so, that’s I think what all teachers aim for. The real gold, the way you know you’re successful is you’ve created a lifelong learner. I don’t delude myself into thinking student remember even a minority of what was taught in a semester. If there are skills that you learned with us, that to me is a much more important gift. Because you’ll go on to learn in much greater depth the things you’ll need in your career. Have we provided you the capacity to learn them. There are certain academic skills, other skills, but then there are the life skills you need to learn to just be a human being. To show up in a room of people.
One of the things his head of school said, “I’ll be able to measure the success of this project by whether or not there is Joy in our students”.
Wow, very different by measuring success only by scores!
Yes, measuring by scores is not bad, we need those numbers, they’re helpful for understanding. But when you reduce a person to just test scores or transcript, it ignores so much of their experience, most of it.
It’s very limited. What are some of the other benefits, for example conflict resolution. Some of the other things you’ve noticed, since you’ve implemented this mindfulness life skill.
Yes, another hat Alan wears is great Dean, which means being the primary administrator. Which includes discipline. Teaching mindfulness doesn’t automatically make difficult moments go away, it’s a toolbox to navigate or deal with problems differently.
Teens who are already particularly impulsive. He tells the teens, you’ve got another 10 years before your pre-frontal cortex is fully grown. They need some more time before their good judgment kicks in, compared to those of us adults. But yes, the ability after the fact, when they realize the decision they made wasn’t the greatest.
The ability for them after the fact even, after they’ve realized they made a decision that wasn’t the greatest. The ability to stop, slow down, and figure out, how did that happen. To see what just happened, what did they feel about that, what do I do about that. So often , that impulsivity comes at the cost of any self-knowledge.
I’ll watch kids get into an argument or scuffle, and it’s so it’s over, so they could say, here is what led me to that. And I realize that is the moment I should have probably made a different decision. The truth is, these same kids, without this practice, may not even been able to name that, which just happened. So they would not have been able to do it differently next time.
Part of this is just becoming aware of our triggers, our habits, and all of the ways we’re used to doing things impulsively, without thinking, doing them mindlessly.
When you have an awareness, of , “Oh, this is what got me to this behavior, that I definitely don’t want to repeat, or this poor behavior”. Here’s what I’m going to do next time, being able to figure out, next time I have this trigger, I notice this habit, here’s what I can do. So it doesn’t go down this same road.
Yes, that road can lead to some totally different direction 50 years from now, if the teen didn’t have this consciousness, awareness and attention.
Yes, very powerful to watch kids. And as an administrator, watching them through 3-4 grades, I remember how this went in 9th grade, and 10th grade, and seeing how they’re making different choices.
Where do you see this practice going, inserting it from kindergarten all the way into higher education, so it is not easily cast aside?
Alan does see some of his pre-school colleagues doing this as well. There have been some attempts and interest at researching how this is being incorporated in pre- K through 12 schools. It’s a difficult thing.
His sense is that more elementary school classrooms are already doing it, because those schools are already charged with social-emotional learning. One of the things you learn in kindergarten is how to sit still. It’s not unique to kindergartners to need to learn to sit still.
We don’t teach those things (how to sit still) in high school, although we probably should! It turns out that even though they live in different bodies, we make assumptions that they can do that. It’s an easier map onto the elementary classroom. So folks who teach in a mode of responsive classroom, which allows for classroom meeting time, using a bell etc. I happen to think it is an easy in for middle and high school as well for all the reasons talked about above. If anything just for learning outcomes. The productivity aspect to it.
Which of course isn’t the only reason to do it. There is significant debate and conversation around using mindfulness for those kinds of outcomes. And if that is the doorway that this comes through, then great.
To the larger question about where we’re going with this as an education system with this. Because the undeniable increase in distractions, all the devices, stimuli, increased pace of all those things.
I do think we’re seeing a movement a larger trend towards needing to teach attention, provide stillness, and quiet. It wouldn’t surprise Alan, if this 10 years from now, this become just the standard. There is a tremendous interest in it. And most teachers really are thinking along these lines. I wish I know how to …and it’s a lot of those things that mindfulness provides for those kids.
