Minding our Children

Sometimes my life as a Lecturer/Researcher and life as a parent collide in, well, interesting ways. The situation I describe here has been resolved (as you will see). Originally I shared part of it on my “shielded from Search” blog, where I put up more personal and family oriented materials, because it was involving my kids, and the issue was ongoing. I wanted to share, but 140 characters simply wasn’t enough.
Discussions with Andrew Sabisky, Keith Laws, Matt Wall, Sophie Liljedahl, Rachel Maddux, Sam Mella and others on both twitter and facebook helped me gather my thoughts and I thank you.

Mindlessness
I live in a nice sleepy town by the ocean opposite Denmark. It has beautiful old villas lining the water-front, and a carpet of yellow brick 70’s style houses neatly laid out like those puzzles with identical pieces, making sure that not too much of our rich soil gets spoiled. I live in a lovely “bostadsrättsförening”. We own our 4 room apartment on the second floor of one of the also yellow brick buildings, across the road (really a cul-de-sac) from our children’s school.

People live here. Then they go to work in either Lund or Malmö or even Helsingborg or Copenhagen, as lecturers, professors, medical doctors, researchers, upper management, business owners, police detectives, musicians, carpenters. The school sports so many Swedish accents that my children have not acquired the very distinct southern Sweden variant. (Skånska).

In short, it is a repository of the high-IQ striving middle class. We would all have done very well on aptitude tests, while valiantly refraining from eating that Marshmallow.

I like it. It feels like a safe place to have children.

My kids school is great. For a handful of years it was ranked number 1 in the country. It has slipped lately. The slip is mainly one of resources. A lot of families moved in, and the hiring of teachers and support has not kept up. But I really have no complaints about my children’s education.
Several times the school have brought in outside programs, programs designed for kids, but a little bit outside the standard curriculum. Last year one kid had a circus theme, where they got to learn a lot of tricks, like juggling, clowning, and even walking the tightrope (all of 30 cm above ground). Another year they brought in a team that specializes in teaching kids old traditional Swedish dances. This is great fun, and I’m glad they are doing it.
But, this time, for one of my kids, they planned on one of these outside themes that I’m a lot more concerned about.

Mindfulness.

Mind you, I have nothing against mindfulness per se. I’m no stranger to Woo. I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s. I spent 14 years in LA. I have tried on a few life-styles. On occasion, Woo has a point, and mindfulness seems to be potentially more potent than homeopathy.
It is more about how this was introduced.

My understanding is that the coach, who is a trained mindfulness coach (whatever that means) approached the school some time ago wanting to offer them a package of mindfulness training for kids. When her own son was having some issues in middle school, she had been looking for ways of helping him, and found that this did.

I’m sure it did. I have, since I heard of this, read some research that suggests that this could be beneficial, even in modern, secular scientific terms. It is grounded in Buddhist meditation, which has been around for a rather long time.

My mindfulness researching colleagues did share some research on it, and it looks like it can have some positive effect, at least on some kids. But, as one of my international clinical intervention researching colleague pointed out (and backed up with research), it is not uniformly benign for all individuals. In fact, for some it can be detrimental.

I looked over the overview of the curriculum they gave us. My take on it is that it is limited enough to most likely be harmless, and possibly even beneficial. I’m not worried about damage to our children’s sanity.

No, my issue is that they decided to bring in what is essentially a psychological intervention. They fully hoped that this training would alter the children’s ability to focus, to emotion regulate, to get to sleep, to pay attention, and that this would be long ranging changes. (For the better, of course. No concern that it might go in the other direction). They did so without consulting the parents. In fact, they simply assumed that parents would be fine with this, as evidenced by them asking that parents cooperate with this theme at home, and that parents complete assessment-questionnaires about their child. There was not a word about opting out. There was not a word about anonymity. In fact, they seem to have not considered the ethics at all.

Of course, I’m a lecturer in Psychology, I consider Ethics all the time. I would never, ever, ever be allowed to do this on 11 year old children without a) an ethics approval, b) Informed consent from the parents which would include c) assurance that participation is voluntary and that the child can opt out at any time without penalty and d) assurance that any measurements collected will be anonymous and that the identity of the children will be protected.

