Sunday, April 9, 2017

Mindfulness in Special Education

Recent research reveals that even when students with developmental disabilities are not able to practice mindfulness meditation, they still benefit behaviorally and emotionally when family members practice in the home. I reference this research during my family workshops and by request, am posting the full 11-page paper, Mindfulness as an Intervention Strategy, co-written with my colleague Pam Steffensen-Korges as part of my SJSU coursework (completed in 2016). 


Children with developmental disabilities often suffer from unique stressors.  The unremitting aspect of their disability, possible lack of social acceptance and support, and the absence of acceptance by their families can all contribute to chronic stress.  Aggression and behavior problems that are comorbid with many developmental disabilities can further impact feelings of stress.  Due to the fact that parental stress also has a negative effect on child behavior and upon the parent-child relationship, it is imperative that both parents and children receive help with stress reduction.  More than three decades of research on the secular Mindfulness in Medicine movement, more widely known as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) training, has demonstrated that mindfulness can alleviate stress, anxiety, and depression in many individuals (Felver, Doerner, Jones, Kaye, & Merrell, 2013). The effect of mindfulness on the quality of parenting has been shown to lead to a reduction in aggression and an increase in pro-social behaviors and compliance by younger children with special needs. In 2007 the non-profit Mindful Schools began a Mindfulness in Education curriculum that is now practiced in schools in more than 42 countries. Mindful Schools defines mindfulness as simply paying attention to anything in the present moment and its curriculum has yielded dramatic increases in attention span, empathy and self care in urban youth (Black & Fernando, 2013). Parallel research in the field of neuroscience has revealed that mindfulness training is effective because it actually changes the brain, increasing activity and gray matter in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortext, centers of learning, sound judgment and emotional regulation, while decreasing activity and gray matter in the amygdala, the fight-or-flight center of the brain which can inhibit learning, emotional regulation and attention span (Lutz, Slagter, Dunne, & Davidson, 2008; Hölzel, Carmody, Evans, Hoge, Dusek, Morgan, Lazar, 2010; Chiesa & Serretti, 2010; Goldin & Gross, 2010; Hölzel, Carmody, Vangel, Congleton, Yerramsetti, Gard, & Lazar, 2011; Desbordes, Negi, Pace, Wallace, Raison, & Schwartz, 2012). While research regarding mindfulness curricula specifically designed for special education is still in its infancy, extensive studies on mindfulness to date demonstrate that the practice can be a powerful tool in building a happier, less stressful future for all children, including those with developmental disabilities, and their parents.

A Definition of Mindfulness
 Core Concepts

            Mindfulness, as a concept, begins with awareness and attention, and can be defined as attending to the present moment and observing it without judgment (Brown & Ryan, 2003).  Being fully conscious of the present moment, accepting both the moment and the emotions it arouses, and acknowledging one’s feelings non-judgmentally are important facets of mindfulness.  Mindfulness allows the practitioner to react to situations in a calmer and more peaceful way, less dependent upon emotions, and more in harmony with the situation at hand (Shapiro, Carlson, Astin, & Freeman, 2006).  Mindfulness has a component of radical acceptance, which means the complete and total acceptance of things as they truly are, not as the individual wishes them to be (Singh et al, 2010a). It is important to note that while mindfulness shares similarities with cognitive-based therapies (CBT), it is distinct in that CBT seeks to intentionally change thought patterns and related emotional responses while mindfulness is designed to change a person’s relationship to an observed experience without trying to control or revise thoughts and emotions because trying to control thoughts and emotions can lead to greater distress (Metz et al., 2013). The practice of mindfulness meditation has its roots in contemplative Buddhism but can be used as a strictly secular application divorced from religious dogma (Brown & Ryan, 2003).  To be effective, mindfulness skills must be practiced regularly over time, as it is a way of experiencing the present moment that does not occur naturally.

