A few minutes of thoughtful silence may help young African-American students cope with stresses of everyday life, Chicago researchers are finding.
The Erikson Institute is leading a four-year study of 2,000 Chicago Public School students to find out whether “mindfulness” activities can boost academic achievement in young children from minority, low-income households.
African-American children make up close to 40 percent of Chicago public school populations.
Psychologists define mindfulness as the practice of bringing one’s attention to the internal and external experiences occurring in the present moment, a skill most often achieved through meditation.
Amanda Moreno, assistant professor of early childhood development at the institute, said preliminary results have been promising. She recently spoke with neaToday, the official publication of the National Education Association, about the impact of trauma on children’s brains.
Moreno said local teachers and administrators have told her that setting aside time for mindfulness is actually increasing the amount of time left for instruction. Students quickly regain focus during transitions from one subject to the next, and they are calming down more quickly after upsets.
“This makes classrooms more efficient, but it also helps with an even bigger goal: Helping children grow up to be healthy adults,” the article noted.
According to the institute, the daily exercises include yoga-influenced poses or controlled breathing. Students needing a mental break can also use “The Calm Spot”, a tablet app that guides children through relaxing, nature scenes up to four times a day.
In addition to classroom-based efforts, Erikson offers “Calm Community” sessions, which teach the children to how apply techniques they’ve learned at home and in their communities. Parents are encouraged to share their challenges with children during “Parent Nights”, where they can learn how to incorporate mindfulness at home.
Researchers in the field of neuropsychology have discovered that repeated stressful or traumatic experiences have a cumulative effect on the brain, permanently altering the organ in some cases. This is because the human brain immediately activates the fight or flight response whenever danger is imminent and reduces activity in the areas responsible for learning, especially language.
For children under the age of five, the brain can begin to operate in a constant state of survival.
“It’s an appropriate adaptation to their circumstances,” Moreno told neaToday. “But it comes at enormous cost to schooling, especially with the way we do schooling in this country, which is very standardized.”
Black children are more likely to be exposed to violence than other children, which increases the risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health.
The disorder often manifests itself as irritable, angry, or aggressive behavior, including extreme temper tantrums. Black students are more likely to be suspended or expelled for behavioral issues than other groups of children.
Policymakers have struggled to find solutions to the alarming disparities in the US public education system.
Racial and ethnic inequalities have plagued the United States since before the days of Jim Crow. The achievement gap between Black and white students persists 60 years after the Supreme Court put an end to separate, but equal institutions. African-American children consistently score lower on standardized tests and are less likely to graduate high school.
But a surprising study found that those differences disappear at the Kindergarten level. The Early Childhood Longitudinal Study of the Kindergarten class of 1998-99, sponsored by the US Department of Education, found that when socioeconomic characteristics are the same, Black and white students enter kindergarten at the same level.
From the beginning of kindergarten to the end of first grade, Black students lost 20 percent of a standard deviation – 10 percent per year – in comparison to white students with the same background, according to the report.
The results suggest that early intervention is the key to bridging the chasm.