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Moving Forward, Looking Back / Its mission in mind, Unquowa School embraces mindfulness

Published 7:45 am, Sunday, February 16, 2014
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A century ago, an association of parents purchased a 5-acre parcel of land on Stratfield Road from the Baptist church across the street, and in 1917, founded Unquowa School.

The school's mission, influenced by the Progressive education movement championed by philosopher John Dewey and others, was to provide excellent standard academics, but "under conditions such that their health would be better safe-guarded, their social spirit more highly developed ..." Very simply stated, "Progressive" education aims to balance social as well as academic skills in preparing children for adult lives in a democratic society. Such schools strive to function as innovative communities in which these skills are developed through group projects, community service and hands-on learning.

With its centennial coming up in 2017, Unquowa School is the oldest operating non-public school in Fairfield, a thriving institution with 200 pre-K to eighth-grade students and 35 faculty members. Head of School Sharon Lauer has kept it true to its roots during her 10-year tenure; its academic curriculum is supplemented with a school garden, a "sustainable dining" program, and close ties to local educational and cultural institutions.

True success, however, is suspicious of complacency; there is always room for improvement. Two years ago, a curious Unquowa School teacher attended a workshop on "mindfulness" and brought back a few simple exercises to use with students she was counseling. She was so impressed with the results that she sold Lauer on the idea of having a mindfulness workshop for Unquowa School faculty.

Lauer confesses she was anxious about the reception it would receive. "I thought I'd be hearing, `Why did you waste a whole day on that?' but instead, the feedback was really positive."

But before moving ahead, she wanted to assure herself that "mindfulness" had sound educational applications and was not just a New Age fad.

Let's take a brief look at "mindfulness" before we find out what happened at the Unquowa School.

"Mindfulness," in the sense of "reflection" rather than "conscientiousness," has been steadily moving from the cultural fringes into the American mainstream; no further proof of this is needed than seeing "The Mindful Revolution" featured on the cover of the Feb. 3 Time Magazine. Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan is a strong public advocate of mindfulness. Not just an American phenomenon, it's being studied and taught in many countries around the world.

The basis for mindfulness is the ancient Buddhist practice of meditation, but becoming more mindful does not necessarily mean shaving your head, wrapping yourself in a saffron robe, and sitting under a tree for a few months. You don't have to incorporate one shred of Eastern philosophy into your belief system; in fact, you don't need a belief system at all.

In practicing mindfulness, you are training yourself to achieve a mental state of focused attention to the present moment. Western scientists are finding increasing evidence that even brief (but regular) mindfulness exercises can have positive effects in stress reduction, pain control and disease mitigation. Furthermore, a neuroscientific understanding is taking shape of how a mindfulness practice rewires the brain. Mindfulness techniques are being adopted in the military, the corporate world and school systems. Its reflective aspect gives people more control over impulses that can result in emotional or physical injury to themselves or others; "counting to 10" becomes incorporated into everyday life.

So, how did the Unquowa School convince itself that a mindfulness program was worth a try, and if so, what would it look like?

That initial workshop in the fall of 2012 led to the formation of a faculty task force to study how mindfulness fits into an educational curriculum. They reviewed existing programs, consulted with "mindful education" experts, sent a few more teachers (and Lauer) for mindfulness training, and in the summer of 2013, held a faculty retreat to consolidate their assessment.

The consultants were also invited to speak to a key constituency -- the parents. They got an enthusiastic reception, and many parents continued to meet with the consultants to further develop their understanding and reinforce the program at home.

As the school saw it, the primary educational goals of mindfulness were to decrease anxiety and increase focus. A mindfulness exercise, which might be simply to direct your whole attention to your breathing (much harder than it sounds), produces a state of relaxation, a superior mental state for learning, taking an exam or making a presentation. And how often have parents or teachers instructed children to "pay attention" without ever teaching the skill of paying attention?

Instead of implementing a prepackaged program, Unquowa School decided to weave mindfulness into the school day as individual teachers saw fit. A teacher might start the day with a mindfulness exercise, or use it before an exam or a difficult lesson. A class might go for a "mindful walk" outside to get refocused after an intense classroom activity. The idea is that the "clock time" devoted to mindfulness will pay off in learning quality and efficiency.

It's too early to say how mindfulness will impact Unquowa School. Head of School Lauer isn't even sure how she'll measure it, but what she does know is that the acceptance level is high for both teachers and students.

My neighbors' daughter is an upper school student at Unquowa School. She says that the mindfulness stuff is "stupid," but these days, she has been known to go off for a few minutes to check her breathing.

Ron Blumenfeld is a Fairfield writer and retired pediatrician. His "Moving Forward, Looking Back" appears periodically. He can be reached at rblumen2@gmail.com.