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Mission Be — Teaching Children Mindfulness

In this video, I interview Carin Winter, founder and CEO of Mission Be, a nonprofit organization that brings mindfulness into schools.

Mission Be — Teaching Children Mindfulness

Mission Be was created in 2013, while Winter was a social worker at Islip High School. By then, she'd been working with adolescents for 14 years, both in the foster care system and in school settings.

“I worked at Islip for about a decade, and I saw that a lot of our students were really dysregulated, they had an inability to manage their stress,” she says. “They had a lot of anxiety, depression and substance abuse. We had an epidemic of heroin go through our school. It was shocking and devastating and we needed a solution. As a school social worker, I would see around 120 students a year, and there were 1,200 students in the building. So about 10% of them were getting social work counseling from me and 10% from another social worker. The other 80% weren't really getting any mental health support, unless they were getting it outside of the building. Also, we were implementing curriculum through the health classes, and our district did the best to bring in good curriculum, but I just wasn't personally satisfied with it. I didn't think that we were teaching the children the skills to self-regulate. So I started a pilot in our high school. It was voluntary and 56% of our students signed up voluntarily to participate in this program as an alternative to phys ed twice a week for eight weeks. We collected some data at the end and it was phenomenal. The students loved the program. They had reductions in stress, reductions in anxiety, and they really enjoyed themselves. So, after launching that pilot, I started working with the elementary schools in my district, although I was not assigned to them ... One of my friends was a teacher in an elementary school and she said, ‘My kids are so stressed, you have to come help me out.' So I went over there for a few Fridays in a row and within a month I had 17 requests from elementary school teachers to go in their classrooms. At the time I owned a yoga studio as a side hustle because educators don't make a lot of money. I recruited about seven yoga teachers that were stay-at- home moms and/or had degrees in social work, psychology and education, and they assisted me in building out this curriculum. We went in once a week for eight weeks to these 17 classrooms, and at the end, we had 500 students quietly meditating in the field. It was unbelievable. It was the most moving day of my life. It was life-changing. And I knew that that's what I wanted to do rather than stay as a school social worker ... We have two separate curriculums, one for middle and high school, and another one for elementary, and within each curriculum it's tiered for academic learning.”

Where Mission Be Is Today

As the program grew, Winter decided to take a sabbatical from her social work at Islip. She moved to Silicon Valley for a summer, where she got a crash course on how to start a nonprofit. Over the next six years, she worked with some of the highest performing schools in Silicon Valley, and some of the lowest performing schools in the Bay Area. This year, Mission Be serviced 26 schools in New York and 10 schools in California, providing mindfulness training once a week for several weeks.

Mission Be's Curriculum

Mission Be's curriculum is based on evidence-based practices like breath, movement, visualizations, affirmations, sharing circles and silent seated meditation. Each class is 40 minutes. Typically, the class begins with four to five minutes of gentle stretching, followed by a two- to five-minute guided mindfulness practice, depending on the age of the students. After that, they do a standing circle share, where students are encouraged to share how they're feeling, something they're grateful for, or something they love about themselves. Next, the topic of the day's class is introduced. For example, if the topic is gratitude, the concept will be explained, and the science behind it is reviewed in whatever way is age- appropriate. Then, the students engage in an activity relating to the day's topic. So, for the topic of gratitude, for example, each student will share something they're grateful for. Art activities are also incorporated. The class ends with a visualization practice and an affirmation. If time allows, they may also play a team-building game before the session ends. Seeing how many children are also nature-deprived, some classes, or some parts of the classes, are done outdoors. They might take a barefoot mindfulness walk or hug a tree. Winter continues: “Then, they sit down and find something loose in nature, whether it's a blade of grass or a leaf. We sit in a circle and everyone describes, kind of like show and tell, ‘this is what I got.' And we look at how the leaf is similar to our palm and really give the children a time to integrate and engage in nature. We have about 12 different topics. Lesson 1 is about neuroscience. So, we teach the children about the amygdala ... the alarm center of the brain. So I tell the students, ‘If you see a tiger in the jungle, your amygdala is going to go off and you're going to run and hopefully escape this tiger.' But there are no tigers hanging around Islip New York. So there's the paper tiger, right? There are state tests, there are deadlines, there's homework. Sometimes our amygdala goes off because we have to stand up and speak in front of the class, and that can cause fear. So we can take a deep breath and calm the amygdala. When we do that, it allows our prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for higher order cognitive functioning and information processing, and our hippocampus, which is responsible for memory, to function better. And so the children, even in kindergarten, learn the word amygdala ... And as they get older, we teach them a little bit more neuroscience, we teach them about the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system. When you're stressed, you're in a sympathetic state. When you're not stressed, you're in a parasympathetic state, and mindfulness is a practice that, the more frequently we practice these breaths, the more we're able to self-regulate, calm down, focus and relax. Even kindergartners want to know, why are we doing this? They're fascinated by the neuroscience piece of it. And the neuroscience piece is an important piece for even a young child to understand. In lesson 2, we teach them about digital detox, which is part of meditation. Our phones are very disruptive ... We don't just lecture them. We talk about the way technology affects us and how it affects our sleep, how it affects our levels of empathy towards one another, how only 2% of people can actually multitask ... All the data that shows the importance of being present, of making eye contact ... We teach about compassion and empathy and vulnerability ... At the end of the 12 weeks, they learn how to be altruistic.”