Mindfulness as an Intervention Strategy at Home

Children with developmental disabilities comprise approximately 13% of the U.S. school age population, and most of them receive some type of special education services (National Center for Education Statistics, 2014).  Additionally, nearly 13% to 30% of these special needs children have comorbid behavioral problems (Singh et al., 2007b).  The needs of these children do not stop once they leave the school grounds.  They go home at the end of their school day to parents who are quite often tired, stressed, and incapable of reacting to behavioral problems with patience and thoughtfulness.  Responding with empathy and compassion to behavioral situations and emotional needs necessitates a level of attention, calmness, and flexibility that many parents of children with special needs are unable to summon at the end of the day (Benn, Akiva, & Arel, 2012). 
Research has shown that parents of children diagnosed with developmental disabilities are subjected to an elevated level of chronic emotional strain and anxiety when compared to parents of children who do not have developmental disabilities (Singh et al., 2007b).  Additional research has found children’s behavior problems, more so than their level of cognitive functioning, have a substantial effect upon parental stress (Baker et al., 2003).  Negative and maladaptive behaviors increase parental stress, each component building upon the other.  This suggests a transactional relationship between parents and children (Neece, Green, & Baker, 2012).  Both parent and child have a significant influence upon each other’s behavior (Singh et al., 2007b).            
An intervention that has been particularly successful with individuals suffering from anxiety and stress is mindfulness (Brown & Ryan, 2003).  Mindfulness, as a practice, also aids in supporting emotional health (Shapiro, Carlson, Astin, & Freeman, 2006).  Training in mindfulness teaches parents to focus on one thing at a time (Singh et al., 2006).  It enables parents to be in the precise moment where they currently reside, instead of focusing on the past, when they are dealing with their child’s maladaptive behaviors.  It can have a transformational effect upon the lives of its practitioners and those they interact with (Singh et al., 2010b).  Mindfulness can be a valuable tool in managing the stress of parents of children diagnosed with developmental disabilities, and as a result, in reducing problem behaviors in their children in the present, and can give children the tools they need to help themselves in the future.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Mindfulness-Based Parent Training
Research on mindfulness intervention strategies for parents has focused on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) training and Mindfulness-Based Parent Training (MBPT) (Dumas, 2005).  For over three decades, MBSR has been used to treat anxiety, stress, and depression. MBSR has also been used to help patients deal with chronic pain and illness. Participants are taught mindful breathing techniques and body awareness, along with stretching. They are then taught how to incorporate these skills into everyday life to help reduce stress, pain, and depression (Felver et al., 2013). The effectiveness of MBSR has been established as an evidence-based practice and MBSR instruction is offered by medical centers all across the United States (Felver et al., 2013).
Mindfulness-Based Parent Training (MBPT) is a program that has applications more directly related to parenting.  It teaches mindfulness within the context of everyday events, training parents to view both their behavior and their child’s behavior in an open-minded way (Dumas, 2005).  This allows parents to observe the activation of their negative emotions but not react to them, which allows them to develop parenting objectives that are facilitated by specific behavioral plans (Dumas, 2005).  MBPT uses a three-pronged approach: facilitative listening, distancing, and motivated action plans.  Facilitative listening consists of parents sharing concerns and experiences with a clinician, and receiving nonjudgmental acceptance in return.  Distancing teaches parents to separate themselves from practicing unhealthy patterns of negative feelings and thoughts, and also to recognize that they are not their thoughts, that their thoughts are just one part of who they are.  Motivated action plans assist parents with planning out how to reach their behavior goals with their children (Dumas, 2005).
Outcomes of Parental Mindfulness Training Upon Children
            It appears that it is possible for parents to change the externalizing behavior of their children with developmental disabilities simply by changing their own behavior, however most behavioral interventions have focused purely upon managing the child’s conduct and behavior.  Mindful parenting focuses on first changing parental behavior and, as a result, the nature of interactions with the child, which in turn, influences the child’s behavior (Singh et al., 2006).  Parents taught MBSR over a period of 8 weeks, beginning with the concepts of mindfulness and mindfulness exercises and ending with group discussions with other parents, not only experienced dramatic decreases in stress and depression but they also reported meaningful improvement in their general satisfaction with life.  Researchers found that mindfulness can aid parents in slowing down to listen to their children and to be less reactive.  This calm and serene reaction on behalf of the parent has a definite positive influence upon the child (Neece, 2014).
 Research conducted with mothers of children diagnosed with autism found that maladaptive behaviors, such as aggression, non-compliance, and self-injury, were significantly decreased when mothers were practicing mindfulness (Singh et al., 2006).  In a Virginia-based study, these mothers were taught MBPT mindfulness training from homecare providers over a period of 12 weeks, and both their children’s behavior and their own parenting satisfaction levels were measured.  Researchers found a considerable spill over effect from the mindfulness training.  Not only did the externalizing behaviors of their children decrease, the mothers had more positive feelings about their parenting, their communication, and their relationship with their autistic children.  The focus of the mothers moved from trying to control or change the behavior of their autistic children toward a more accepting and non-judgmental attitude that in turn, actually changed the behavior of the child (Singh et al., 2006).
            In a similar study, when mothers of children with autism were instructed in mindfulness skills, not only did the previous self-injurious, noncompliant, and aggressive behaviors of the autistic children decrease, their interactions with other family members and siblings became more positive (Singh et al., 2007b).  After 12 weeks of mindfulness training, mothers rated their satisfaction with parenting as more positive, and their children’s maladaptive behaviors diminished or ceased altogether.  The children were not taught any mindfulness techniques, yet the negative interactions with their siblings declined and their positive interactions increased. 
The effects of mindfulness training are even more salient when the child is taught the technique, either at the same time as the parent or in subsequent trainings.  Non-compliance is often an issue with children who have been diagnosed with ADHD (Singh et al., 2010b).  Research has revealed that mindfulness training for children with ADHD, without any specific focus on self-management of ADHD, not only increased their compliance to their mother’s requests, it also changed the quality of the interactions between the child and their mothers.  The interactions were regarded in a much more positive light, and the children stated that their mothers did not yell at them anymore and were much more calm with them (Singh et al., 2010b).  The children reported feeling that their mothers listened to them without judgment and, by the end of the study, both the children and the mothers had significantly higher ratings of satisfaction in their communication with each other.

