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By Carol Lloyd
Teaching mindfulness and brain science
The book is based on the Hawn Foundation's in-school program "MindUP," whose mission is to help children "develop healthier, happier lives." Seeking to treat a whole schmorgasbord of modern childhood ills – high rates of suicide, rising rates of depression, high drop-out rates, increased stress-levels, findings that American children are the second least happy children in the world – the program teaches kids child-friendly fundamentals of brain functioning along with techniques for quieting the mind, focusing attention, and building pro-social attitudes like optimism and gratitude.
According to the web site, the program has been implemented in hundreds of schools across North America by teaching teachers a curriculum that combines everything from breathing exercises and gratitude journals to scientific explanations of the pre-frontal cortex. The goal of the multi-faceted curriculum is to help kids understand and ultimately develop essential social-emotional skills like empathy, self-control, anger management, self-soothing, and concentration. Studies of the program (some funded by the Hawn foundation) have produced promising findings, including better reading scores, less absenteeism, high levels of working memory, and lower stress hormone levels. (Check out the video to see glimpses of the program in action. My favorite part: the teacher explaining that now her kids analyze storybooks in terms of whether a given character is using his pre-frontal cortex.)
Drawing from this classroom-based curriculum, the book offers a primer on brain functioning, positive psychology, and the benefits of practices such as meditation. Embedded in these explanations are 10-minute lessons that parents can use to help their kids understand what's happening when they have a homework meltdown or how they can calm their mind after a nightmare. There are chapters on brain anatomy and various mindfulness practices, as well as happiness, gratitude, anger, sadness, fear, and kindness. Woven throughout, Hawn peppers the text with anecdotes from her own life: comforting her kids after an earthquake that struck when she and Kurt Russell were out of town, bonding with a Tibetan boy that she has since stayed in touch with, and watching a boy on a playground unable to wrest his mother’s attention from her cell phone.
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