Coming to Care: Empowering Young People

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By Diane Bloch

 From the CTL blog series Coming to Care: Collecting Stories for Teachers by Teachers

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I am a bilingual educator in Watsonville, California, an agricultural community near my home in Santa Cruz.  Over the past two decades I have been a classroom teacher, a mentor for beginning teachers, a reading specialist, and currently work as an English Learner Specialist at a Middle School. In these roles I advocate for students and parents whose voices often go unheard. My pedagogy is directed towards empowering young people to be critical thinkers and reflective participants in their lives and world. 

As a student of Buddhism and mindfulness, I have become interested in integrating mindfulness into education.  Last August 2012, I began a yearlong program called the Mindful Education Institute (MEI), and in spring, 2013, enrolled in the Masters of Education Program for Experienced Educators at Antioch University New England with a concentration in Mindfulness Education.  To further pursue this interest, I am completing a Mindfulness Education Certification with Mindful Schools. 

My focus in all these programs is investigating how mindfulness practices can support typically underserved and over-stressed youth.  The majority of students in my district are classified as economically disadvantaged and are English Learners. Many are migrant students with parents working in seasonal agriculture.  Gang activity and violence are constant factors in students’ lives as well.  Not surprisingly, students experiencing poverty, violence, immigration stresses, and learning a second language often have behavior challenges. Unfortunately, too often students already at the greatest risk for dropping out are suspended rather than taught skills for regulating their behavior.

Last fall I began introducing simple mindfulness techniques to small English Language Development and Reading Intervention groups.  In both contexts, I was struck by how quickly students responded to the invitation to slow down and notice what is going on inside them amidst the myriad pressures they face outside.  

In the Spring I extended these mindfulness lessons to a group of students who were at risk for not graduating from the 8th grade.  These were long term struggling learners and students with emotional and behavior issues that had interfered with their academic progress.

These students were initially more challenging to work with, but after a few weeks, amazing things began to happen.  One girl who constantly made snide comments about her peers responded very deeply to a lesson on metta and her whole persona began to soften.   At the end of the class when I asked for examples when they used mindfulness in their lives, she reported, “With my parents.  When we argue.  When my dad is yelling at me and I want to talk back to him, I breathe.”  Another student who had very low self-confidence at the beginning of the group shared that she used mindfulness “when I’m taking care of my baby sister and she’s crying a lot and I breathe inside and calm myself down and don’t get annoyed.”  A third student reported the main thing she learned in mindfulness class was “how to deal with your problems; to release stress without getting into trouble”.  She said mindfulness could help other students because “they probably would get in a lot of trouble, and you just take a deep breath and it would clear your mind and think of a better solution.” Mindfulness practices apparently helped them shift their stance towards school and their families, each other and themselves.

My experience is that even a relatively short introduction to mindfulness can offer chronically disengaged and hardened students an avenue for touching their soft spots and deep wisdom within. This experience is worth sharing.

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