Streams of Consciousness

Streams of Consciousness

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The Education of Character: Teaching Control with a Cotton Ball


We think of school as a place where children learn new skills and knowledge. Young people come to class more or less ready to learn, their aptitude and readiness determined by genetics and environment. They are motivated or apathetic. They are attentive or distractible. They are social or shy, anxious or calm. Teachers accept these differences and try to adjust for them, to teach their charges as best they can.

But what if school could also be a place where kids get training in fundamental psychological traits—focus, drive and self-control—that are critical for success in school and later in life? Programs geared toward social and emotional learning are aimed at this lofty goal. Backed by research and designed by psychologists, such curricula are growing in number and popularity.

One effort called MindUP, pioneered by actor Goldie Hawn, includes a suite of exercises designed to train a child’s ability to focus, control her emotions and stay calm, so that anxiety does not impair her learning. Earlier this year, I visited classrooms in Vancouver, Canada to see this program in action. In a series of blogs, to be posted this week and next, I will share short movies of what I witnessed in one third-grade classroom taught by veteran teacher Marianne Prins. These clips bring the program to life, illustrating exactly how Prins helps subtly mold the brains of her charges so that these children may be happier and more successful in life. They are designed to accompany my feature article on social-emotional learning in the September/October Scientific American Mind (see “Schools Add Workouts for Attention, Grit and Emotional Control”).

In the video below, Prins’ students develop skills for self-regulation by blowing a cottonball across their palms. The goal is to regulate the puffs of air so that the cotton rolls to your fingertips—but not onto the floor. The exercise is a variation of the MindUP core breathing exercise in which children spend a few minutes three times a day, eyes closed, focusing on their breath. If their thoughts wander, they are told, they should notice that fact and bring their minds back to their breath. This exercise in mindfulness, maintaining a dispassionate focus on the present, builds a child’s ability to pay attention and calms him down. It also helps kids develop a habit of responding to anxiety by focusing on breathing. Over time, according to the MindUP manual, it can promote better emotional control, reinforcing reflection as opposed to quick reactions, a behavior pattern with myriad benefits.

To learn more about social and emotional learning in schools, listen to me discuss the topic on NPR's On Point with Tom Ashbrook: "Reading, Writing and Character."

Later this week: The Education of Character—Carefully Considering Craisins: Prins leads her third graders in an exercise in “mindful tasting.”

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The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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