Mindfulness as an Intervention Strategy at School

Mindful Schools  
The success of Mindfulness-Based Interventions (MBIs) in medicine and in the home via MBSR motivated educators to seek ways to bring mindfulness into the classroom. The first large-scale mindfulness-based intervention in education was designed and implemented in 2007 by the Oakland-based non-profit Mindful Schools, which modeled its curriculum after MBSR while making its lessons more simple and concrete, and therefore more appropriate for K-6 elementary school children than the adult-centric MBSR program. The initial Mindful Schools curriculum, implemented in schools between 2007 and 2013, was comprised of 15 short lessons lasting an average of 15-20 minutes (4 hours total) delivered at school sites by experienced meditation practitioners over two-month periods. Table 2, extracted from a UC Davis Department of Psychology study conducted in partnership with Mindful Schools, summarizes each of the 15 lessons in its curriculum: Mindful Bodies & Listening, Mindfulness of Breathing, Heartfulness (Kind Thoughts), Body Awareness, Mindfulness of Breathing, Generosity, Mindfulness of Thought, Caring on the Playground, Mindfulness of Emotions, Slow Motion, Gratitude, Mindful Walking, Mindful Eating and Mindful Test Taking (Black & Fernando, 2013). A study conducted in 2011-12 in East Bay elementary schools validated this curriculum, documenting significant improvement among low-income urban students in all four target development categories: mental, emotional, social and physical (Black & Fernando, 2013). Most notable was the increase in attention span by more than double and improved empathy and self-care among violence-exposed youth (Black & Fernando, 2013). As a result, Mindful Schools’ curriculum was used as the basis for many other education-based MBIs such as the Canadian in-schools program MindUp. (Schonert-Reichl, et al., 2015).

