Mindfulness in the Classroom – A Powerful New Tool for Learning

This material is based upon my book Mindfulness in the Classroom:  Strategies for Promoting Concentration, Compassion, and Calm published by ASCD.

There’s an epidemic sweeping through our classrooms today.  Not connected to a virus, bacteria, or any other pathogen, the malady is stress.  Our students are experiencing stress at levels never before seen in the history of U.S. education.  The statistics are alarming.  Here are a few of them:

  • One in ten preschoolers has had suicidal thoughts;
  • Doctors are increasingly reporting children in early elementary school suffering from migraine headaches and ulcers, and many physicians see a clear connection to school performance pressure;
  • A third of our adolescents report feeling depressed or overwhelmed because of stress, and their single biggest source of stress is school;
  • Roughly one in four girls in U.S. high schools and one in 10 boys try to harm themselves even when they are not attempting suicide;
  • In a Yale University survey of more than 22,000 high school students, teens reported feeling stressed 80% of the time in school;
  • By the age of 21, according to one longitudinal study, 82.5% of our students will have met the criteria for at least one psychiatric disorder (no, this is not a misprint)

While the causes of stress in children and teens are manifold (e.g. test stress in school, social unrest, media saturation, poverty etc.), there has been one particular strategy emerging in education over the past ten years that shows promise in helping students deal with the stresses in their lives: mindfulness.

Simply put, mindfulness is the practice of being fully aware of each present moment in time while holding a nonjudgmental and curious attitude toward whatever is being experiencing.  The most common way of practicing this method is by attending to one’s breathing.  Take a moment, before going on, to find a comfortable posture, close your eyes, and begin paying attention to your breathing.  Focus your attention on the rise and fall of your belly or chest, or the sensations that air makes as it enters your nostrils on the in-breath and leaves your nostrils on the out-breath. Do this for a minute or two. [Pause].

One thing you probably discovered in doing this exercise is that you couldn’t always keep your concentration focused on your breathing.  You might have had stray thoughts, errant emotions, or intermittent sensations (like an itch in your knee) that interrupted the focus on your breath. That’s perfectly normal. One study suggested that our minds wander 47% of the time when we’re awake.  The great thing about mindfulness is that it’s okay to be distracted.  In fact, it’s how we respond to the distractions that leads us to some of the greatest benefits of mindfulness. The next time you try this, whenever a distraction comes along, just put a label on it (e.g. ”thought,” ”feeling” ”sensation” etc.), notice it with a nonjudgmental attitude, and then place your focus back on your breath.  Keep doing this as often as you need to (you may have scores of interruptions in just a few minutes of being mindful).  This process builds both concentration (on our breath) and awareness (of all the things that distract us).

In the classroom, educators can take this basic format and adapt it to different age and grade levels, and differing needs of individual students.  Some teachers have students put one hand on their chest and one on their belly so they can feel the rising and falling of their breath. For highly active kids, it may make more sense to do ”mindful walking” or ”mindful stretching” (where the focus is on bodily sensations–either the sensations of walking or the sensations of moving into different postures as in yoga).  For younger kids, limiting sessions to a one or two minutes may be the most some kids can manage to focus.  For middle school or high school students, letting them load a mindfulness app like Calm or Head Space onto their phones might be a better way for them to practice since in this case they’re the ones calling the shots.  However you introduce this method to your students, make sure to build in discussion afterwards so that they can share their experiences of what worked and didn’t work, and what they’re learning about themselves as they practice.

New research is revealing that the regular use of mindfulness practices has solid benefits for students in school.  Among some of the benefits of mindfulness are the following:

  • better executive functioning;
  • more sustained attention;
  • improved working memory;
  • enhanced social and emotional development;
  • higher math performance
  • more efficient self-regulation.

Educators are using mindful practices in individual classrooms and also on a school-wide basis.  Some schools, for example, have designated a specific area of their building as a ”mindful moment” center where students who are overwhelmed with negative feelings in class can go to mellow out with the assistance of a mindfulness-trained educator.  Other schools have built in mindfulness to existing courses and programs such as P.E., psychology, and health education.  In some cases, an administrator or teacher has led the entire school in a mindfulness exercise using the school’s intercom system to communicate.

To get started with mindfulness, an educator should begin by practicing on themselves.  By establishing your own mindful practice, you develop ”cred” with your students and you also reassure yourself that the practice has positive practical benefits.  For some guided help in practicing mindfulness, there’s a good New York Times link that provides 1, 4, 10, and 15 minute audio sessions.  Start with short sessions and then build up over time.  It may be helpful to do this practice with one or more of your colleagues in school.

Then, when you feel ready, lead your class in a short session.  Some teachers strike a bell or some chimes and tell students to raise their hand when they can no longer hear it as a way to begin a session (if you’re a public school teacher, make sure to make it a secular bell rather than, say, a Tibetan singing bell — there must be no association with any religious or spiritual practice such as Buddhism or Hinduism).  Other educators have used a ”glitter jar” (a jar with little bits of glitter suspended in a liquid of half water and half glitter glue) as a way of showing how our minds can get shaken up by all the inner and outer stimulation we receive in the course of a day, but that if allowed to settle, as through mindfulness, we can eventually be led to calmness.

As with any new innovation in education, some educators are bound to resist and say something like ”this just adds to my teaching load.”  It’s important to note, however, that many teachers have found that these practices lead to a lighter teaching load, since both they and their students have reduced stress levels, greater focus on school work, and less time taken away by behavior problems.  Other educators and parents worry that students are being hypnotized or otherwise manipulated through these exercises.  However, what mindfulness really does is help students build a sense of self-awareness and self-control. While mindfulness is certainly not a panacea for all that ails  education, it is a surprisingly easy, no-cost, research-based way of settling the mind into a focus on the here-and-now that can make your students better learners in the classroom and better citizens in the outside world.

For more information about using mindfulness in school settings, see my book, Mindfulness in the Classroom: Strategies for Promoting Concentration, Compassion, and Calm.

This page was brought to you by Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. and www.institute4learning.com.

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