The assessment they asked us to complete – which is designed to measure burn-out – asked parents to rate their children on items like “my child complains about being tired” and “my child seems to be mentally tired” as well as “my child is active”. Potentially you could uncover clinical problems with this questionnaire; that is what it seems to be designed for. The reference reads: Shirom-Melamed Burnout Measure, Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 6, 1999.
On top of the questionnaire is a place where you can put your name.

I wrote my child’s teachers about my concerns. I really would like them to re-think this

Now, I would be fine if they offered the children an opportunity for mindfulness training; optional, of course, and with more consideration about protecting the children’s anonymity. I might even consider letting my child do it. But, we need to be asked.

I have no idea how this will play out. I feel bad in many ways about having to bring this up. They seemed so genuinely excited about this, and I’m pissing on their parade.

Changing ones mind.

I didn’t get a direct response, but we did get a response in a mail to all parents. They canceled the mindfulness theme. Reading between the lines, it seems I was not the only one voicing my concerns. The questionnaires were collected and shredded, and we were assured that the woman who would have lead the theme is bound by confidentiality.

I was right that it originated at the top. It had all been planned and developed over a longer time period. Their thought was that it would be good and fun for the kids.

I’m glad they listened, and took action.

But, I have some general commentary here on schooling – some of it coming up in exchanges with Andrew Sabisky.

Fads and fixes
My first reaction as I was sitting in the meeting was “oh, yes, another fad that people are enthusiastic about that will Fix things”. As I age, I have seen those come and go. Team building, therapies, all sorts of stuff that will Make Things Better. Only they don’t. Better for some, perhaps. Irritating for others. I don’t think of it so much in school terms as in corporate terms for some reason. I think, perhaps, I didn’t experience so many of them as I was coming up through school.

When I read the review article on Mindfulness in school I found myself finding my usually deeply buried inner sociologist. Some of the arguments why teaching Mindfulness to children would be so great, is because school has become so stressful, and to handle this human made situation, one need to teach the victims students to be mindful, focus on the now, to stop their suffering.

Of course, changing school is easier said than done (and god knows, there are lots of people saying lots of things about what one ought to do about school – it seems even more popular than the urge to edit, back-seat driving, and Monday evening quarterbacking – or is that Monday morning?).
I don’t think obligatory mindfulness is the route to educational Nirvana.

Andrew sent me a blog discussing this also – the urge to add what is in essence psychological interventions to the curriculum in hope of, well, fairness? Equity? Mental Health? World peace?

The urge to back-seat social engineering also asks of teachers to do things I don’t think is humanly possible. There was a sad and awful case this spring, that made all the newspapers. An 8 year old girl was found dead at her home. She was living with relatives. The likelihood was that they killed her. Not long ago the head-master of that school was suspended for not having reported worries about her well-being to the social services. Evidently, teachers have an obligation to do so. Which means that apart from knowing how to teach, they also have to make the kind of judgment that you usually get specialized training to do. I can imagine there are instances where there is obvious worry and perhaps you need to do something about it, but a lot of times things are just that much more ambiguous, and starts becoming ridiculously meddly (like the time we were told that my son needed good winter shoes when he went to school a balmy September day in sandals).

What teachers are asked to do must be reasonable. But, the social engineering urge seems to have been present for a long time (at least in Sweden), as I routinely heard my teacher parents kvetch about it.

24/7
I have received e-mails about our kids all sorts of hours. Sunday at 9 pm, late Friday to mention a few. I know because I use my gmail for school contact rather than work-mail. I don’t check my work-mail after hours. I strictly deal with teaching communications during business hours. (Research is another thing, which is why I use both for that).

I know that teachers in Sweden are overworked and underpaid, aren’t we always? But, there also seems to be an expressed ethic, at least in some places, that teaching should be a calling rather than a job, with boundaries between pupils and teachers occasionally being so blurred I’m not sure it is healthy. Being dedicated is not bad, and I figure all teaching (like mine) involves times when you can’t do the work in 8 hours 5 hours a week, but that has to be temporary.
I think it is fine with teachers focusing on teaching (and whatever the management that is needed, which is always the case), and I figure often they are very good at it. I have no complaints. It is all that additional crap that is overloaded on the teachers.

Incidentally, my son asked me to buy him marshmallows for his Saturday candy treat. He gleefully tore into the bag, but a bit later he came to me and said, you know, after a while, they kind of get disgusting.

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About asehelene

... because if I'm in a room with a second person, I want to be reasonably sure I'm the crazier one.
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