October 13, 2010

Teaching kids compassion through meditation

Compassion is not something you keep to yourself. Compassion meditation, a systematic method for cultivating emotional balance and pro-social behavior and highlighting interconnectedness, isn’t either.

Wanting to share compassion meditation and its outcomes, two Emory graduate students developed pilot programs on this Tibetan Buddhist contemplative tradition in two educational settings, one in a private school and one in the foster care system.

Brooke Dodson-Lavelle and Brendan Ozawa-de Silva used the compassion meditation protocol designed by Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi, director of the Emory-Tibet Partnership, co-director of the Emory Collaborative for Contemplative Studies and spiritual director of Atlanta’s Drepung Loseling Monastery.

Negi’s protocol uses a cognitive, analytic approach to challenge a person’s unexamined thoughts and emotions toward other people, with the long-term goal of developing altruistic emotions and behavior toward everyone.

Ozawa-de Silva and Dodson-Lavelle collaborated with teachers at The Paideia School, an Atlanta-area private, independent school. They were invited by the school’s consulting psychologist Barbara Dunbar.

The program, says Dodson-Lavelle, was for “children aged 5-8, an in-class program to see if we could systematically teach compassionate meditation, which encompasses qualities like empathy, perspective, impartiality, equanimity.” It built on the mindfulness meditation the teachers there were already using.

“The kids,” Dodson-Lavelle says, “were great! They got the concepts instantly.”

Kelly Richards is the lead teacher for a class of 7- and 8-year-olds at The Paideia School. She noticed “how big the impact was on the kids; how perfectly comfortable they were with it.”

“It really helps children in lots of ways, to get in touch with their feelings, to be kind and considerate and to pay attention,” Richards says.

Jonathan Petrash, who co-teaches a class of 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds, says, “I really think it helps the kids [to] center. The biggest impact was around interpersonal dynamics — how to talk to friends, being open and closed, body language and what it tells us.”

“We have tried to make it a part of our daily routine,” Petrash says. “There is a real calm, settled feel in our classroom with deeper and richer conversations. The kids are better able to show empathy, better able to show compassion.”

Both Paideia classrooms were fascinated with compassion meditation’s concept of “interconnectedness.” Ozawa-de Silva brought in a sweater to illustrate the concept, pointing out all the different people involved in growing the material for the fabric, getting it to the producers, making the sweater, packing it, bringing it to the store.

“The kids saw how you are connected to so many people through objects. They really grasped that idea,” Petrash says.

The second pilot program, developed and implemented by Ozawa-de Silva and Dodson-Lavelle, Negi and Charles Raison, clinical director of the Emory Mind-Body Program, was in early 2009 for youth in Atlanta’s group foster care system.

Six girls, age 13-16, were trained in a six-week compassion meditation program, in which the goal, Dodson-Lavelle says, was to give them a sense of self-worth and hope.

Kids in foster care have “emotional problems and behavioral problems, such as connecting with adults, for a lot of different reasons,” Dodson-Lavelle says.

The girls later told external reviewers of the program how powerfully the meditation had helped them in their relationships. Dodson-Lavelle confirmed that one of the participants said the training transformed her relationship with her estranged adoptive mother.

Looking to the future, Dodson-Lavelle and Ozawa-de Silva plan to conduct a scientific study this spring to see what effect the pilot program had on the The Paideia School children.

“We have anecdotal evidence” that the teaching has a continuing effect, Dodson-Lavelle says.

The pair also wants to make a more systematic program and expand it into the public schools.

For the foster care program, “We want to bring in a training program for caregivers” in the foster system, Dodson-Lavelle says. “We see that as a crucial piece.”

Compassion meditation is inspired by His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama’s long-held idea for an education of heart and mind, a vision for education that Emory fully shares, says Ozawa-de Silva.

The work will be presented to the Dalai Lama during the Compassion Meditation conference on Oct. 18.

The work was funded by philanthropist and benefactor Joni Winston through the Emory-Tibet Partnership.

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