If you have brought up children, or taught them as I have, then there is something that you have doubtless said scores of times a day — "Pay attention!" Yet this can be the hardest thing for a child to do. Their minds are like monkeys swinging quickly from one branch of thought or feeling to another. And cellphones, ipods and numberless other handheld "weapons of mass distraction" have made it that much harder for our children to focus.
This is a real problem in school, where achievement depends on one's ability to concentrate on the work. It is not just the presence of electronic devices in the classroom, something which naturally alarms a lot of teachers. More damaging are the habits which they inculcate in the young — the surfing mentality which is always looking restlessly toward the next image, message or sensation.
Granted, this is nothing new. Before there were blackberries and gaming devices, there were paper airplanes and spitballs. Kids have always found ways to distract themselves from the task at hand — and adults, too. It is a challenge for all of us to keep our attention focused productively in the here and the now. But we all know from experience that our success and happiness depend on it. To learn something new, to accomplish anything worthwhile, to appreciate a work of art, to think deeply and creatively about a problem, we need to be able to focus and to keep our attention from straying.
We read that the test scores of America's young are lagging behind their counterparts in Europe and Asia in crucial subjects like math and science. There is no simple way to heal our schools, especially with public spending on education shrinking in so many states and local districts. Actually, spending more may not accomplish much if we don't help enable our students to actually focus on what they are being taught.
"Pay attention!" we tell the young. Yet we fail to give them the tools that they need in our increasingly distraction-filled world to calm and center their minds and get down to the business of learning. Minds are naturally restless, but they also possess the innate capacity to concentrate on just one thing. Human civilization is the fruit of this miraculous ability. If we want our kids to do better in school — and in life — we need to strengthen their crucial capacity to focus on what is before them.
That is why a handful of schools across the country have adopted a practice called mindfulness, a technique developed over two millennia ago in the jungles of South Asia, as a way to rest, clear and rejuvenate the mind. Mindfulness has nothing to do with religion. It is not praying to God or meditating on spiritual truths, but using the breath as a pivot to return attention again and again to the present moment.
Scientific research has shown that simply focusing on our own breath has a profound effect on human physiology, slowing respiration, lowering blood pressure levels and reducing harmful levels of stress. It also has a proven ability to help students concentrate. A slew of studies conducted in both the U.S. and Canada have demonstrated that elementary school children who engage in as little as a few minutes of directed mindfulness exercises a day were more attentive in class, got better grades and exhibited less aggression and other behavioral problems than those without the training.
Kids in America are chronically overstimulated. That is why they need ways to center themselves in an increasingly frenetic world. From school districts in the Bay Area to Lancaster, Pa., to Nashville, Tenn., teachers have found that a little mindfulness training goes a long way toward improving the classroom learning environment. Educators who are looking for information on how to integrate these practices into their curriculum can go to non-profit organizations like Mindful Schools an association for mindfulness in Education. See mindfuleducation.org for additional information.
Richard Schiffman is the author of two religious biographies and a journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Salon, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor and the Huffington Post, where he is a regular blogger. He was a free-lance journalist for several years at NPR and Monitor Radio.