Meditation on the Soles of the Feet
            Research has been conducted with adolescents diagnosed with different developmental disabilities regarding the effects of teaching a specific mindfulness program, Meditation on the Soles of the Feet (SoF). SoF instruction is effective in teaching adolescents with developmental and intellectual disabilities to manage their own aggression, instead of relying on external cues. (Singh et al., 2011b). Adolescents were taught to direct their attention to a neutral area of their body, the soles of their feet, when they were in a situation that could trigger aggression. A group of three adolescents with autism were taught SoF during a 17 week period, after which the rates of aggression were reported at half the previous rate. At a four-year follow up, there had been no instances of aggression at all (Singh et al., 2011b).
            A parallel study conducted with three adolescents with autism who were taught SoF had similar results (Singh et al., 2011a). After learning to self manage their aggression by changing their focus to the soles of their feet, these adolescents were able to reduce reported episodes of aggression to one episode a year over a period of three years. SoF has also been proven to help adolescents with psychiatric disorders, such as conduct disorder, to self manage their aggressive behavior (Singh et al., 2007a). Self management is crucial as adolescents grow into adulthood, move out into the community, and strive to become independent.
Mindfulness Training For General Education Students
Low-income urban youth are subjected to severe environmental challenges such as violence and substance abuse that can cause chronic stress. Long-term childhood adversity can trigger neurobiological changes in brain development, impairing cognitive and emotional regulation which can cause rumination and depression and set students on a path of low academic achievement and negative social outcomes (Mendelson et al., 2010).  Urban schools that are most in need of psychological supports for their students are least likely to have the funds to provide that support. The low-cost and low-time investment of MBIs and their proven effectiveness in creating healthy changes in brain development, therefore, makes them ideal intervention strategies for education (Zenner, Herrnleben-Kurz, & Walach, 2014; Schonert-Reichl et al., 2015). Most critically, mindfulness training reduces the activity of the amygdala, the brain center that regulates the fight-or-flight response that when chronically active, reduces the ability to concentrate and limits centers of the brain that control learning and sound judgment (Siegel, 2007). More recent chronic academic stress among students in wealthier school districts is yielding mental, physical, and academic problems akin to their low-income peers. Today 21% percent of all 13 to 18 year olds in the United States have been diagnosed with a severe disorder, the most common being ADHD, conduct disorders, anxiety, and depression (Zenner et al., 2014).
Mindful School identifies three major areas of benefit regarding mindfulness training in education: cognitive outcomes such as attention span and focus, social emotional skills like emotional regulation, good behavior in schools, empathy, social skills and a healthy perspective and finally a high level of well-being, created by reduced test anxiety, reduced stress, reduced post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms and reduced depression. Mindfulness training’s effectiveness in increasing student attention span also reduces the need for behavior management in the classroom (Black & Fernando, 2013: Baijal, Jha, Kiyonaga, Singh, & Srinivasan, 2011).
Additional benefits are felt across the socio-economic spectrum and across all grade levels. A 12-week mindfulness intervention in Baltimore elementary schools was found to reduce stress, anxiety, emotional, and behavioral reactivity while improving self-awareness and sleep among inner-city youth (Mendelson et al., 2010). In another Baltimore study, 350 low-income 5th-8th grade students demonstrated significantly lower levels of depression, negative emotion, self-hostility, and PTSD symptoms after taking an 8-week MBSR program (Sibinga, Webb, Ghazarian, & Ellen, 2016). Another MBSR-based program in Pennsylvania Learning to BREATHE found statistically lower stress levels and higher levels of emotional regulation among the 216 general education high school students who completed its 4.5-hour, 6-part program (Metz et al., 2013). One hundred 4th and 5th graders enrolled in the Canadian mindfulness-based social and emotional learning (SEL) program MindUp demonstrated improved cognitive control and stress-response physiology, greater empathy, perspective, emotional control, optimism and peer acceptance as well as decreased depression and peer aggression (Schonert-Reichl et al., 2015).

Reflection on Mindfulness
            A 2014 review and meta-analysis summarizing the findings of 24 different mindfulness studies found that mindfulness training is an effective intervention strategy in schools but has a stronger effect when it is accompanied by extended mindfulness practice at home (Zenner, Herrnleben-Kurz, & Walach, 2014). When taught mindfulness techniques as an adolescent, students with developmental disabilities are better equipped to control and manage their behavior in adulthood. If their parents have been practicing mindfulness from early on in their lives, there will be an even stronger foundation for nonjudgmental acceptance, gratitude, and positive behaviors that are crucial for happiness and a good quality of life as an adult with developmental disabilities. Reducing negative behaviors is critical for full integration into a community and for positive rapport with community services workers (Singh et al., 2013). Providing mindfulness as a support for students and their families can significantly increase self-regulation, optimism, and moral reasoning and increased odds of becoming smarter, happier, and more caring citizens (Schonert-Reichl et al., 2015; Zenner, Herrnleben-Kurz, & Walach, 2014). 
 The focus of mindfulness is the changing of one’s thoughts and behavior. This depth of change requires dedication and practice (Singh et al., 2004).  Viewing and experiencing behavior through a lens of neutrality, rather than labeling it as good or bad, allows parents of children diagnosed with developmental disabilities to practice a calm acceptance of the present moment (Singh et al., 2006).  The focus of radical acceptance requires not only the initial mindfulness training, but also regular daily practice.  Just as an athlete must practice to keep their skills and performance levels high, the practice of being mindful requires commitment and devotion in order to be effective (Singh et al., 2006).
            In other words, mindfulness works best when the practitioner uses it regularly and purposefully.  In order to reap the benefits of mindfulness, parents and children with developmental disabilities  need to make a conscious effort to incorporate the practice into their daily lives (Singh et al., 2006).  Mindfulness is not effective if the practitioner decides not to make use of it or to only use it sparingly.  Ongoing practice is the key to successful change (Singh et al., 2010b).
When parents receive a diagnosis of a developmental disability for their child, some form of mindfulness training should be offered to them alongside of therapies prescribed for the child.  Parents should be informed about the effectiveness of mindfulness for the reduction of stress and anxiety and the reciprocal relationship between parental stress and child behavior.  Using mindfulness as a strategy would prevent parents of developmentally disabled children from being so heavily afflicted by stress from the beginning of the child’s diagnosis.  This could conceivably stave off problem behaviors by children that are a reaction to stress in the home, and form a solid foundation for the self-management of aggressive behaviors for these children later on in life.