There is one caveat about this, there is some concern of mindfulness as a tool for classroom management, and compliance. I want to teach you this thing, so that you’ll shut up, and do what I say. And I would see that as a mis-use of mindfulness.
But it hasn’t been Alan’s experience in working with teachers, that this has been the approach.
Yeah, that’s the kind of thing that would happen if the teacher doesn’t really understand what it’s about, and so use it only as an external tool.
Yeah, and folks in this community who are trying to bring this work forward, are sensitive to that. The very clear philosophical orientation is towards teacher practice first, even if no one got any farther than learning mindfulness for themselves, that would be a tremendous victory I think in education.
To get into any mindful schools class, you must have first pass through the gateway either already have a mindfulness practice of your own, know what this is in your body, or of going through a mindfulness fundamentals course first. We’d never stick someone into a classroom to teach the cello, who know how to play the cello first.
Yeah, you got to practice what you preach..
Was there any issue you see with folks from Judeo-Christian traditions, like the parents being concerned about inserting mindfulness (with it’s Buddhist influence) into the curriculum?
In different settings, different approaches makes sense. Usually in schools with a faith background, usually, there is already more space for this. Because the topic of spirituality is already on the table, we’re not necessarily afraid of contemplative time, contemplative practice. Schools that have prayer or silence as part of their day, are more likely to be open to this practice.
For us we are affiliated with the episcopal church, we’re a school for children of all faiths, or no faith. We don’t specifically teach in the same way as other faith schools, that said, in terms of religious influence.
My strong belief, is that mindfulness is not a religious practice perse. Mindfulness specifically involves a set of human practices. What it means to exist in a human body, and this human mind and brain. And the space and stillness that we really need to find. In the way that science is starting to back up, with some conclusiveness.
It’s really pointing us in a direction that says, we really do need to provide ourselves space and stillness. Here’s what happens when we do. That is an innate human quality, an innate capacity to have self knowledge. To see one’s own thoughts and experience. To feel the sensations in one’s body.
There can be a spiritual layer to that, that is quite profound. But that has or should necessarily be taught in a school setting.
I’m teaching stillness, silence, self knowledge, the ability to be aware of what is going on in your own immediate experience. What comes out of that, is totally up to the student. I don’t use the Tibetan singing bowl for example, which has a more cultural reference. We teach all religions, but yes, it is not his personal goal to teach Buddhism.
You explain it really well, it’s space and having room to breath, self knowledge, that’s the human experience, not any religious domain.
And all religions have some aspect of contemplative practice. So really what we’re doing it’s not religious. For those who are concerned about religion at all, what we’re doing is not religious. For those concerned about their own religious tradition, I think this is found in most all of them.
One of his colleagues is an orthodox Jew, and was cautious at first, concerned about how this would work with her religion. How does this work with her own faith practices. She had some trepidation. But she found a number of Jewish organizations, like the JCC in Manhattan is teaching MBSR
(mindfulness based stress reduction). Including with a faith bend, if that is what you’re looking for.
Its back to that idea, whatever door you come in through, or go through and into. This is a practice that is there for folks.
If any parent or teacher would like to see mindfulness practice implemented in their own schools, how can they go about this?
His affiliation is with Mindful Schools, mindfulschools.org
. This is a great starting place, but there are many good organizations bringing this into schools. Just even raising the question in your school, “why are we not doing/teaching this?” It’s helpful to my child. Is there an opportunity for my child to learn and get exposed to this.
Is there an opportunity for mindful parenting? Mindfulness in parenting is a for sure a great companion skill. If your child is learning this at school, then you can speak the same language if you as a parent do it as well.
For teachers same thing, talk to the department chair, administrator, principal, professional development person. See if there is some openness to this. The benefits that this might provide are so many.
Lead with the benefits, and the intention of doing good for the kids, faculty, parents, whatever the population is.
People are certainly more open to hearing this, investigating this. Folks want solutions for some of the real challenges we’re seeing with our children.
For sure..thanks so much!