Curving the School-to-Prison Pipeline Through Mindfulness

Have you ever forgotten why you walked into a room or what you did the day before? Ever wondered how you got to the place you are now? We’ve all been guilty of cruising on auto-pilot, not stopping to think about what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and how it makes us feel. Oftentimes, we go through life in this zombie-like state to resist concealed pain and to gain the pleasure we instinctively desire.

Youth in underserved urban communities are key victims of “sleep-walking” and face risks for many stress-related outcomes, including social-emotional barriers, behavior problems, and low academic achievement. I have become increasingly interested in the intersections of school discipline, low educational attainment, and juvenile offenders. My theory is that, if more schools and community organizations educated youth on mindfulness, school suspension rates would reduce and education outcomes would increase.

Mindfulness is a tool that builds awareness through purposely paying attention to the present moment by non-judgmentally unfolding each moment of your experiences. This approach has been found to help chronically stressed youth regulate their thoughts and emotions while increasing their focus, compassion, and resilience.

[Mindfulness] has been found to help chronically stressed youth regulate their thoughts and emotions while increasing their focus, compassion, and resilience.

School starts as a place where young people feel successful and safe. But over time, many students struggle and begin to act out. Rather than providing more social-emotional support, schools suspend and punish youth for minor misbehaviors by taking away learning opportunities. Suspended students are twice as likely to drop out as those who have not been suspended, and Black students are at least twice as likely as their non-black peers to be suspended. Once a student drops out of school, they are more susceptible to low achievement and crime. A U.S. Department of Education study of incarcerated youth found that 57 percent possess only rudimentary reading skills, and those with learning disabilities and low academic achievement are three times more likely be involved in gang activity. I believe improvement will happen when these factors are observed collectively.

Robert W. Coleman Elementary School in Baltimore is an example of mindfulness in action. In 2014, the school partnered with the Holistic Life Foundation to bring mediation and mindfulness to students. Instead of the using detention as a discipline technique, disruptive students are brought to the Mindful Moment Room to breathe and talk with a counselor. As a result, the school saw zero suspensions that school year. The nearby Patterson High School, which introduced the Mindful Moment program around the same time, saw overall suspensions drop by around half. Both of these schools are located in communities where there is extreme poverty, limited career opportunities and access to healthy nutrition. All of these factors are proven to contribute to the decrease in a child’s education and life experience.

As a fellow at Fiver Children's Foundation with Future Leaders in Action, I am developing curriculum for core programs in Service and Leadership, Education and Career Success, and Healthy Life Choice. My goal is to make mindfulness a key component in these programs. Youth are not one-dimensional beings, and it is important to look at the whole child when developing solutions to the problems they face. My hope is not to save young people’s lives through mindfulness, but to give them the tools to save their own.