Five years ago, "grit" was all the rage in elementary education. Students who learn to persevere in the face of failure are more successful in the long term, research suggested. Schools embraced the idea—and then over-embraced it, with some going so far as to institute assessments designed to measure "grittiness."
Now the inevitable backlash is brewing, as schools experiment with more nurturing ways of encouraging desirable character traits like self-control. The latest strategy: Importing mindfulness practices such as breathing or stretching exercises that have become popular at many companies. Grownups use the practices to focus and relax, and educators believe that low-income students living in potentially stressful environments could experience similar benefits.
A new research study puts that theory to the test. Child-development specialist Amanda Moreno, assistant professor at Chicago’s Erikson Institute, is investigating mindfulness at 30 high-poverty public schools. The four-year, $3 million project is now in its first year; Moreno is tracking 2,000 students in kindergarten through second grade.
"There’s a productivity to it and a humanity to it, and people are beginning to realize the two are quite compatible and necessary for each other," she told the Atlantic.
Participating schools hope to see improvements in behavior and time-on-task, as well as increases in math and reading scores. Students might complete a brief mindfulness activity while listening to music, for example, in order to refocus after returning from recess.
In parallel, researchers are looking at the Quiet Time program in San Francisco, a meditation-focused initiative for middle and high school students. Suspension rates are down and grades are up at many of the schools that have implemented it.
"They allowed us to do Quiet Time right before the testing and I was so much more calm," one eighth grader told the San Francisco researchers. "I could think about the problems we were doing and really race through it, because it helped me focus in on what I was doing instead of stressing out about the outcome."