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2014 November 24 - 01:35 am

Mindfulness: The Case for Community Colleges

Mindfulness in the Academic Arena

The concept and practice of mindfulness have multiple applications academically, professionally, and personally. If Terry O’Banion is correct, as stated in a recent issue of Community College Week, and the purpose of higher education is to “help each human being to experience more fully, live more broadly, perceive more keenly, feel more deeply and to pursue the happiness of self-fulfillment and to gain the wisdom to see that this is inextricably tied to the general welfare,” then mindfulness is a practice that is long overdue in the academic arena. Mindfulness can improve delivery on the part of the instructor and learning on the part of the student. Mindfulness can improve leadership efficacy, enhance concentration, lessen anxiety, and positively impact organizational culture, directly via learning and leadership seminars and indirectly by reducing the costs associated with sustained stress.

Although most credit Jon Kabot-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical School with beginning this movement almost 30 years ago, recent evidence demonstrates an exponential surge of integration and applications. Higher educational institutions from Brown to UCLA to Harvard are integrating mindfulness into their curriculum, cultures, and extracurricular programs. These institutions are integrating mindfulness through a variety of venues, including course offerings, student success seminars, mindfulness centers, research studies, and staff and leadership development programs. Mindfulness is not limited to use in educational institutions, as it is finding its way into boardrooms and organizations of all types here and abroad. Further, “it’s perhaps fair to say the practice of mindful leadership has also arrived in the corporate world. From Google to Gennentech to the U.S. Army, leading organizations have developed mindfulness programs and they are seeing results” (Trisoglio, Mindfulness and Leadership, 2014). Mindfulness is slowly making its way onto community college campuses, yet is far more common in colleges and universities, primarily due to research functions associated with colleges and universities and greater funding opportunities.

Yet with the typical demographics of community college students indicating that they are juggling employment, academics, personal responsibilities, as well as multiple risk-factors, mindfulness may be more vital to this population than to native or transfer university students.

What is this concept and how has it been slowly and steadily gaining momentum in business, higher education, cognitive therapies, and countless other applications? Most individuals attribute the integration of mindfulness into Western culture to Kabot-Zinn. Kabot-Zinn and his colleagues have developed a carefully studied and monitored program entitled “Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction.” Mindfulness has been defined as “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally” (Kabot-Zinn). Typically, mindfulness also relies on and integrates the breath as part of the technique; a simple concept, but surprisingly difficult to do. Mindfulness is the antithesis of how we often live our lives, fragmented in our attention and trying to juggle multiple concepts and tasks at any one time. With the rate of change and integration of technology into the fabric of our beings, mindfulness has never been more relevant.

This seemingly simple, yet complex, concept or strategy has been linked to many profound and positive benefits. For example, mindfulness has been linked to an improved ability to focus and orient attention, improved working memory, decreased test anxiety, and improved planning and organization. Britt (2011) has also demonstrated the value of mindfulness in the community college classroom by improving writing scores and reducing the numbers of mechanical errors in written work in just a few minutes of mindfulness practice per week. Further, there have been many personal benefits reported as a result on mindfulness, including reduced stress; improved immune systems; lessened anxiety, depression, and anger; improved relationships, and improved empathy (Flaxman & Flook, retrieved from Association for Mindfulness in Education). Mindfulness is virtually a no-cost tool that can benefit community colleges on both macroand micro- levels, for learners, instructors, administrators, and staff.

Stress is so pervasive and costly in our society that it warrants a few specific thoughts. The costs of stress-related illnesses to an organization are profound. The Center for Disease Control reports that 25 percent of workers today report their jobs as the primary source of stress in their lives and cite work stress as the number one complaint associated with health problems, exceeding that of financial problems and family or personal problems. Our students are no strangers to the effects of stress either. According to Mindfulnet.org, a recent survey at the University of Minnesota reported that 70 percent of students claim stress to be a factor in their lives and that one-third of students state that stress negatively impacts their academic performance. It is an easy inference to assume the community college student often experiences far more stress than their university counterparts. Mindfulness has been clinically proven to reduce stress and to improve our ability to focus and concentrate; in addition a significant proportion of those who participate in mindfulness-based training continue the practice years later.

Benefits of mindfulness have been measured in carefully designed, clinical trials and are further enhanced by the evolution of the study of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity refers to changes in the structure of the brain, and mindfulness has been demonstrated to create changes in the structure of the brain, permanently (Ireland, Scientific American, 2014). Practicing a few hours each week has been shown to shrink the amygdala, which is involved in the body’s stress response and mindfulness is associated with “the prefrontal cortex [ associated with higher order brain functions such as awareness, concentration, and decision-making] becoming thicker” (Ireland, 2014). In essence, mindfulness appears to down – regulate our “primal reactions to stress” and improve more thoughtful, higher order, contemplative reactions (Ireland, 2014).

Well known corporations, such as Google, General Mills, and Target, are embracing mindfulness programs and well-respected institutions of higher learning, such as Brown, UCLA, and Harvard, in the United States and abroad are developing mindfulness programs. Mindfulness is being integrated into K-12 educational settings as well and can help teachers teach and students learn and help all cope with the stressors of negotiating learning environments in a fast-paced, demanding, and rapidly changing environment. In fact, a Mindfulness in Schools Campaign has a goal of making mindfulness training available to all 9 million UK children by 2022!

Community colleges have long been noted as innovators and leaders. A serious foray into mindfulness and what it can do to help support our students, our employees, each other, and our community is a cost effective venture that could provide enormous returns.

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