Your Health Affects Your Consciousness

An important side note here is that, when you optimize your biology, you radically improve your level of consciousness. People who are not healthy have a decreased ability to do this. This, I believe, is one of the reasons we're seeing this devolution in the youth of this country, because their health is undermined in so many ways. So, when it comes to expanding your consciousness, optimizing your health is really agenda item No. 1. Obviously, this is not within the scope of Winter's work, but I want to mention it because it's important to understand. Winter has seen this at work as well. Children living in group homes are fed by the state, and the food is just terrible. On top of that, most can end up on multiple psychiatric drugs. She saw good results when teaching mindfulness in group homes, but there's no doubt effects are optimized when the children are fed a good wholesome diet.

Play Is a Meditative State of Expanded Consciousness

Ideally, meditation is connecting to an expanded state of consciousness. The good news is, the types of mindfulness practices taught by Winter can, eventually, result in being able to maintain a meditative state for most of the day, regardless of where you are or what you're doing. It's also important to recognize that play is a meditative state. The purpose of meditation is to get into this timeless moment where you're not connected to time, where your mind is not focused on the past and the future. Time basically vanishes and you're just in the present moment. Play automatically puts us in the present moment, which is the very definition of mindfulness. Of course, playing is also fun, and it's near-impossible to be stressed and have fun at the same time. So, in many cases, what children need the most is time to play; to get lost in the “now.” Children who are taught and encouraged to maintain a playful attitude can basically learn to remain in a meditative state for most of the day. We can also learn to do this as adults. “Play” doesn't mean running around and being rambunctious. It's also a joyful creative state. So, when you're creating, you're playing, you're in a mindful state, and in a higher state of consciousness. That, in turn, creates a positive feedback loop, in an expanded state of consciousness (sometimes referred to as “being in the zone”) that allows you to “tap into” or “download” new ideas, some of which can turn out to be quite profitable.

Tapping Into the Divine

Meditation can also allow you to tap into the divine, or a state of unconditional love. Winter shares the following story highlighting this: “I had just started Mission Be. I was working in an elementary school ... and we did a meditation and talked about Mr. Miyagi from ‘Karate Kid,' because they were reading the book, ‘Karate Kid.' I talked about Mr. Miyagi and how he's embodied. He's a small dude, but he can chop through concrete. The power of his mind connected with the strength of his body ... From that discussion we did a meditation. I said, ‘I want you to envision someone there with you in your meditation that you love and admire and look up to.' I was playing Enya and all the children had their eyes closed. All of a sudden I felt this sense of divine grace in the room. I looked around and four of the 20 kids had tears rolling down their faces. Not like sobbing, like an adult would have, but just rolling down their face. I looked at the teacher and she had tears. And I'm just saying, ‘Imagine you're on a beautiful beach. You're there with someone you love and care about, a mentor, teacher, someone you trust, and imagine that they're sending you unconditional love.' When we opened our eyes, this little girl raised her hand and said, ‘Ms. Winter, I felt my uncle that died.' And this other girl goes, ‘I felt my grandpa.' And then this boy goes, ‘I saw God's face' ... So it was fascinating. I was so moved by that moment. I said, this supersedes psychology. They're tuning into a higher force. They're tuning into God and the angels. It was so beautiful, and I didn't initiate that. It just happened, and I felt that grace come through. So, that's the type of consciousness we're opening up to. And I think that children have an innate ability to be intuitive. They have very powerful gut instincts. Their prefrontal cortex is still developing until they're 25, but their gut instinct is probably stronger than ours.”

How Mindfulness Impacts Your Mental Health

A woman at Stanford University wrote her undergraduate senior thesis on the Mission Be program. Data collection reveals the program results in radical improvements in mood. In one small cohort study of 26 children, 22 began the program in a negative state, feeling frustrated, angry or upset. By the end of the 12-week program, only one still felt unhappy, two felt “OK,” and the 23 remaining were in a positive emotional state. “Social-emotional learning has to be an integrative part of the curriculum,” Winter says. “If we want to improve well-being, consciousness, social and emotional health and mental health, really, it has to be taught to the student ... I think our children, just in general, need more joy. Also, children have so many mirroring neurons. They have around twice as many mirroring neurons that [adults] have, so they learn from our behavior. So, if a teacher is dysregulated, they're going to pick up on that and they're going to be dysregulated. The parents are fearful. During the pandemic, a lot of people were in fear and anxiety, and our children felt that. And so, that's why it's so important to regulate your own stress. Forget about teaching mindfulness to your kids. Spend a year just learning it yourself ... Because a dysregulated parent is going to mean a dysregulated child, because they're picking up on their parents' emotional state and well- being.”

Training for Teachers

The same goes for teachers, which is why Mission Be also offers training for teachers. Winter explains: “The No. 1 thing you can do to teach mindfulness to children is just to learn it yourself, because they're going to mirror you. So, we train teachers. We have [three] models. One model is we go into schools and teach once a week, for anywhere from four to 32 weeks. The second model is we do online training for teachers. Anyone who's watching this, I can give them a 50% off coupon. It's typically $225 for a six-week course and the discount would make it $112. We teach them all 12 lessons, and we give them videos and they get short practices alongside of that. The other thing is, we just opened our first Mission Be ofice, and we've been in business for 10 years, right in Islip, New York, and we do mindful one-on-ones with families, parents, teachers — anyone who needs it, any member of the community. So those are our three models. And then we have online recordings that folks can access nationally and internationally for free on how to teach simple meditation practices.” Most of Mission Be's work is currently being done on Long Island in Suffolk and Nassau County, New York, as well as Silicon Valley, San Mateo and Santa Clara County, but they've done trainings all over the country. “Anyone who wants us to come help them, we're there,” she says.

How to Support Mission Be

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