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'MindUP' teaches brain chemistry, not religion, say supporters

  • Jan. 22, 2015

Editor's note: This story from The Bloomington Herald-Times is being published here as a courtesy for readers of IU in the News.

By Mary Keck

MCCSC has begun piloting a brain-centered program developed by the Hawn Foundation called MindUP at three elementary schools in the district, but some members of the community don’t want to see the new curriculum become a more permanent part of the school system. They feel the focus on “mindfulness” in the MindUP curriculum reveals ties to religion, specifically Buddhism. 

“Mindfulness points children to more openly Buddhist resources,” Candy Brown, a professor of religious studies at Indiana University, told the MCCSC board at a recent meeting. 

Craig Moore, pastor of Southside Christian Church, also spoke out against MindUP, saying he represented several pastors in the community as well as his congregation. He told the board that bringing in MindUP would be not be seen as a positive move by a segment of Christians in the Bloomington community. 

“It will be perceived as an introduction of Buddhism into the classroom and forced participation in a religious activity,” Moore said. 

From Moore’s point of view, the potential impact of using MindUP in Monroe County Community School Corp. could cause parents, grandparents and community members to stop volunteering at the schools. He also warned that it could mean families would take their children out of public schools altogether. 

“You probably ought to consider what it might end up costing the district in the loss of state support as families move to alternative educational options,” he said.

Despite Brown and Moore’s objections to the program, MCCSC School board President Keith Klein has not been swayed. 

The school board was introduced to MindUp in November, and teachers at Arlington Heights, Clear Creek and Klein said in a telephone interview, “anything that has to do with relaxation techniques, I’m sure, had basis in various religions such as yoga and all kinds of other things. I’m satisfied that it is not a religious teaching or an indoctrination. I’m satisfied that it will actually help the students to be better prepared with less stress.”

Jill Bolte Taylor, a Bloomington neuroscientist and consultant for the MindUP program, isn’t concerned that using mindfulness in a classroom is a religious practice, either. 

“Every ability we have, we have because we have brain cells that perform that function. We have circuitry in our brain that permits us the ability to memorize new information. People of various religions memorize scripture, but that does not mean our circuitry related to memorization is a religiously based circuit,” she said in an email.  “Although the circuit we use for meditation may be a tool used by Buddhists as a part of their practice, the underlying circuit is no more a religious circuit than our ability to memorize or speak.” 

According to Maria Hersey, U.S. director of education and training for MindUP, the curriculum is not promoting any religion and is a secular program based in neuroscience, psychology, social and emotional literacy and mindful awareness training.

“People sometimes see mindfulness and think religion,” Hersey said. “It’s not affiliated with religion at all.” 

When mindfulness is used, it is in the form of brain breaks that last around two or three minutes of “quiet focus,” she said. Those breaks typically occur when teachers are moving into a new activity in their classrooms. 

“It’s transition for kids in getting their brains ready for learning,” she said.

MindUP has been used for more than 10 years in classrooms across the United States and in other countries. Locally, the MindUP curriculum has been in place at the Bloomington Center for Global Children since 2010. Mindfulness is the core of the preschool’s classroom rules, which are be mindful to yourself, be mindful to others and be mindful to our things.

Sierra Roussos, the educational directorate at the Center for Global Children, says she’s never had a parent complain or remove their child from the secular preschool because of concerns that MindUP had potential religious affiliations. 

At the Center for Global Children, MindUp is a tool used by teachers to support students’ emotional and social learning, and it’s a way for little kids between the ages of 3 and 5 to know what to do with their big emotions.

They learn about parts of the brain with the help of the MindUP curriculum. For example, they see the amygdala as the brain’s “security guard,” because it reacts to danger and alerts the body to potentially unsafe situations. The brain’s prefrontal cortex, on the other hand, is the “wise leader” that allows reflection and problem-solving, while the hippocampus is the “memory storer.” 

One way students might begin to understand how these parts of the brain work is through a visual aid, such as a clear ball filled with water and glitter, Roussos explained. Shaking up the glitter ball and pointing to the swirling material inside shows the children what their amygdala is like when they are emotional. By holding the ball still for a moment and taking a few breaths, the students see the glitter fall to the bottom, and the clear ball represents the prefrontal cortex.

When the amygdala is overwhelmed with emotion, students struggle to access their prefrontal cortex or hippocampus, making it challenging to learn. That’s where mindfulness comes in. 

“If a child isn’t happy, doesn’t feel safe, they can’t be in a position to learn,” Roussos said. “Deep breathing allows access to the prefrontal cortex.”

The key is for students to practice the breathing exercises regularly, so when they need to calm down they’re used to taking deep breaths to relax. 

“If you practice it every day, it becomes a tool they can access,” she said. “We’ve seen that it works.”

MindUP Up Close

• According to its website, MindUP, founded by Oscar-winning actress Goldie Hawn and her Hawn Foundation, is a program that “nutures optimism and happiness in the classroom, helps eliminate bullying and aggression, increases empathy and compassion, while resolving peer conflicts.”

• The program claims students “reduce stress, improve academic performance” while learning to “self-regulate behavior.”

• More than 80 percent of students reported a more positive outlook thanks to MindUP, according to the website. The website claims more than 55 percent reported greater peer acceptance.

• Visit thehawnfoundation.org/mindup