ListenThe demands put upon students these days, from kindergarten through high school, have become overwhelming. Kindergartners, 5 and 6 year olds, are expected to read and write by the end of the school year. Upper elementary age students need to be able to use a computer and take multiple, extremely rigorous tests. Middle schoolers are doing work that used to be relegated to high school. High schoolers are taking courses that qualify for college credit. Where does it end? It is no surprise that students as young as kindergarten are stressed and unhappy. What can be done to support these students? Can anything be done to support these students? This is where mindfulness comes in to help students of all ages.
Mindfulness is being able to stay in the moment and not worry about anything that happened in the past or that will happen in the future. It is being present and trying to help yourself remain calm and stress-free in the moment. This is an important practice for everyone, not just students. When teachers have their own mindfulness practice, they are better able to assist and teach their students this wonderful practice.
Many people may think that mindfulness is the same as meditating. Mindfulness can include meditation, but it is not JUST meditation. Mindfulness is having an awareness of what is going on around you at all times. Meditation can be a big part of mindfulness if that is what is in your practice. Meditation doesn’t have to be a long, drawn out process; it can be done in as little as 3 minutes. It is not the act of controlling your thoughts, it is the act of not letting your thoughts control you. Another huge part of mindfulness is breathing and using the breath.
Teachers who have their own mindfulness practice will feel more at ease, more calm, more able to handle the stresses that pop up throughout their day of teaching. It really teaches you how to be proactive instead of reactive to all the different scenarios that you deal with in a day. Being proactive about behaviors, learning, etc. will help the day run smoother and more learning will occur. Also, in order to teach about this practice, you need to have experience with it.
The easiest way to start your own mindfulness practice is focusing on your breath for a few minutes to start and working up to a long time span. Maybe you start with 1 minute, then go to 3 minutes, then 5...you can decide how much time is good for you. If you are afraid that your mind will wander, just repeat to yourself…”I’m breathing in (when you inhale)...I’m breathing out (when you exhale).” This gives your mind a focus during your breath exercises.
Those breath exercises can be your meditation time or you can find an app or podcast that offers guided meditations. Find a voice or music that is soothing to you. Many times these meditations are something that will transfer nicely to the classroom. Finding a mantra that works for you will help you stay focused during your breath exercise or meditation.
Once you are comfortable with your own practice, you can bring mindfulness to the classroom. There are numerous websites, videos, books, CDs, etc that are specifically for classroom environments. You don’t have to have something that is guided if you feel comfortable with guiding your students yourself. Adding a mindfulness practice to your daily routine may take a while, but the advantages that it will add will be well worth the time that you put into it.
Ideas to use in lower elementary classrooms: Have students close their eyes. They can be sitting in chairs or lying on a rug in the classroom. Use a chime to signal that it is time for a breathing exercise/meditation or whatever title you want to give it. Ring chime again and have children inhale for as long as they can hear the ring of the chime. Ring the chime again and have the children exhale for as long as they hear the ring. Do this several times. During that time, have them tell themselves: “I’m breathing in (during the inhale) and I’m breathing out (during the exhale). Ring chime several times as a signal that breath time/meditation is over. You can also have them bring a “breath buddy” from home, which is a stuffed animal that may help them focus and be calm during the exercise.
Ideas to use in upper elementary classrooms: Have class take a mindful walk around the classroom, in the hallways or outside. During the walk, they cannot speak and they must walk slowly, keeping their focus on each step they take, each thing they see or each sound they hear. When they silently return to the classroom, you can have a discussion of what they experienced during the walk. You can use a rock or other item as a speaking stone; they can only talk when they have the stone/item in their hands. Students pass the rock around so that everyone who wants a turn gets one.
With the advent of rigorous testing in elementary school, breathing exercises can be utilized before the students take their tests. If a breathing exercise practice is already part of the classroom from the beginning, this will just be another instance of where it can be used with positive results. Since students will be familiar with the practice, it will be a natural use of mindfulness.