Baijal, S., Jha, A. P., Kiyonaga, A., Singh, R., & Srinivasan, N. (2011). The influence of concentrative meditation training on the development of attention networks during early adolescence. Frontiers in Psychology, 2, 1-9.
Baker, B., McIntyre, L. L., Blacher, J., Cmic, K., Edelbrock, C., & Low, C. (2003). Pre-school children with and without developmental delay: Behavioural problems and parenting stress over time. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, 47, 217-230.
Benn, R., Akiva, T., & Arel, S. (2012). Mindfulness training effects for parents and educators of children with special needs. Developmental Psychology, 48, 1476-1487.
Black, D. S., & Fernando, R. (2013). Mindfulness training and classroom behavior among lower income and ethnic minority elementary school children. Journal of Child and Family Studies 23, 1242-1246.
Brown, K. W., & Ryan, R. M. (2003). The benefits of being present: Mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 822-848.
Dumas, J. E. (2005). Mindfulness-based parent training: Strategies to lessen the grip of automaticity in families with disruptive children. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 34, 779-791.
Felver, J. C., Doerner, E., Jones, J., Kaye, N. C., & Merrell, K. W. (2013). Mindfulness in school psychology: Applications for intervention and professional practice. Psychology in the Schools, 50, 531-547.
Hastings, R. P., Kovshoff, H., Brown, T., Ward, N. J., Espinosa, F. D., & Remington, B. (2005). Coping strategies in mothers and fathers of preschool and school-age children with autism. Autism, 9, 377-391.
Mendelson, T., Greenberg, M. T., Dariotis, J. K., Gould, L. F., Rhoades, B. L., & Leaf, P. J (2010). Feasibility and preliminary outcomes of a school-based mindfulness intervention for urban youth. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 38(7), 985-994.
Metz, S. M., Frank, J. L., Reibel, D., Cantrell, T., Sanders, R., & Broderick, P. C. (2013). The effectiveness of the learning to BREATHE program on adolescent emotion regulation. Research in Human Development, 10(3), 252-272.
National Center for Education Statistics. (2014, January). The condition of education: Participation in education of children and youth with disabilities. Retrieved from 
Neece, C. L. (2014). Mindfulness-based stress reduction for parents of young children with developmental delays: Implications for parental mental health and child behavior problems. Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities, 27, 174-186.
Neece, C. L., Green, S. A., & Baker, B. L. (2012). Parenting stress and child behavior problems: A transactional relationship across time. American Journal on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 117, 48-66.
Schonert-Reichl, K. A., Oberle, E., Lawlor, M. S., Abbott, D., Thomson, K., Oberlander, T. F., & Diamond, A. (2015). Enhancing cognitive and social-emotional development through a simple-to-administer mindfulness-based school program for elementary school children: A randomized controlled trial. Developmental Psychology, 51(1), 52-66.
Shapiro, S., Carlson, L. E., Astin, J., & Freedman, B. (2006). Mechanisms of mindfulness. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 62, 373-386.
Sibinga, E. M. S., Webb, L., Ghazarian, S. R., & Ellen, J. M. (2016). School-based mindfulness instruction: An rct. Pediatrics, 137(1), 1-8.
Siegel, D. (2007). The mindful brain: Reflection and attunement in the cultivation of well-being. New York, NY: Norton, W. W. and Company, Inc.
Singh, N. N., Lancioni, G. E., Karazsia, B. T., Winton, A. S. W., Myers, R. E., Singh, A. N. A.,…, & Singh, J. (2013). Mindfulness-based treatment of aggression in individuals with mild intellectual disabilities: A waiting list control study. Mindfulness, 4, 158-167.
Singh, N. N., Lancioni, G. E., Manikam, R., Winton, A. S. W., Singh, A. N. A., Singh, J., & Singh, A. D. A. (2011a). A mindfulness-based strategy for self-management of aggressive behavior in adolescents with autism. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 5, 1153-1158.
Singh, N. N., Lancioni, G. E., Singh, A. D. A., Winton, A. S. W., Singh, A. N. A., & Singh, J.(2011b). Adolescents with asperger syndrome can use a mindfulness-based strategy to control their aggressive behavior. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 5, 1103-1109. 
Singh, N. N., Lancioni, G. E., Singh Joy, S. D., Winton, A. S. W., Sabaawi, M., Wahler, R. G.,  & Singh, J. (2007a). Adolescents with conduct disorder can be mindful of their aggressive behavior. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 15, 56-63.
Singh, N. N., Lancioni, G. E., Winton, A. S. W., Fisher, B. C., Wahler, R. G., McAleavey, K., …& Sabaawi, M. (2006). Mindful parenting decreases aggression, noncompliance, and self-injury in children with autism. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 14, 169-177.
Singh, N. N., Lancioni, G. E., Winton, A. S. W., Singh, J., Curtis, W. J., Wahler, R. G., & McAleavey, K. M. (2007b). Mindful parenting decreases aggression and increases social behavior in children with developmental disabilities. Behavior Modification, 31, 749-771.
Singh, N. N., Lancioni, G. E., Winton, A. S. W., Singh, J., Singh, A. N., Adkins, A. D., & Wahler, R. G. (2010a). Training in mindful caregiving transfers to parent-child interactions. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 19, 167-174.
Singh, N. N., Lancioni, G. E., Winton, A. S. W., Wahler, R. G., Singh, J., & Sage, M. (2004). Mindful caregiving increases happiness among individuals with profound multiple disabilities. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 25, 207-218.
Singh, N. N., Singh, A., Lancioni, G.E., Singh, J., Winton, A.S.W., & Adkins, A. (2010b).          Mindfulness training for parents and their children with ADHD increases the children’s compliance. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 19, 157-166.
Zenner, C., Herrnleben-Kurz, S., & Walach, H. (2014). Mindfulness-based interventions i schools: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Frontiers in Psychology, 5.

