Editor’s note: The following is a critique of a social and emotional learning program called MindUP that I have covered in other blogs (see list below) and in a feature in Scientific American Mind (visit “Schools Add Workouts for Attention, Grit and Emotional Control”). Please also read a response to this critique, posted separately, from MindUP’s Rebecca Calos. I hope this debate provides food for thought about how to best encourage healthy social and emotional development in our children.

By Tina Olesen

“Self-regulation” is the latest buzz word in education, and the MindUP curriculum for schools, conceived by actor Goldie Hawn, capitalizes on it. MindUP is marketed to teachers as a means of helping children to develop self-regulation, which is another way of saying “self-control.” The program’s “core practice” involves teaching children focused breathing techniques while they also practice non-judgmental awareness of their thoughts, which is supposed to help them calm down and be less anxious. Hawn’s curriculum is also supposed to make children feel happier and more optimistic. This is all purported to help them to be better able to learn. The truth is that MindUP can interfere with a child’s innate self-regulator, the conscience, impeding his moral development and thus his ability to learn. Rather than help him develop self-control, it trains him to manipulate his mind and manipulate others to get pleasurable feelings for himself.

The “core practice” taught in MindUP is akin to certain forms of Buddhist-style mindfulness meditation including Anapanasati and Samadhi. In MindUP, the teacher strikes a Zenergy chime, and students are generally asked to sit cross legged, palms up and eyes closed. They are to direct their attention to the sound of the chime and focus intently on their breathing. The chime can gradually evoke a conditioned response in the children, as similar tools do in Buddhist monks. Teachers are encouraged to use this core practice several times a day. Mindfulness meditation such as this can be a way of bringing the mind into an altered state of consciousness. Many people who practice meditation have encountered unexpected negative side effects such as a sensation of being disconnected from one’s body or from reality, among other frightening reactions. Teachers of MindUP are exposing children to these potential dangers.

To teach a child to practice non-judgmental awareness is to risk interfering with the child’s ability to heed his sense of right and wrong. A child must make judgements to choose between right and wrong actions. When he acts in accordance with his sense of what is right, he grows in moral character, and develops greater self-control. While MindUP claims to be teaching non-judgmental awareness of thoughts and feelings, it actually teaches a child to judge any thought or feeling besides optimism and happiness as bad. It shows him how to escape the warnings of his conscience with pleasurable feelings--to make himself feel good even when he has done or experienced something that he ought to feel bad about. The program even encourages a child to do things for others with the motive of getting a pleasurable sensation, a dopamine high, for himself. Thus, rather than practicing self-control, children instead practice self-indulgence. They learn to escape from reality and difficult relationships, rather than working through them.

The way to help the child develop real self-control is tried and true: a caring adult patiently and unflaggingly commits to the moral training of that child. Directing, warning, correcting and disciplining day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment, the adult encourages the child to do what is right, whether or not it feels good. When a child consistently chooses to act in accordance with what is right, he develops moral character. As he develops moral character, he becomes increasingly capable of governing himself and applying himself to his studies, and he develops the self-control required for learning. This can be a long and arduous process that requires self-sacrifice and much patience on the part of a parent or teacher. There are no short cuts. As Swiss philosopher Henri-Frédéric Amiel once said, “The test of every religious, political or educational system is the man which it forms. If a system injures the intelligence it is bad. If it injures the character it is vicious. If it injures the conscience it is criminal.” As a society, we risk injury to our children’s consciences at our own peril.

Tina Olesen is a school teacher on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada. She examined the MindUP curriculum after hearing about it in her local school district.


For more on MindUP, see:

  1. Goldie Hawn Plunges into Brain Science
  2. The Education of Character: Teaching Control with a Cotton Ball [Video]
  3. The Education of Character—Stoking Memory with Stones [Video]
  4. The Education of Character: Your Brain in a Coke Bottle [Video]
  5. The Education of Character: Jumping Jacks for the Mind [Video]
  6. The Education of Character: Carefully Considering Craisins [Video]