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Modern life bombards students with challenges to their learning: Hunger, violence, overworked teachers and under-funded schools are the norm in many parts of the world, says University of Michigan developmental psychologist Jacquelynne Eccles, PhD. If Western culture isn't providing all the answers we need, maybe it's time we looked elsewhere for advice, she says.

That's just what she and other psychologists, neuroscientists, educators and lawyers discussed along with Buddhist thinkers, including Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th dalai lama, at an October conference, "Educating World Citizens for the 21st Century," co-sponsored by APA. Twenty panelists discussed, in the abstract and in terms of specific policy changes, how the practices of mindfulness and contemplation could be incorporated into Western education to combat distractions and prepare students to be more concerned about those around them.

"Education in the West has been very focused on preparing people to be workers," said Daniel Goleman, PhD, a behavioral psychologist who popularized the notion of emotional intelligence. "But that leaves lacking the qualities that make someone a good world citizen."

Gyatso said that although we pay lip service to the importance of education, most people are focused on a narrow definition of education that emphasizes memorizing and passing tests to the exclusion of happiness and well-being. "We are social animals," Gyatso said. "Individuals' happiness depends on the community's happiness."

At the root of this self-centeredness is the competitive nature of our educational system, said Stanford University education professor Linda Darling-Hammond, EdD. That competition drives students and teachers to discriminate against those who do not achieve as well. A better system might train teachers to focus on the positives in each child and to make a personal connection with them, Darling-Hammond said.

Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children's Defense Fund, said the educational system actually fosters inequality since students who don't succeed in school—often due to unstable home environments or unaddressed cognitive problems—become stigmatized later in life. They can't find work without an education and may turn to violence or illegal activities to make ends meet. They go to prison and their children continue the cycle of inequality, Edelman said. "Incarceration is becoming the new American apartheid."

It's a hard cycle to break because those life experiences brand themselves on the brain, explained University of Wisconsin–Madison neuropsychologist Richard Davidson, PhD. Childhood is a "sensitive period" for the brain's plasticity, he said, and what children learn early on often becomes habitual. On the other hand, the brain's plasticity presents the opportunity to instill practices in children that might help them control their emotions.

That would be useful in light of a troubling trend Davidson noted: The physical onset of puberty seems to be coming sooner for children in industrialized countries. Although these children's bodies are flooded with hormones and desires during this developmental change, the brain's prefrontal cortex, which regulates emotional control, isn't fully mature until the early 20s—that means children have a longer period to make emotionally charged, negative decisions, he said. But teaching children strategies to handle those emotions could help mitigate the dangers.

"Can we teach our children to better regulate their emotions?" Davidson asked. "According to neuroscientific experiments, the answer is a tentative yes."

"Education literally shapes children's brains," he said.

That means we should think of kindness, cooperation and patience as skills to be learned, not just inborn traits, Davidson said. To do that, teachers need the resources, both financial and cognitive, to deliver that type of training, said Linda Lantieri, director of the New York City-based Inner Resilience Program, which promotes social and emotional learning in teachers and students. Teachers need to focus on their own kindness and compassion before they're able to teach those skills to others.

"It's like putting your own oxygen mask on [in an airplane] before helping other people," said Lantieri, who added that some of the best teachers are leaving the profession due to stress. To prevent that, the educational system should nurture teachers' inner lives and help them manage the balance between work and life before they're dropped into a classroom to educate 35 children at a time. Only then will teachers be able to cope with their students' needs and understand why a child might burst out or act violently, she said.

Gyatso emphasized that teachers' compassion for their students shouldn't be contingent upon how those students act toward them.

"[You should have] solid compassion, irrespective of others' attitudes," he said.