Copyright © 2017 by Pam Steffensen-Korges and Ellen McCarty. All Rights Reserved.  

Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Art of Compassionate Detachment

We do not do good work in the world to change the world. That is impossible. We do good work in the world to change ourselves, our hearts. Many suffragettes and civil rights activists died before seeing the change they sowed. Mindfulness helps us find that place of balance between “caring too much” and “caring too little” where we have the life-long commitment and endurance necessary to effect long-term social change.

It is natural to feel urgency in the face of suffering. We want to end pain quickly – both in our own lives and in the lives of others. This sense of urgency can save lives but it can also become an obstacle to long-term, lasting social change. In modern society, daily tasks like finding water (turning on the tap) or entertainment (watching TV) have become so effortless that there is a modern expectation that all of our needs should be met so effortlessly and that if the answers aren’t instant or short-term, they must be wrong or impossible.  This ease and speed of modern life does not prepare us to face social injustice and other obstacles to change.

Stripping our lives of entertainment and bringing ourselves back to discipline rooted in loving kindness and patience while on a meditation retreat, we face difficult emotions in a container that helps us get to know and understand ourselves in the face of controlled hardship. We notice that even boredom can be excruciating. We learn that the mind is a very big place and that our capacity for endurance and compassion – as well as self-change – is far greater than we ever expected. We learn to work with emotional resistance to discipline, to discomfort and change. We also learn that it takes time to improve anything and that trying to speed the process and force change almost always backfires. Patience is the lost art we must reclaim if we want change that endures.

Evolution & time
When facing a long-term crisis, whether it is our own or part of broader social injustice, it is important to remember that beneath the frenetic, instant-results, instant-satisfaction and stress of modern life, there remains within us a very different relationship with time. Time has a longer, evolutionary quality to it as well. The human species has been evolving for 250,000 years. A true foundation of social change and self-change is rooted in this second, evolutionary relationship with time. It is patient and has the emotional endurance to face difficulty for decades from a standpoint of faith in the innate ability within all human beings to evolve. When we fail to acquire faith in our capacity to evolve, our efforts peter out and fall short. When one has deep faith in one’s own capacity for change, this is one avenue to detachment.

Detachment, social justice & special education
Detachment does not mean an absence of caring. On the contrary, it is that place in the mind where we are balanced, emotionally neutral yet engaged and able to discern when to take appropriate action while being patient and accepting the way things are temporarily. It is deep faith in oneself and one’s life.

