Getting Our Students Ready to Learn with Mindfulness

By James Butler, M.Ed., author of Mindful Classrooms: Daily 5-Minute Practices to Support Social-Emotional Learning (PreK to Grade 5)

Getting Our Students Ready to Learn with MindfulnessAs teachers, we want the best for our students. We want our students to be the best versions of themselves, to reach their potential, and to grow and learn every day. That being said, we know that our students come to our classrooms with many stressors that can and will impact their learning potential.

Whether the stress is related to peers, home life, or school, it’s important for educators to acknowledge that students need our support to get ready to learn. We can’t just expect them to be ready to learn because we say so. We have to provide tools, and we have to help students know which tools might be helpful in certain situations.

A sustainable model of getting students ready to learn with mindfulness includes these three steps: 1) share science and research, 2) be consistent (with your personal and classroom practice), and 3) teach a variety of mindfulness practices.

Share Science and Research

It’s imperative that your students understand why your class is taking this time to get ready to learn. Mindful Schools has a great page on their website dedicated to research on mindfulness in education. Check it out and share the information with your students. The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley has a comprehensive article about the state of mindfulness science. I recommend that you also share this resource with your students.

Based on my learning of the “Hand Model of the Brain” by Dr. Dan Siegel, I created a short and informative video that describes the brain and the benefits of mindfulness. Revisit this information with your students regularly so they truly understand why you’re doing these mindful practices to get ready to learn.

When I was teaching preK, we would regularly go over the different parts of the brain, and I would hear stories of students going home and teaching their families about the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex. If four-year-olds can understand and digest this information, anyone can.

Be Consistent (Personal & Classroom Practice)

Consistency is everything when it comes to practicing mindfulness. Routines are helpful in getting students ready to learn, so having consistent time for mindfulness built into your day is crucial. Depending on your schedule, this time can be anywhere from one to five minutes in length. And you can use mindfulness practice in elementary, middle, and high school. Obviously, the scheduling is different in secondary schools, but there is always that transition time right when class is about to start.

I also can’t stress enough the importance of teachers having some type of personal mindfulness practice. This will help more than anything when it comes to implementing mindfulness in your classroom. Kids are brilliant, and they’ll see straight through you if you try to get them to practice something you don’t know anything about.

Imagine trying to teach Spanish when you don’t speak Spanish. It’s not going to go very well. Mindfulness is the same way. I include a compilation of recommended resources in this newsletter that I created in my role as the SEL Mindfulness Specialist for Austin Independent School District. There are lots of links in the newsletter, but I highly recommend the apps Headspace and Stop, Breathe & Think for their free educator subscriptions, as well as Liberate, InsightTimer, and Calm.

Offer a Variety of Practices

As I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, students need different things to get ready to learn based on where they are at a particular moment. They might need something to pick them up, or they might need something to calm them down.

Introduce mindfulness practices to the class one at a time so that students get a feel for and an understanding of each practice. After all practices are introduced, you can invite student choice. In elementary settings, I recommend a whole class practice with the option of doing something different if needed. In secondary settings, I recommend a menu of mindfulness practice options that students can choose from.

It’s important to note that silence can be triggering or activating for some students, depending on their culture or if they’ve experienced trauma. Keep that in mind, and maybe have soft instrumental music playing during mindfulness time. Here are five recommended mindfulness practices:

1. Mindful Breathing

You can find an assortment of breathing strategies on the Mindful AISD YouTube page. I especially recommend the videos “Fingertip Breathing Exercise” and “Slow Rollercoaster Breathing.” One of my favorite breathing exercises that I use to help me with anxiety is “2-to-1 Breathing,” which helps calm the nervous system.

I typically breathe in for four counts and out for eight (through pursed lips). Doing that five times takes just one minute and has an incredible impact on my nervous system.

2. Stretching/Movement

Incorporating movement is key, whether you use GoNoodle, yoga poses you find online, or favorite stretches you remember from gym class back in the day. I also recommend that when focusing on stretching or movement, you remind students to breathe and you notice their inhales, exhales, and the pauses in between.

3. Coloring

There are awesome benefits to coloring for both adults and kids. Countless free coloring pages are available online that you can print off for students; or pick up a coloring book of your choice.

4. Journaling

Recognizing and naming how you’re feeling in any particular moment has benefits. As Dr. Dan Siegel says, “Name it to tame it.” Journaling allows that expression to take place in a private form. Furthermore, there is cool research about gratitude journaling and its impact on self-esteem, depression, and anxiety.

5. Guided Practice

Guided practice with apps, such as Headspace; Stop, Breathe & Think; Liberate; InsightTimer; or Calm (links above), can be a great way for the whole class to participate in mindfulness together.

I recommend taking a week to teach each of these mindfulness practices, and after five weeks, start introducing student choice in ways appropriate to your grade level. And as always, remember to be patient and compassionate with yourself and your students as you introduce these practices. Mindfulness can be a great way to help students get ready to learn, but it’s equally as important for educators to listen to students and embody mindfulness and present moment awareness.

I wish you all the best and please feel free to reach out if you have any questions or curiosities:

James ButlerJames 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.

Mindful ClassroomsJames is the author Mindful Classrooms: Daily 5-Minute Practices to Support Social-Emotional Learning (PreK to Grade 5)

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