Ideas for middle school classrooms: Either of the practices above can be adapted for middle school. You could also add a breathing exercise at the beginning of the class to get the students calm and focused for the class each day. Any subject can have them use a journal to write about thoughts they have after the breathing exercises. Teachers could even do a guided breathing exercise discussing what will be covered in the class that day so that students are fully aware of what will be expected of them in a very calm, supportive environment.
As in upper elementary grades, middle schoolers have rigorous tests along with their regular subject tests. If this is a practice that they have been using since elementary school, it will be another natural progression of using mindfulness to calm testing nerves and staying focused on the task at hand.
Ideas for high school classrooms: All the above practices can be adapted for high school. Sometimes it can be a little more difficult with this age group because of peer pressure and not wanting to be different. If they aren’t familiar with breathing exercises or meditation, they may not want to do it because they feel they look silly or they are afraid that they will get teased by friends. Making sure that your classroom is a safe place where they can take these risks and talk about why they may not want to do it...getting those thoughts and feelings out into the open...may help in the process. High schoolers are under so much pressure with school, sports, applying to colleges, part-time jobs, etc. They need to have an outlet that isn’t drugs or alcohol.
If you are worried about push back from parents, you can always send a letter home at the beginning of the year stating that you are going to be doing mindfulness exercises. Explain what exactly you are going to be doing and emphasize that it has no religious affiliation. Many parents may feel that mindfulness and meditation are aligned with a specific religion when they are, in fact, not meant to be associated with any religion.
In the letter, you can quote studies and explain the science behind breathing exercises to take any thoughts of religion or spirituality out of the equation. There are a plethora of articles and studies on line that will support the findings that mindfulness helps students, and everyone, inside and outside of school. You could even offer to have the parents come in for a special breathing exercise activity so they can see it in person. Don’t let the push back by a few parents dampen your passion for using this practice.
Along with parents and students, don’t you think that your staff could use some mindfulness in their day/week. You can ask your principal if you could do a mindfulness group before school once or several times a week before school. It doesn’t have to be super early. It could be 15 minutes before school starts and everyone could gather in one classroom to do some breathing exercises or meditation. It could be a voluntary activity so that people don’t feel obligated to attend.
How great would it be to start every day with a mindful moment? I think that the people who already have a mindfulness practice would jump aboard and those who are new to it would find that it is the highlight of their week. Everyone wants to feel happy, calm and positive so why not be the one who brings that to your school or district?
There are some great books that you can read to get more information on this topic. Cultivating Mindfulness in the Classroom, by Jeanie M. Oberlin and Mike Ruyle is a very easy to read, how to manual. It explains different forms of mindfulness and then gives examples of activities for each. It is for all grade levels. The next two books are by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who started the Plum Village Community in France. Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness with Children is more focused on elementary age students. It gives background on mindfulness and also gives specific activities that can be done with children. It also comes with a CD.
Happy Teachers Change the World is also my Thich Nhat Han and it is a teacher-life changing book. I personally think every pre-practicing teacher should have to read this book. It is so positive and makes you think about how your presence in the classroom truly affects the lives of your students in and out of school. It also gives specific activities to do with students at all grade levels. I adapted some of the activities above from this book. I personally cannot wait to get back to my classroom to use them.
Teachers are infamous for putting all their energy and care into their students. Even when they are home or out and about in the community, they are thinking of new ideas, buying supplies, worrying about students; it goes with the job. They are also infamous for not thinking about self-care. As the saying goes, you can’t pour from an empty cup. You have to fill your cup up with self-care before you poor into anyone else’s cup.
If mindfulness is something that you have never thought about for yourself personally, never mind for your classroom, why not give it a try? It can help you inside as well as outside your classroom. You will be more present and calm with your students. Your classroom environment will ooze support and positivity. It can be done in as little as 5 minutes a day. That is 1/228th of a day! You can definitely fit that self-care into your schedule.