Deep mindfulness practice is especially critical for parents and educators who are trying to help children with special needs. Being a parent or educator is always challenging even when children perform in a way that is considered normal or above average. A child with special needs often faces endless uphill battles that have emotional consequences for the child and ripple effects for the family and community, including that child’s educators. Facing the pain and frustration these children must endure, parents and educators can experience profound loss of faith, helplessness, desperation and an urgency to fix the situation quickly. This blog addresses how mindfulness can benefit adults facing complex suffering that may last decades within their own lives or in the lives of the people or children they are trying to help. It is intended to be a balm for those brave enough to face social injustice not just for one day, but every day.

Caring too little
One coping strategy when faced with overwhelming problems or social ills is to ignore them. In education, this often manifests as “that child can’t be helped.” This mentality is a great disservice not only to the child but also to the educator simply because it isn’t true. It is far more accurate to say, “As an educator, I haven’t figured out how to help this child, but maybe someone else has developed a technique that works or maybe someone will in the future.” This is an honest, accurate capture of what is happening. Children who hear a person of authority (a teacher or parent) say that their situation is hopeless and cannot be helped can internalize that statement, develop lower self-esteem and give up on themselves. This is a profound tragedy when you consider that you cannot help another person change without their participation.

There is no greater loss than a loss of faith in oneself and one’s potential. Saying to a child, “Today I’m going to have you teach me what you notice about yourself and if we discover something new, we can help other students too” is empowering. Children often have tremendous clarity about their own situation and by identifying for themselves what’s not working and where and how they get lost, they can actually give a teacher or parent the information they need to teach effectively. To share this information, however, a child has to have confidence that the adults around them accept them unconditionally as they are, believe in their capacity for improvement and who support them every step of the way, even when the pace seems excruciatingly slow.

When people care too little or we refer to someone as being “too detached,” it means their emotions are not engaged or are not obvious.  Often someone in this category may feel numb as a result of professional burn-out. This can occur as a result of initially caring too much. The pain of not being able to help a child (especially when internalized as failure) or change social injustice can so overwhelm that a person instead reverts to a less painful idea – that it’s just not possible to help certain types of people or situations. Impossibility becomes permission to avoid the struggle or to take a break from it, which someone may actually need but which doesn’t make their belief in impossibility true.

In contrast, a teacher who starts out detached yet engaged does not feel the emotional need to make absolute statements about anyone or anything. They can work with the breadth of information that is available in the present moment, aware of rules and exceptions while keeping an eye out for completely new solutions that arise. This is a far more interesting way to work. Deep meditation practice helps adults develop a healthier relationship with the present moment and a better sense of what is within our control and what is not. When we acknowledge what we cannot control, we create space for change to arise on its own.

Caring too much arises from a belief that we should be in control when we’re not. We do not have the power to change the world; not by ourselves. We only have the power to change ourselves. Detachment is a type of caring that does not attempt to control or identify with progress or lack of progress as success or failure.  It arises from the direct experience during meditation retreat that control is impossible. It is an illusion. The ability to observe reality and respond to it as it is is far more powerful. The good news is that even failure to change social injustice has benefits. A lifetime of doing good in the world, serving others and refining oneself yields at the very least a peaceful death – something we in the modern world often fail to contemplate.

Endurance and clarity
If we are honest with ourselves, we can notice that when we try to force self-change or eradicate something about ourselves that we don’t like, often that aspect of ourselves gets worse. Once we develop patience with our own issues, we learn how we change. Then we can then help others do their own work of self-change. Even then, we are not changing others. They are changing themselves. It is very important to help someone else from a place of acceptance rather than aversion to where they are.

A common assumption is that Buddhist monks and nuns feel peace all the time when in fact, they often have a luminous glow of peace on their faces because they are completely open to suffering. They are choosing an incredibly difficult life and their resistance to suffering diminishes so that over time, they have an outward appearance of beauty and refinement. They have been carved by their openness and willingness to be present with suffering, to explore it and to understand it. Just as facing the initial boredom, discomfort and pain of physical exercise makes a person physically stronger and more beautiful over time, mindfulness is mental exercise. The longer one has exercised one’s body and mind, the more effortless challenges become. Running a mile might seem daunting to someone who is just beginning to exercise but effortless to someone who has trained for a half-marathon. In the same way, a child with special needs who is exasperated by the emotional pain of facing daily mental challenges over time can develop great patience and ability in the face of difficult circumstances.

