Editor’s note: The below is a response to a critique of MindUP, a social and emotional learning program pioneered by actor Goldie Hawn. I have covered this program in other blogs (see list below) and in a feature in Scientific American Mind (visit “Schools Add Workouts for Attention, Grit and Emotional Control”). I hope this debate prompts reflection on how to best encourage healthy social and emotional development in our children.

By Rebecca Calos

MindUP is an evidence-based curriculum that fosters social and emotional awareness, enhances psychological wellbeing, and promotes academic success. Students are instructed in basic neuroscience, which demonstrates that the reflective part of their brains can be hindered by the emotional, or reactive, part. Students learn that developing greater self-awareness can help regulate the reactive part of their brains and make it easier to reflect and to think things through.

Students are taught MindUP’s “core practice” to increase their ability to regulate their emotions and temper their reactivity. For two minutes, three times a day, students are asked to focus their attention on their breath. When their mind wanders, they are asked to return their attention to their breath. This mindful effort of refocusing on breath has been proven to increase executive functioning in both adults and children. The core practice increases mind and body awareness, and children routinely report that they feel refreshed and calm after the exercise. Students who engage in the core practice regularly are better able to attend in class, are more effective learners and are more compassionate human beings.

In her critique, Tina Olesen, a school teacher in Canada, equates MindUP’s core practice to “Buddhist-style" meditation, and warns that students engaging in a few minutes of deep breathing are in danger of experiencing a terrifying “sensation of being disconnected from one’s body.” In fact, the core practice increases mind and body awareness, and children routinely report that they feel refreshed and calm after the exercise. Olesen claims that this practice interferes with "a child’s innate self-regulator," when in truth, the core practice enables children to recognize their “self-regulator” and more readily access it even in times of stress and anxiety.

Mindful awareness is the state of focused awareness of your own mind; it is attending purposefully to the here and now without judgment. The idea of developing an awareness of the mind without judgment has, at times, been misconstrued to mean that children are being asked to ignore right from wrong, or even worse, to abandon their moral center. This is far from the truth. Essentially, “without judgment” means to free oneself from the agony of what has happened or the dread of what is yet to be. By taking a minute to focus on the here and now, and simply be aware of how you feel at this moment helps a child to regroup and go forward in a more positive and productive manner—in accordance with his conscience and moral standards, not in spite of them. A child who is able to attune to his inner voice is much more capable of recognizing what is morally right and thus to develop a moral character. MindUP’s core practice helps rather than hinders this process.

By cultivating self-awareness and learning about how their brains work, students are more able to express genuine kindness toward others. Studies show that toddlers are innately kind; yet many appear to become less so as they grow older. Why? One reason is that as we age our attention is increasingly drawn away from an inner awareness to an external world of social pressures, material rewards and anxiety over the future. This external “noise,” makes it harder for us to heed our inner voice and attune to our emotions and the emotions of those around us. Mindful awareness opens one up to one’s own emotional reality and makes it possible to recognize the emotional needs of others.

One important component of MindUP is to encourage children to cultivate happiness. This is not, as Olesen suggests, to drown out reality with pleasurable feelings, or even to ignore sadness. Rather, children learn how to harness happy memories as means to persevere in the face of adversity. Through mindful practice, a child can become more aware of what might be causing pain or anxiety and therefore be better able to respond to this inner turmoil in a productive manner. A happy memory can help a child strengthen his resolve to overcome challenges and to move forward in a positive direction.

Mindful awareness opens a child up to a world of possibilities. Children learn, in the MindUP program, the true meaning of optimism. Optimism is not rainbows and gold stars and sweet treats, but the belief that there is a solution. Optimists continue to struggle even against overwhelming odds because they are problem solvers and as such, their brains actively seek out new connections and possibilities. Optimists not only see the glass as half full, but as one that is continuing to be filled. The message that MindUP gives children: our world may present us with seemingly insurmountable problems, but through concentrated effort and a positive mindful awareness, together we can create a brilliant future.

Rebecca Calos is the Director of Programs and Training for The Hawn Foundation

For more on MindUP:

  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]