Mandatory mindfulness, the antidote to Baltimore violence?

Op-ed: What if every public school in Baltimore city mandated teachings of mindfulness?

Everyone knows that Baltimore's homicide rate skyrocketed in 2015. Gang rivalries, territorial drug disputes between dealers, fallout after Freddie Gray, poverty, poor education, distrust of the police force, increased supply of guns on the street — these are just some of the reasons given for the dramatic upsurge in killings. But little has been offered in the way of solutions.

The sure fire way to take on violence in Baltimore may be simpler than you think.

After four years of working with teens in therapeutic foster care, I have become accustomed to the ways in which conflict is too often handled. I have often heard teens explain that they cursed out a teacher or punched a peer because "They got in my face" or "If they're going to disrespect me, I'm going to disrespect them back." In a culture as volatile as this, it's no wonder our kids are growing up to believe that fighting is the way to deal with conflict and disagreement.

What if every public school in Baltimore city had a curriculum that included mandatory teachings of mindfulness? By mindfulness, I mean supplying every child with the tools needed to make kinder, more compassionate and more peaceful responses instead of the knee-jerk reaction of aggression and violence.

Social and emotional learning is not a new concept. Teaching empathy, deep breathing techniques and the promotion of self-awareness has been proven to reduce juvenile delinquency, strengthen impulse control, build resilience and to optimize stress management and self-regulation. Mindfulness includes meditation, yoga, learning to be in the moment, Tai Chi, body scans, focused concentration techniques and breathing exercises.

Mindfulness practice has also been proven scientifically to thicken regions of the brain correlated to sensory processing and attention, which thin as we age. The Health Psychology journal recently did a study that revealed a direct link between decreased stress and lower levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.

In one study at an elementary school in Richmond, Calif., there were 18 students that made up 82 percent of the school suspension rate. Early on in the mindfulness training, these children were suspended from school 62 times in a trimester. After the same children received a full three trimesters of the training in mindfulness, the suspensions dropped to 20. Many of these students knew people who were killed within their violent community. Armed robberies, murders and assaults with deadly weapons were everyday occurrences in their neighborhoods. These kids were no strangers to trauma.

When children experience stress and trauma early in their lives, they are more apt to lack impulse control. In turn, they exhibit extreme behaviors due to reduced executive functioning. Many children who have lived through stress and trauma exhibit symptoms of conduct disorder, attachment disorder, depression and anxiety, and they are oppositional. As a result, many of these teens are involved in aggressive behaviors, have difficulty thinking about consequences before they act, and take excessive risks.

Mindfulness, however, is not just helpful for those who have experienced trauma. Anyone who has experienced stress (and who hasn't?) will benefit from the techniques. Everyday issues that children face can be highly stressful. Divorce, absent parents, pressure to achieve academically, bullying, increased exposure to violence in the media, information overload including the flood of images and sounds in today's technology, peer pressure, even hormones — the potential stressors are endless.

If mindfulness were taught and practiced regularly within the entire public school system in Baltimore City, we would likely see a decrease in anxiety, depression, aggression, conduct problems and violence. By teaching children to be kind to others, care for their environment, be aware, focused, compassionate and have empathy for others as well as themselves, we are using a cost-effective measure to improve health, reduce stress, promote peaceful conflict resolution, increase concentration and attain inner peace.

If exercised regularly, the effects of mindfulness practice will last a lifetime. They will manifest in our children's personal, educational and professional lives. By taking preventive measures, we can propagate compassion, understanding, humanity and kindness within our children.

Providing the tools needed to handle conflict in a non-violent way will surely guarantee we never reach 2015 levels of bloodshed in Baltimore again.

Jill Epstein-Molter is a student at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. Her email is jfem1972@gmail.com.

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