The importance of choice and free-will
If children in special education fail to progress, it might be because no one is giving them a choice and they are expected to be passive recipients of instruction rather than directing their own process of self improvement. There is a lesson I teach about success and failure. I write two sentences “I am a success” and “I am a failure.” Which of these two sentences is more dangerous? Take a moment to consider your beliefs about both statements before continuing to read.

My view: both of these statements are dangerous. Over-achieving students can commit suicide because their mantra is “I am a success, my family history is one of success and I must not bring dishonor to my family or myself.” In short, failure is unacceptable. They have over-identified with the concept of success. Conversely there are students who so strongly believe “I am a failure, my family history is one of failure and suffering, I have always been and always will be a failure” that they cannot find the motivation to try to change themselves. Mindfulness is about the middle way. Truth lies between the extremes. My mantra is “failure is part of success.” If you’ve ever learned to ride a bike, you know that every time a person tries and falls off of a bike (often crashing) that fall is a failure but with each failure, the brain is learning. We don’t know everything about the brain. All we know is that after a certain number of tries (and failures), the brain figures it out at an unconscious, automatic level. Suddenly you are riding the bike effortlessly for the first time and even you are surprised by this event! This ability to learn, to adapt and change is miraculous. While waiting for change, we often feel impatient but once change occurs in ourselves or in our society, we realize how miraculous it is that it even occurred at all.

The value of struggle
Self-change has automatic and exponential repercussions. It can inspire countless others so that goals that seemed out of reach for decades suddenly become accessible. For example, participants in the 1960s civil rights movement did not expect to see an African-American president in their lifetimes but it happened. The change they started with so much suffering, horror, blood and tears decades before culminated in a joy celebrated the world over. When Gandhi’s non-violence movement liberated India, it was miraculous. Yet this is why we are all here: to change ourselves over not years, but decades. Change is painful as much as it is miraculous. It requires tremendous courage and faith in ourselves, in our process. Patience at the outset is especially critical. If you think of it in terms of human evolution, a few decades is nothing yet the message of long-term patience is missing from our cultural mythology. We celebrate the accomplishments of people like Einstein, Beethoven, Gandhi, Lincoln and Aung Sang Suu Kyi without giving children an accurate understanding of the profound struggles of their lives. Their struggles are just as important as their accomplishments because those stories give us the patience and endurance we need to face our own struggles. Indeed to struggle is to change, to evolve.

Joy and struggle
Let’s look at the bike riding analogy again, this time from the perspective of a child with special needs. The critical piece of learning how to ride a bike, in my view, is the desire to ride the bike. A child can fall again and again and again without losing their enthusiasm and commitment to their goal of riding a bike. When they look back on their experience of learning to ride a bike, often it’s a happy memory despite the failures (we enjoy looking back and laughing about how and where we crashed). This dynamic would completely change if the child did not want to learn how to ride a bike and was forced to ride and fall every day. The failure and identification with failure would become the child’s reality. This would not be a happy memory. This creates a conundrum for adults who are trying to teach special needs children academic standards. You could argue that a child might never want to learn math in the same way they are motivated to learn how to ride a bike, yet there is always someone who can teach a difficult subject in a way that is inspiring and motivating, who can bring that level of passion and commitment to self-learning into a classroom.

Change is inevitable but seems slow, the path long
While there are no panaceas, breaking obstacles down into bite-size pieces or smaller stepping stones makes success accessible. Start with the tiniest increment of struggle. Stop and get feedback from the child. Build an understanding of struggle into academic curricula. Praise the child for each of these small, seemingly irrelevant increments of struggle and change. They are becoming stronger! They are evolving!

If you are fighting social injustice, take heart that you are just as strong as special education students. Just as they struggle daily to speak, to move, to read, to write, to understand algebra and connect with others, you too can successfully struggle to progress. Identify the smallest piece of social injustice that you are willing to struggle with and take it on with patience, engagement and a lifetime commitment. When it comes to facing social injustice, all of us need to be gentle and patient with ourselves, whether we are activists or a lame duck president. The journey of 1000 miles begins with small, often difficult steps but together over decades our collective steps carve a mighty path forward – despite of or perhaps because of our disabilities.

If you want to know the value of your good work in the world, do not look to the world – where in a single moment, resistance to change can seem far more powerful than the inevitable undercurrent of evolution. Look within yourself with patience. In that stillness, your heart will tell you.

Copyright © January 2017 by Ellen McCarty.  All rights reserved.