The practice of mindfulness has gained attention in schools recently as a tool to enhance social emotional learning in the classroom. “Mindfulness” has been used in so many different contexts that it’s helpful to specify precisely what we mean when we say we’re using mindfulness strategies.
Simply put, mindfulness is being fully aware of each present moment in time while holding a non-judgmental and curious attitude toward whatever we are experiencing.
The most common way to practice this is by assuming a relaxed posture, closing one’s eyes, and focusing on breath. Take a minute or two, before continuing on with this article, to concentrate all of your attention on each breath in and breath out, perhaps sensing the rising and falling of your belly, or the rush of air into and out of your nostrils. [Pause]
Now that you’re back, you probably realized that it’s almost impossible to keep your attention totally focused on your breath, and that you experienced moments when you had thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, or other interruptions from your task of focusing on the breath. This is totally normal. In fact, a major part of mindfulness is to incorporate those interruptions into the practice so that when they come up, you can fully notice them (e.g. “I’m feeling bored, “My knee itches, “I’m wondering what’s for lunch”) while holding a totally nonjudgmental attitude to them before returning to your breathing.
Some people label these interruptions when they occur (e.g. “bored, “itching,” “hungry”) before returning their attention to their breath. It’s this combination of focus on the breath, open monitoring of whatever else comes into consciousness, and total acceptance of one’s experience, whatever it is, that makes mindfulness such a subtle but potent practice.
When you teach this practice with your students, you’re empowering them to engage in self-regulation of their thoughts and emotions. Instead of having a situation where a student feels angry and blows up at a classmate, for example, this practice helps the student observe the negative emotion non-judgmentally, watching it arise in consciousness and then subside without having to take action on it or without getting “hooked” by a cascading flow of negative thoughts and images (“Ugh! I’m going to get back at him for that! He’s always doing stuff like that!” “Our teacher doesn’t even see him doing it”).
All too often, we tell students to not be angry or to otherwise stifle the thoughts and feelings that aren’t relevant to the learning task at hand. But rather than asking students to repress their feelings only to have them all-too-often pop up later with greater intensity, mindfulness provides a way for students to experience their emotions or thoughts as momentary events that come and go. Naturally, this doesn’t happen overnight. That’s why we call mindfulness a practice. As students practice this process, they get better at it.
While focusing on the breath is the most common way of doing mindfulness practice, there are other ways to exercise one’s “mindful muscles.” Students can engage in mindful walking, where they focus on the contact their feet make with the ground, or mindful eating, as they savor each morsel of food, or “mindful stretching” where they focus all their attention on each motion they make as they assume different physical poses or postures.
The best way to get started with mindfulness is to practice it for yourself first. By experiencing it and talking about your own experiences, you’ll have more credibility with your students, as well as a better sense of assurance that this practice actually does promote concentration, compassion, and calm. It may also be helpful to practice with one or more colleagues, so that the group synergy helps motivate you to continue your practice. There are many resources online that can help you get started. An especially good online resource is David Gelles’ article in The New York Times, which includes guided audio practices of 1, 4, 10, and 15 minute practices, respectively.
At some point, you will want to engage your students in practicing mindfulness. One of the simplest ways to begin a practice session is to bring a bell or chime to school. You’ll want to avoid ones that have religious or spiritual connections (like Tibetan singing bells) so as to keep mindfulness on a purely secular basis. Ring the bell and ask students to focus all their attention on it and raise their hands when they no longer can hear the bell.
It helps to start small and keep the practice sessions to one to five minutes (this is especially true for younger kids). Over time, the practice interval can be extended. Some teachers have students put their hands on their chest and/or their bellies as they breathe so that they can tangibly feel the rising and falling of each breath. Other teachers use props or images to help illustrate how mindfulness works.
One popular item is a glitter jar that is shaken up so that students can see what the turbulence in our minds looks like, and then how it is allowed to settle, illustrating the process of the settling of our inner thoughts and feelings. Older students may prefer using a smart phone app like Smiling Mind, Head Space, or Calm to guide them through the process of mindfulness. There are also many organizations that train teachers in using mindfulness practice in their classrooms, including MindUp, Mindful Schools, and Still Quiet Place (contact information for these and other similar organizations can be found in my ASCD book Mindfulness in the Classroom). It’s especially important, when doing mindfulness, to build a space where students can talk about what they’re experiencing, have questions answered, and receive support for the progress they’re making.
Whether you’re an individual teacher using mindfulness in your classroom, or have your whole school embracing the method, mindfulness can provide your students with a key strategy in their social and emotional learning toolkit that will help them reduce stress, promote concentration, and contribute to a positive classroom climate.
Thomas Armstrong is the author of eight ASCD books, including his most recent title, Mindfulness in the Classroom: Strategies for Promoting Concentration, Compassion, and Calm. His other titles include Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom, 4th Edition (ASCD, 2017), The Power of the Adolescent Brain: Strategies for Teaching Middle and High School Students (ASCD, 2016), and Neurodiversity in the Classroom: Strength-Based Strategies to Help Students with Special Needs Succeed in School and Life (ASCD, 2012). He can be reached through his website, www.institute4learning.com, and follow him on Twitter @Dr_Armstrong.