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Steve Haberlin is an assistant professor of education at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. He holds a Ph.D. with a specialization in elementary education from the University of South Florida. His...
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The Need for a “Mental” Education Curriculum

I think most involved with education would agree that students need physical education—knowledge of diet, personal hygiene, and regular exercise (though, there has been efforts to cut back on this subject). In schools, there is an established physical education curriculum and time set aside for physical activity to coincide with academic study.

However, this is not good enough.

As we witness continued and new waves of societal problems: mental health crisis such as sharp increase in depression and anxiety among young people, spikes in mass gun violence, increases in disruptive, rude, and aggressive behavior (for instance, what’s happening on commercial flights), racial and political polarization, a digitally distracted generation, to name a few, it becomes evident that changes need to take place.            

A reasonable starting place would be within the education system. It makes sense to work with individuals when they are young and still impressionable, during a time when their mental and emotional capacities are ripe for development. This is why social-emotional learning (SOL) is so vital. Children need to learn to manage their emotions, to interact civilly with each other, to negotiate differences, and to entertain different perspectives. Without emotional intelligence, it becomes nearly impossible for people to run their lives, to live peacefully together, to hold responsible positions, and to contribute to society. They lack the foundation—the emotional fuel necessary to cope with life’s increasing challenges.

I’d like to take this a step further by advocating that k-12 schools need to establish a mental curriculum or a contemplative curriculum, that in addition to strengthening their social-emotional intelligence, helps them develop their inner potentialities and positive qualities. The idea is sort of like a physical education program but for the mind. Schools would set aside some time (I know this is a big challenge) for students to train their mental abilities, for instance:

  • Developing the natural capacity for mindfulness, or the ability to focus and remain in the present moment. Research suggests enhancing mindfulness could provide a host of benefits, including enhanced emotional regulation, greater focus and clarity, and decreased anxiety and stress.
  • Increasing states of compassion, altruism, and kindness towards others. This could be practiced through various character development activities and through meditation techniques.
  • Generating openness and a mindset that can entertain varying perspectives, beliefs, and ideas as opposed to having a ‘fixed” mind.
  • Time to self-reflect and contemplate. For instance, students might investigate questions such as: what creates meaning in my life, what do I want to contribute, and how am I connected with others and the environment?

In terms of fitting these practices into the curriculum, educators would certainly have to be creative but could seek out pockets of contemplative time. For instance, right after morning announcements, children might engage in a brief mindfulness activity, as some schools already do. Development of qualities such as compassion and openness might be worked into existing subjects and lessons. For instance, while studying the Civil Rights movement, students might meditate and visualize what it might have been like for individuals during that time period, what they experienced, enhancing their innate compassion in the process.

Obviously, educators already have so much on their plate. However, I don’t think we can continue to ignore the lack of a contemplative aspect of education, to the development of students’ inner qualities and capacities. Requiring students to master academic subjects and knowledge and preparing for the workplace is important, but, as we can observe from the current societal conditions, it is simply not good enough.