Amanda Moreno, Ph.D. joins filmmaker James Redford to discuss toxic stress, learning 

Assistant Professor Amanda Moreno, Ph.D. joined Director and Producer James Redford, Boston University’s Michelle Porche, and The Washington Post’s Michael Chandler on May 1 at the Education Writers Association (EWA) 69th National Seminar. Dr. Moreno and other panelists spoke about trauma, toxic stress, and learning after viewing Redford’s documentary Paper Tigers, which takes viewers inside the halls of Lincoln Alternative High School, where the staff’s new approach to discipline—one with love and compassion—begins to shift the behavior of troubled students.

Dr. Moreno and filmmaker James Redford

Dr. Moreno with filmmaker James Redford

Dr. Moreno shared with press at the EWA Seminar details of the largest and first-of-its-kind controlled study by Erikson to examine whether mindfulness exercises can improve social-emotional well being and academic performance for young children in Kindergarten through 2nd grade. Funded primarily by a prestigious $2.5 million U.S. Department of Education Investing in Innovation (i3) grant, the study will, over the course of four years, reach 2,000 students in Chicago Public Schools classrooms that serve primarily low-income children of color. Many have suffered trauma and toxic stress in their lives.

“We need to be treating children’s brains as precious things, not necessarily as resilient things,” Dr. Moreno says. She said at EWA that the concept of “resiliency” could be confused with asking children to “get over” the stress or trauma in their lives.

Mastery of self-regulation skills — the ability to manage emotions and impulses — during the early years of schooling has been shown to be as important, if not more, to long-term academic competence than intelligence. Recent research in the area of toxic stress in young children has shown that common, moderately stressful circumstances associated with socioeconomic disadvantage have deep, biological consequences for children, such as smaller brain size.

“What mindfulness in the classroom does is create a sense of calm, community, and validation that their teacher is allowing time for the ‘curriculum of me’ despite what is happening in the students’ lives,” she says. “Compassionate institutions are needed at every level so we can buffer, rather than cement, children’s toxic stress.”

Components of Erikson’s mindfulness study include daily mindfulness exercises, such as guided breathing or yoga-inspired poses; a “Calm Spot” app used as a “brain break” up to four times a day that guides children through relaxing, nature-based imagery; Erikson-led “Calm Community” sessions aimed at helping children apply mindfulness at home and in their communities; and regular “Parent Nights” during which parents learn how to incorporate mindfulness at home and can share challenges they are facing with their children. 

The project is expected to improve social-emotional well being and academic performance in students, job satisfaction in teachers, and the interpersonal climate of the classroom.