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Faculty Q&A with Dr. Jonathan Schmidt

Erin Richmond (ER), CILSE fellow, talks to Dr. Jonathan Schmidt (JS) about mindfulness practices in K-12 classrooms. Dr. Schmidt is a senior behavior analyst in the Neurobehavioral Unit Inpatient Program at Kennedy Krieger Institute and a CILSE faculty member.  

ER: Mindfulness is a hot topic in education these days. What is mindfulness?

JS:  At the core of mindfulness is the idea of intentional awareness on a moment-to-moment basis, without judging what is occurring, or looking for a specific outcome. This involves being present with and recognizing what you are experiencing, not thinking about the past or about the future, but rather just experiencing what you are currently experiencing via your senses. This involves your classic five senses, as well as the sixth sense, your internal thoughts and emotions.

Additionally, Jon Kabat-Zinn proposed attitudinal principles that underlie mindfulness and include: a beginner’s mind (or approaching a stimulus as if it is the first time you are experiencing it), patience, letting go, awareness, non-judgmental, trust, non-striving, and compassion (both for one’s self and others). Overall, these principles are meant to focus on the theme of accepting what is occurring in the moment, whether it is “good or bad,” and recognizing the impermanence of situations. We always try to hold on to pleasant events or feelings, but really, we would not appreciate those times as much if we didn’t have times that were challenging for us as well.

ER: Are there any misconceptions about mindfulness? I find that many people confuse it with meditation. How are they different?

JS: Meditation is an important part of mindfulness, and people joke about “taking it from the cushion to the streets.” Meditation allows you to slow down and practice observing your mind and what you are thinking, directing your attention along the way, as well as coming in touch with the moment and what you are experiencing through your senses. Most people don’t realize how rapidly their mind is moving from topic to topic or that they are on autopilot until they try to meditate!

ER: What you shared definitely helps to distinguish the two, that meditation is a strategy for mindfulness. 

JS: Yes, and meditation can be compared to formal practice. If you were going to play basketball, you would practice before playing in the game. With meditation, you are practicing so that you can practice mindfulness in your daily activities. However, being mindful doesn’t have to involve meditation, but people who meditate often report it to be one of the most beneficial practices for them to then be able to generalize and apply mindfulness strategies.

ER: I know you were recently trained in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). What do you do in your own personal mindfulness practice, and how does it help you with your work?

JS: I try to stick to a daily routine of at least 40 minutes of meditation composed of sitting, lying, and/or mindful movements (yoga, walking, running, etc.). I also try to mix in mindfulness when I am walking from place to place or eating by paying attention to what I’m experiencing in my environment and how all my senses are working together.

Since I started practicing mindfulness I have noticed I am less stressed and a lot of little things that used to bother me no longer do.  Related to my work, I am able to be more focused on the task at hand, making traditionally less pleasant tasks more enjoyable.  When my mind inevitably drifts off, I am more accepting of that and able to bring it back, without being judgmental.  That is the whole practice of mindfulness.

ER: What are the benefits of implementing mindfulness in K-12 classrooms? Are there any potential negative or harmful effects of implementing mindfulness practices in schools? 

JS:  Mindfulness can help to build a sense of community and help us to relate to one another. Early on in many schools, children are exposed to a performance-based system where they are expected to achieve a certain score and/or outperform others. That can set up a certain framework for how you interpret the world and how you relate to yourself and others. Mindfulness helps to make you an outside observer for yourself and recognize how the environment may be affecting you and your opinions.

ER: Should mindfulness practices replace evidence-based practices such as PBIS (Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports)? Can schools interconnect the two? If so, what could this potentially look like in schools?

JS: I think the two can be interconnected and are not mutually exclusive. Mindfulness can be an accompaniment because you have an overarching philosophy for interacting with others, and interventions like PBIS can map on to exponentially enhance the effects of mindfulness. A combination of the approaches can be beneficial because many aspects of mindfulness support what PBIS is attempting to accomplish. Both approaches emphasize engaging in prosocial behaviors for the benefit of both oneself and others. 

ER: What should schools consider before implementing mindfulness practices?

JS: It is important to identify the goals and ensure buy in from key stakeholders. Mindfulness is a spectrum of potential applications to activities.If you are asking people to utilize valuable resources, including people’s time, you want to be sure the approach is a match for your setting. Ideally, you want someone who is experienced in the practices to help offer advice and be involved in the design and administration of the procedures as they are disseminated. It is essential to have a team of educational professionals and administrators who can tailor the practices to better reach the students they’re serving  and change the staff culture.

ER: How can schools determine if mindfulness practices are beneficial and successful?

JS: Just as with any intervention, it is essential to first determine your goals, and then look at the research to see what the best strategies will be for implementing the practice and measuring changes.  Some of the benefits of mindfulness include reduced symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress, as well as improvements in school climate, attentional focus, and peer relationships. However, there is still a lot of emerging evidence as to which specific curriculum or practices are “most” beneficial for schools. 

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