By James Butler, M.Ed., author of Mindful Classrooms: Daily 5-Minute Practices to Support Social-Emotional Learning (PreK to Grade 5)
I’ve had the honor of starting a mindfulness program in the Austin Independent School District (AISD) based on years of experience of using mindfulness in my classroom and grade level. In my three years as the SEL (social and emotional learning) mindfulness specialist in AISD, I’ve had my fair share of successes and failures. As the first public school mindfulness specialist in the country, I love sharing my experiences and helping schools and districts integrate mindfulness into their climate and culture. Below are my top nine tips on how to ensure sustainable success in implementing mindfulness in your school or district. And if you’re interested in further content or information, check out our monthly Mindful AISD newsletter.
1. Start with the adults.
Mindfulness in schools needs to start with the adults. We often talk about taking care of our kids, but what if the people tasked with taking care of the kids aren’t taking care of themselves? That’s not going to work out very well. When the adults on campus have some type of personal practice, that’s when mindfulness can really take hold in a school. I’m not talking some crazy addition to your life like an hour of meditation per day or going on a 10-day silent retreat. My personal mindfulness practice started by taking the five minutes in the morning while my coffee was brewing to practice mindfulness. Think of it as integration as opposed to an addition. A lot of people also use mindfulness at night before they go to sleep. Another reason to start with the adults is because kids are brilliant and see straight through an adult trying to teach them something that the adult doesn’t believe in. We have to focus first on our adults, who will be responsible for leading the instruction.
2. Lead with science.
There’s some cool science out there behind mindfulness, including benefits to the brain, what our breath can do for us, and how mindfulness impacts our focus, relationships, and mental health. No matter if I’m teaching preK or a high school football team, I teach about how mindfulness can help the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex. I also love sharing about how we can regulate our nervous system just by controlling the way we breathe. It’s important for adults to hear about the science to help with buy-in, but it’s equally as important to share the science with our students for buy-in. When I taught preK, my students were fascinated by their ability to strengthen their brain, and they would even say, “Mr. Butler, my amygdala is going crazy right now. I need to take some deep breaths.”
3. Be trauma-informed.
Because mindfulness can be so powerful in increasing our awareness, it’s important to be aware of ourselves and what might arise with our students. Having a trauma-informed mindfulness practice is crucial for staff and students alike. I recently finished a 200-hour trauma-informed yoga teacher training and grew so much in my practice of ensuring that mindfulness is led through a trauma-informed or healing-centered lens. This shouldn’t steer us away from practicing mindfulness with our students, but we need to be aware and have proper preparation and supports in place just as we normally would if we notice our students need extra support. I often hear concerns about teachers having to act as therapists, and that’s valid because teachers are not therapists. But teachers know their students better than anyone else and can reach out for support when they realize it’s needed.
4. Be culturally responsive.
This is connected to being trauma-informed, but I want to be explicit and name it by itself. Mindfulness helps us be more aware of our biases and reduce our reactions to those biases, and it allows us to be more aware of how culture impacts how our brain operates. Mindfulness helped me recognize cognitive and implicit biases that I had toward my students and families. It shifted how I was able to truly see them. Recognizing our biases is a game changer for understanding behavior that often gets mislabeled as “disrespectful” or “defiant.” Many schools in Austin have done staff book studies with Zaretta Hammond’s amazing book, Culturally Responsive Teaching & the Brain. When we understand different levels of culture and how culture shapes our behavior and learning, we can shift how we see our students and their families.
5. Include families.
Speaking of families, it is absolutely imperative that we’re including them when rolling out mindfulness in our school or district. We want to have open conversations up front if families have concerns stemming from preconceived notions of what mindfulness is. And just like everything in education, if we want something to sustain in our schools, we have to include the families. I’ve heard countless stories of students in Austin ISD going home and teaching their parents about mindfulness, including a six-year-old who said, “Mom, I can tell you’re stressed out. Let’s take some mindful breaths together.”
6. Provide options.
When starting mindfulness implementation, it’s important to offer options. Mindfulness should never be forced on someone, and there’s no one way to sit or do mindfulness. Offering options for what to do with our eyes, our hands, and our bodies can help people feel more comfortable. Also, offering options for different types of mindfulness practice, including sitting, stretching, coloring, movement, music, art, and so on, will help people feel more comfortable with the practice.
7. Honor student leadership.
In my experience, each classroom is full of brilliant leaders who often love the opportunity to lead and teach their peers. I’ve found amazing success with students becoming mindfulness leaders once they are comfortable with practices. This is a great way to help our students find their power. I’ve also found that students who get into trouble a lot in class often find confidence and power in being able to lead their classmates through mindfulness practices. After all, if students are getting into trouble a lot in class, they’re trying to be heard, and giving them an opportunity to be heard can shift their perspective about school.
8. Seek support from the top down and the ground up.
What I’ve learned from leading a large urban public school district in mindfulness is that it’s important to have support from the top. We’re fortunate to have the support of our superintendent, Dr. Cruz. But the support can’t only come from the top, and it certainly can’t be something that’s forced on schools or teachers. Support from the ground up is equally as important. I’ve seen schools with administrators who originally weren’t on board with mindfulness even though the superintendent supported it in schools. But once a few of their teachers started sharing about mindfulness and the benefits for staff and students, those administrators started to change their tune. When we have support from leadership and teachers, that’s how mindfulness in schools sustains.
9. Be patient.
Lastly, be patient. Rolling out mindfulness in your school isn’t going to happen overnight. It’s going to take a while—often years—to really take off with more and more people understanding the benefits of mindfulness practice. It’s important to honor where people are coming from and any walls that might be up with regards to the awareness that comes with mindfulness. By honoring where people are and offering options, mindfulness will take, but it’ll take time. It’s also important to realize that mindfulness isn’t going to be a quick fix for behaviors. If you are patient with the practice and follow these tips, your school will see lasting, long-term positive benefits.
James Butler, M.Ed., has been teaching kindergarten and prekindergarten since 2002. He has a B.S. in education and early childhood from Indiana’s Manchester University and an M.Ed. in curriculum and instruction from Grand Canyon University. He is now the SEL (social and emotional learning) mindfulness specialist for the Austin Independent School District (AISD), working with teachers, staff, administrators, parents, and grades preK–12 students. During the 2016–2017 school year, James helped implement a mindfulness curriculum in all 130 AISD campuses. He lives in Austin, Texas.
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