Reframe: Episode 72

How Mindfulness Technology May Change School Discipline

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Many schools still rely on detentions, suspensions, and even expulsions to address student discipline. However, research shows that these traditional punishment-based approaches often create more problems than they solve.

So what if there was a better way?

On this episode, hear how mindfulness may offer a promising alternative to support positive student behavior, and how new technology is making mindfulness meditation easier than ever.

Read the transcript

James Loy: This is Reframe, the podcast from the College of Education, Health and Society on the campus of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

It’s a story almost as old as the modern American school system itself. The use of discipline and behavioral interventions have been around since the beginning. They are used to both reduce negative or bad behaviors and to try and support and encourage the positive ones.

However, ideas and opinions around what, how, and even when school discipline should be used has been debated for decades, centuries, even.

The typical models that most of us probably remember are very much based around putative or punishment-based models. They may range from the relatively mild measures such as being sent to the office or getting a detention - to some of the more severe practices such as in-school suspension, out-of-school suspension, and even outright expulsion.

Many of these practice are still commonplace today. They are often the standard, in fact, and have been for years. But their overall effectiveness has been continually questioned, and research has recently shown that many of these traditional practices may lead to just as many, if not even more problems than they solve.

Here’s Dr. Leah Wasburn-Moses, a Miami University professor of educational psychology. 

Leah Wasburn-MosesUnfortunately, our discipline system that we typically use in schools is not effective. And it's a … it's a punishment based system, but every school has it. So thinking about that, I know that schools are looking to do something different with school discipline, but a lot of the interventions that we know about are really complex and require full school buy-in and a lot of resources. And so, I went about trying to look at what were some alternatives to the traditional discipline that we typically use in schools, and that everyone's heard of: Sending kids to the office, and putting them in in-school suspension, and out-of-school suspension. And we absolutely know none of those things work, and has led to what is now called the school-to-prison pipeline. And nobody's proud of that. And everybody wants an alternative.

James Loy: The school-to-prison pipeline refers to situations whereby students are pushed out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems, or even prisons. It can begin when disciplinary policies and practices within schools put students into contact with law enforcement, particularly when court referrals are used by schools to discipline students.

And that’s not all. There are other problems that can also arise with the use of suspension and expulsion.

Numerous studies have shown that suspensions and expulsions are also correlated with high drop-out rates among students, who once they too are detached from school, are also more likely to come in contact with justice systems.

Research also shows that suspended or expelled students are also at an increased risk of falling further behind both academically and in their social-emotional development.

And these practices have been further criticized for not really addressing the underlying issues that may have led to the disruptive or problematic behaviors in the first place.

So what if there was a better way?

New research is looking into finding more effective alternatives that could serve as an intervention that would help those kids who do need more support.

But what would that look like? How would it work?

If schools were interested in trying to find something new … Maybe something less punitive, less reactive. And something more positive, and more proactive.

Maybe something like …

Jack Komer: The use of mindfulness-based tools in schools, especially in-school suspension, to help students learn how to focus their mind, and learn more about what's going on inside their heads.

James Loy: Mindfulness.

That’s Jack Komer, a Miami University educational psychology major and a student researcher, Jack is currently working with Dr. Leah Wasburn-Moses to explore alternative ways to offer more interventions and support for young people with behavioral challenges in school.

As a tool to address things like discipline, mindfulness, and a variety of mindfulness and meditative-related techniques, are now attracting a lot more attention from both researchers and school officials.

Recently, schools in Ohio and Colorado have begun offering yoga as an alternative to after school suspensions. And new research continues to show that mindfulness techniques can help children process their feelings, set and achieve positive goals, show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.

Mindfulness has also, in general, long been reported to help people be more present in the moment, gain a better awareness of their surroundings, and to become more self-reflective and to find a calmer center.

And these are many of the things, it turns out, that can help address some of the root issues that can lead to problematic behaviors in schools in the first place.

Leah Wasburn-MosesSo a lot of behavioral interventions that have been successful with youth who have significant behavioral challenges, like aggressive behaviors in them, and juvenile detention, is they really need assistance slowing down their thinking. So if they go quickly from an argument and maybe have a weapon around, you know, that's not gonna end well. They just need help processing, and processing deliberately. And I think that’s what this does.

 James Loy: So mindfulness became a topic that Leah Wasburn-Moses and Jack Komer began to explore. And it began when Jack started looking into what other kinds of interventions that might be available. And during his research, he came across a particular tool.

It’s called the MUSE Headband, and it combines classical mindfulness and meditative techniques with innovative 21st century technology that literally reads and responds to a user’s brainwaves, and in real time.

Jack Komer: So over the summer, I was approached by Dr. Washburn-Moses, because she sent me an email asking if I'd be interested in joining her to look at some alternatives to suspension. And during that research, I discovered a few articles that had some lesser known intervention tools. And one of them was the MUSE Headband that would kind of read your brain waves and transmit them into different visual or audio sources. And I had never heard of one being used in a school.

James Loy: Infusing mindfulness with technology is a relatively new and exciting prospect. And the MUSE Headband that Jack spoke about is just one of such tools that are starting to emerge in the form of small, inexpensive, and easy-to-use wearable technology.

So far, they seem to be especially helpful in help beginners – like young students, for example –  learn how to start practicing mindfulness.

