I recently introduced a group of eighth grade students to mindfulness and meditation. A girl waited afterwards with a question: if she had the experience that her day passed quickly, flying by before she knew it, did that mean she was being mind-less?
I was not surprised that this inquiry came from a female student. Having taught meditation, mindfulness and yoga to adolescent and teenage girls for many years, I have learned that girls are prone to judging themselves harshly, quick to find fault, and sometimes easily wounded by disappointment or their own perceived imperfections.
Two new studies, recounted in Positive News April 2015, support the idea that teenagers, especially girls, might benefit from practicing mindfulness. Reporter Emily Campbell writes that “New research suggests that treating oneself with kindness and mindfulness is more effective than improving self-esteem when facing the challenges of teenage years.”
A case in point: the eighth grader after her first mindfulness lesson. She was concerned that she might be doing something “wrong,” although she was completely unfamiliar with the material. This young girl had already set a margin of error and feared that she was on the wrong side of it. As the above article suggests, practicing self-compassion and a non-judging attitude might help her and other girls like her experience more positive feelings about themselves. But could it also influence them to pursue educational avenues, specifically, science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), where their numbers are so small?
This alarming statistic has spawned questions about why girls are taking themselves out of the running for the jobs of the future by the time they reach college. What happens between middle school girls’ interest in STEM and their feeling for those subjects as they move closer to college?
While these questions are not easily answered, they may be addressed through the practice of mindfulness. At the aforementioned NCGS conference, I offered a workshop entitled The “A” in STEAM is for Awareness, which suggested supporting our girls by bolstering their self-compassion, broadening their judging attitudes and helping them withstand and overcome disappointment.
For instance, adolescent and teenage girls, while anxiously pursuing impressive GPA’s and polishing college applications, may be narrowly focused, judging and then rejecting “reach” subjects like science, technology, engineering and math. An intersection of high expectation, fear of failure and rigid thinking can close doors to STEM fields in favor of academic and personal comfort zones.
I presented the idea that STEM coursework needs adolescent and teenage girls as much as girls need the open, compassionate and resilient properties of mindfulness. Specifically, mindfulness encourages nonreactive awareness, or the ability to tolerate a range of emotional states without evaluating them as good or bad.
A student may be intimidated by math, or fear that computer science might be too difficult. Instead of turning away from challenges, mindfulness teaches that fear and apprehension may be present, but also temporary, that one can still move forward, even amid discomfort. From a mindfulness stance, no mind state or point of view is wrong or right, as I explained to the 8th grader with the question about “mindlessness.”
However, where education is concerned, judging and dismissing people, subjects and points of view, without sufficient investigation, can limit possibilities. So if our students are judging and dismissing STEM coursework because they are afraid that they lack the skill set to succeed in these subjects, or they have tried and “failed” in the past, they are closing off opportunities for growth.
Similarly, cultivating self-compassion through mindfulness practice teaches perfectionistic students that learning and non-mastery are part of the educational process, not cause for abandoning difficult coursework or plummeting self-esteem. One of the studies cited by Campbell found that “Self-compassion, unlike self-esteem, would allow the students to accept their shortcomings with kindness, rather than judging themselves or avoiding their flaws.” In other words, mindfulness can help girls integrate ambivalence, accept the process of learning on a continuum, rather than giving up if they don’t experience immediate success.
Finally, resilience is an essential aspect of mindfulness, and it is a quality that can directly impact personal and academic success. Resilience is the ability to begin again, to start over, to be flexible in the face of disappointment. Just as our attention wanders during meditation practice, we learn to begin again by focusing on the next breath, the next moment. A fresh start is always possible, and mindfulness maps the road to it.
With STEM coursework, as with any curricula, our students may fail, and they may have to begin again, to rally their energies, concentrate and start over. Mindfulness meditation practice creates a template for resilience - girls know that they may falter or lose focus and still gather themselves to start anew.
Mindfulness is not psychotherapy, it does not explore the origin of thoughts, feelings and emotions. Instead, mindfulness cultivates an observational quality of attention that recognizes thoughts as thoughts, feelings as feelings and emotions as emotions – all fluctuations of the mind, transitory in nature. Mindfulness can lead our students to a more balanced view of themselves and others, and it can open doors to more choices, perhaps even science, technology, engineering and math. Awareness is the key.