By Liz Bergren
Mindfulness, a buzzword we hear everywhere. The term, first coined by Buddhist scholar T.W. Rhys Davids, was reintroduced to us as a practice through the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1979. Kabat-Zinn is a renowned MIT-educated scientist who created the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program. Since the inception of MBSR, mindfulness has seeped into the mainstream and is practiced everywhere, from the therapist’s office to Fortune 500 companies to the classroom.
Mindfulness in the classroom, when practiced regularly with students, has been shown to improve focus, regulate behavior, reduce tension and stress, and contribute to an overall healthier classroom climate. This post offers suggestions for how to introduce mindfulness to students.
Mindfulness can reduce anxiety at school.
According to the American Psychological Association, anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorders among children and adolescents. About 32 percent of adolescents in the United States have a diagnosable anxiety disorder. According to Mindful Schools, a California-based program that trains educators to bring mindfulness into school communities, mindfulness is one of the most essential skills necessary to navigate life: “Scholarly research finds that mindfulness practice decreases stress and anxiety, increases attention, improves interpersonal relationships, strengthens compassion, and confers a host of other benefits.”
It is important for educators and all those who work closely with young people to understand the effects stress and anxiety can have on engagement in the classroom and on overall academic success. Mindfulness practices can be quick and easy to implement throughout the school day. The most important factor is consistency, so the practices become a habit and a natural response for coping with difficult emotions.
Consider using mindfulness practices at the beginning of the school day. They can also be helpful during transitions from one activity to another. Following are simple strategies you can use in the classroom.
Introduce students to breathing exercises.
To be in tune with your breath is a foundation of mindful practice. To help younger students understand how breathing can help them feel calm, read the story Breath by Breath: A Mindfulness Guide to Feeling Calm by Paul Christelis with your class. Pose questions to students such as, “How did breathing exercises help the characters in the story?” Tell students to place their hands on their bellies and feel their bodies move up and down as they breathe. Guide them through a belly breathing practice by having them imagine the up-and-down motion of air coming in and out of a balloon. Do this exercise for two minutes or longer, depending on the age of your students, and check to see if they notice a difference in their focus and energy after performing the exercise.
You can find breathing exercises for older students at TeensHealth.
Practice mindfulness in nature.
If you have time in your day, take students for a mindful walk outside where they can practice tuning in to the sounds, smells, and sights of nature. Enjoy the sounds of the birds, how the breeze feels on the skin, and the different smells you notice as you walk different places. Students can practice being quiet and working hard to pay attention to what is around them.
If you are strapped for time or you live in a climate where getting outside can be difficult, you can bring items from outside into the classroom to use in a mindfulness exercise or have students find an item in the room to use. You could also have them choose an item to bring from home that may have an interesting texture. When using an object from either outside or indoors, have students practice paying close attention to the details of the object they are holding. Tree bark is a great object for this exercise because of its intricacies, which we often don’t notice because, well, it’s tree bark. Ask students to notice how the object feels in their hands—is it rough, soft, hard, cold? This exercise can be a five-minute “before class” activity or it can be more elaborate, with students passing various objects around the room.
Students of all ages enjoy the practice of mindful eating.
Mindful eating is an essential skill to have, not only to increase the enjoyment of food, but also to prevent overeating or bingeing. Practicing a mindful eating exercise in the classroom can be tricky because of food allergies. Survey your students to check for allergies. For younger students, you may need to check in with parents prior to eating something in the classroom.
For this exercise, I often use Dove chocolate because of its smooth texture, its meltability, and because who doesn’t like chocolate. I’ve also used apples to compare and contrast different textures and flavors. Guide students through the following steps with two pieces of chocolate:
- Have students open their first piece of chocolate and eat it how they normally would with no direction.
- For the second piece, have students place the chocolate in their hand and notice how the wrapper feels in their palm.
- Direct them to slowly unwrap the chocolate (wrapper side down to avoid melting in their hands) and smell it. Tell them to notice any memories they have of eating chocolate or what comes to mind when they smell it. Smell is the sense most closely linked to memory, and they might enjoy sharing stories.
- Have them take one bite out of the corner and move it around in their mouths, savoring the flavor and feeling the texture of the chocolate change as it melts. Repeat that for three more bites.
- Poll students about how it made them feel to eat the two different chocolates. Which piece did they enjoy more? Did the first one taste different than the second one?
Mindfulness can also benefit adults who work with young people. It can help alleviate burnout and make the day feel a little less crazy. Consider utilizing these practices in your own life. Check in with yourself before the day starts and before you enter any space that children occupy. Be mindful of your own moods and how your energy and body language may be influencing your instruction. Take time to practice self-care and see how it impacts your days. I’d love to hear how you use mindfulness in your classroom!
Liz Bergren is Free Spirit’s education resource specialist. She is a former teacher with 15 years of classroom experience. In addition to being a teacher, she spent five years working for Park Nicollet’s Melrose Institute, where she counseled and taught classes to patients who struggled with eating disorders. She has a B.A. in health and secondary education from the University of St. Thomas and an M.Ed. in family education from the University of Minnesota.
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