Along with the MUSE, there’s other gadgets that include the Spire Tracking Device, which is like a Fit Bit for your brain. Other devices called Emotiv, and also Melomind, are other kinds of wearable headbands .

And the concept behind many of these devices is pretty similar.

The MUSE, for example, is narrow headband that collects biofeedback. You kind of wear it like a pair of headphones across your brow. It measures brainwaves using EEG, which is the same technology that hospitals use to determine brain disorders such as epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease, and sleep disorders.

It records when users move, when they fidget, when they open their eyes. It measures heart and breathing rates. And it helps users know how their minds are responding during a mindfulness exercise by offering immediate feedback through various audio cues that correspond to how focused or unfocused your mind is during a particular session.

Jack Komer: And those sounds can be used to teach the students how to make sense of their behaviors and their attention when they were like … if they had a rough day, and their mind was really cloudy, and they couldn't really focus on anything, it would transmit the sound into more of like a rainstorm, or like a really rainy rain forest.

(Rain Sound Effects)

But if the students were able to focus in on that rain, and kind of tune their mind, and try to find a point of focus, it would slowly start to go away. So it kind of helped them learn how to cope with things, and their mind.

James Loy: It also provides data that can be reviewed later. Like color graphs and easy to read charts that clearly show where users were the most focused, where they may have gone off track, and how long it took them to recover their focus.

And through his research, Jack found an preliminary study that showed that as little as just 3 minutes a week of practicing mindfulness with these devices successfully lowered the rates at which students were sent to the office.

Plus, aside from the initial cost of acquiring the device, they could potentially be an efficient and cost-effective way for schools and teachers to start introducing these kind of techniques.

Leah Wasburn-MosesThis is an intervention that takes 3 minutes a week, and it's really hands off for the teacher. So … and it's something that's affordable. It’s not like we paid for a mindfulness expert to come in, or we paid for a teacher to go and get all this training. It was super simple and it's amazing that 3 minutes a week can accomplish something of this magnitude.

James Loy: But the overall body of research in this area is still very new. So Dr. Wasburn-Moses and Jack are now in the process of conducting an in-depth and ongoing study of their own.

Earlier this year, the project began by working with students in a local high school in Middletown, Ohio. A number of student volunteers have already used the device so their research can get a better sense of how it may work in a school setting. And so far, it’s already showing promise.

Here’s Jack again explaining the positive feedback he received after an interview with one of the high school participants. 

Jack Komer: She was really impressed about the device. Like, she had never heard about anything like that. And so, I explained some of the history of like how the device got created, and she was really intrigued on how you could use it. And then when I went in a little more in-depth, like with some questions, she described some of the situations that she thought it could be useful. And she ... I didn't even lead into the in-school suspension, but she said that students that were getting in trouble a lot should definitely try to use the headband. Because she's like, “Whenever I'm in class and everything's going all over the place, sometimes I just want to push out, and just try to get attention, so that I'm the focus of attention and not everyone else.”

And she said a lot of those students will try to do that. And if you're not good at kind of focusing on yourself, and finding that point of focus when everything around you is kind of really cloudy, I can understand why that would be something you might want to do. So this might help them focus in stressful environments.

James Loy: Do you have any advice for teachers who may actually want to get started doing something with this? Whether it’s with this headband, or maybe another like it, or maybe just with mindfulness in general. Maybe they think, like, wow, this sounds like something my students might really like and/or find useful and helpful. What are some of the steps they could take, or what can they do to get started, do you think?

Jack Komer: Yeah, I definitely think it involves like looking into the practice. So one big thing is understanding what mindfulness is, and what it translates to students. It sounds just like meditation. And when you think about it in the class, it's just quiet music or different things that you can do in class. And sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. But understanding why the MUSE incorporates mindfulness into a student's life, and what the practice is, I think that's really important for teachers to understand. There's not as much research on its use in education yet. It's mostly in, like, one-on-one individual therapy and counseling. But that can definitely be taken further into group-based therapies and then classroom-based and small group in a classroom.

James Loy: And that’s where the next phase of this research will go.

In a few months, they hope to collect some data during an upcoming summer program, before also overseeing a more comprehensive pilot program this fall – one that will involve students actually facing school suspension.

And so far, the research seems really positive. And so does the feedback from those who have already used this new kind of technologically-driven approach to mindfulness.

But even in spite of the promise and potential it may hold…

We aren’t there yet. There is still a lot of work that needs to be done before more schools will decide to make significant moves away from tradition discipline-based practices, and more toward making more of these proactive, alternative kinds of approaches more commonplace in the everyday lives of students.

Leah Wasburn-MosesSchools have to see the benefit.

One thing that's really important for educators is educators are always inundated by one more thing. One more thing. One more thing. So anything that is new really has to replace some kind of practice that they're already doing, and it has to fit in well with something that they're already wanting to do. And so, I think that that's a really important aspect is: how does this fit in with the teacher's goals?

So we're hoping that this data, with the way this study is going, will help with that. It's very challenging for schools to replace practices. And, as I said, they have to see the benefit of it first, and that's what we're hoping to come in.

James Loy: Dr. Leah Wasburn-Moses is a professor of educational psychology, and Jack Komer, is an inclusive special education major and a student researcher at Miami. And their ongoing research in this area will continue to unfold into the next upcoming school year.

This is the Reframe podcast. If you know anyone who will find this episode helpful and informative, please share it. Reframe is always free and available wherever podcasts are found.