Mindfulness is emerging as a technique adopted in education to address student anxiety and stress, increase focus and creativity, and foster stable behavior and patience. In this essay, I briefly discuss my journey in implementing mindfulness with my sixth and eighth grade students, implications for teaching practice, and lessons learned along the way.
Going into teaching, I knew that this career came with its fair share of stress. As a novice teacher, I remember struggling with self-doubt and uncertainty in regard to strategies and techniques. With only a few years under my belt, I slowly started implementing various contemplative practices, both inside and outside of my classroom. One year I tried writing in a teacher journal, another I had students write reflections at the end of the quarter. I tentatively tried breathing exercises and a few stretches but left it at that. In 2014 I started work on my PhD at Seton Hall University and used my coursework to research the phenomenon of contemplative practices further by analyzing empirical studies on the topic.
What Is Mindfulness?
Being mindful is consciously bringing awareness to one’s experience—focusing one’s attention on thoughts, feelings, and environment in the present moment. Mindfulness can be applied to sensory experience, thoughts, and emotions by using sustained attention and noticing one’s experience without passing any judgment.
Mindfulness exists in various forms: centering, guided meditation, listening to a piece of relaxing music, body scan, creative visualization, and breath work to name a few. It is ultimately the teacher’s decision as to which type of mindfulness to implement depending on the overall needs of the students.
Introducing Mindfulness to Your Students
I don’t like to introduce mindfulness practices until at least the third or fourth week of school. By then my students are already acquainted and I’ve had the opportunity to build trust. I explain to my students that we will be doing relaxation practices about once or twice per week, briefly provide a rationale, and outline the benefits. At the beginning of each practice, I recommend that the students do a gentle physical response exercise: shake out the hands, slowly turn the neck, inhale, and raise the shoulders to the ears and release, exhaling at the same time.
Teachers often ask how to create buy-in with their students. First, teachers have to believe that mindfulness is worth doing. Without a commitment from the teacher, students will not support the decision. Second, making mindfulness part of a routine in your classroom is key: After a few giggles the first time, students will soon be asking for “that thing we do . . . the relaxation practice.”
Any new initiative takes time and motivation. It is easy to get carried away with the everyday tasks at the school, so finding time to implement these mindfulness practices is essential. I schedule time each week in my classes, and set a time for teacher reflection on Friday afternoons. Be prepared for your colleagues to be curious about mindfulness. For example, shortly after I started practicing mindfulness in my classroom, my colleagues started asking whether they could attend and observe the process. This ultimately led to my creating professional development workshops which were presented to my district.
Certainly, questions may be raised, and having empirical data available that demonstrates the benefits is key. In addition to having a collection of recent studies easily accessible, I keep a log of my mindfulness practices. For example, I usually make note of which activities students enjoy the most, which ones may make them restless, and whether time of day has any impact—morning versus afternoon practice, for example. When I started doing mindfulness practices in my classroom, I would often use them as closures. However, I noticed that the piercing sound of the period-changing bell often startled students, and now I allow one to two minutes for students to slowly open their eyes and stretch.
Since mindfulness practices originate in Eastern philosophy and Buddhism, it is important to reiterate to students, their parents, and the school administration that such initiatives are secular. I suggest that teachers be careful with terminology: Try not to use the term meditation but instead a more secular term such as relaxation practice, creative visualization, deep breathing exercise, or centering practice. In addition, be mindful of using Buddhist props like tingsha cymbals, a gong, or a Tibetan singing bowl. Instead, teachers should opt for a simple bell or a chime that has a smooth sound and does not have an obvious religious association. I also recommend that both novice and seasoned teachers make a note of such practices in their lesson plans and secure permission slips from parents.