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Science and universal values keep mindfulness education secular

How superintendents and principals can prevent parent backlash when a program includes yoga

When adding a mindfulness program, superintendents and principals may face parent backlash, possibly about religious concerns, especially when it includes yoga.

Fiona Jensen, whose nonprofit trains teachers in mindfulness instruction, says she has met with “pretty conservative Christian scholars” to make sure nothing in her curriculum can be misinterpreted as promoting Buddhism or any other religion.

“We’ve learned a tremendous amount about how careful one needs to be about how the curriculum is presented,” says Jensen. 

Administrators should be well-versed in the components of their mindfulness instruction in case they have to defend the program in a meeting with a concerned parent. 

To allay any religious concerns, Middletown High School in Ohio takes a scientific approach, Principal Carmela Cotter says. Middletown City School District lies in a region struggling with growing poverty and a heroin epidemic.

Students in the high school’s alternative education program have been practicing deep breathing before tests for about nine years.

“We talk to the kids about brain activity and the physiological responses to anxiety,” Cotter says. “When they breathe, they perform better. Oxygen gets to their brain, they can focus on the task at hand and can block out the other stresses in their lives.”

Yet many at-risk students are reluctant to close their eyes in a classroom, she adds. 

“You have to build capacity for them to know they’re safe and have a climate where they understand this is respected,” she says. Since introducing mindfulness, graduation rates have climbed steadily while behavior has improved, Cotter says. 

Dr. Amy Saltzman, director of the Association for Mindfulness in Education, says she stresses the underlying values of mindfulness when she encounters resistant parents.

“Mindfulness, compassion and self-compassion are innate human qualities,” she says. “One does not need to be any particular religion to practice them, any more than one needs to be Italian to enjoy pizza.”

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