The many challenges of this year have required people to cope with a range of external stressors. The United States is still navigating community response to George Floyd’s killing and racial inequities. Many are physically distancing and trying to survive economic fallout from the pandemic. As an adult, I find it hard to take things one day at a time, focus on my breath, and move forward with purpose and gratitude. Young people are looking for ways to cope and heal as well.
At our middle school in inner-city Oakland, we started incorporating mindfulness into our daily announcements and homeroom time. Mindfulness is intentionally focusing awareness on the present moment without judgment. Many people have a mindfulness practice even if they do not call it mindfulness explicitly. Research shows that taking moments to practice and discuss mindfulness helps students thrive emotionally and academically by increasing focus and memory and reducing stress and anxiety. Distance learning creates a different context for mindfulness practice. Some simple strategies can help integrate mindfulness practice in distance learning.
Set the Groundwork
Begin by explaining how the brain works. Sometimes, knowing the science behind mindfulness can be just as important for a new practitioner as knowing what meditation is or how to do it. Explain to students the relationship between their amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex. Students should know that an “amygdala hijack” is a physiological response to stress that makes it harder for them to think, learn, or remember. While it is not their fault, it is something that they can learn how to control through mindfulness practices.
Modeling mindfulness can show students how the process works. Do you start your day with a quiet cup of coffee or an inspirational quote? Talking about a ritual and why it excites you may add to a child’s bank of experiences even if they choose not to do the practice on their own. Modeling a mindfulness practice in online learning shows students that it can be a simple, quick, and accessible activity.
Offering choice is a way to show students the accessibility of a mindfulness practice. Allow students to pick an activity or exercise and do it with them. Apps and videos may be useful. My students and I love the guided meditations and mindful hip-hop from the Mindful Life Project app. Let the students guide which practice to do and when to use it. Ask for their suggestions about mindfulness in the daily school routine.
Incorporate mindfulness in daily activities
Practice and talk about everyday mindfulness activities like mindful eating, mindful walking, or mindful cleaning. My grandfather instructed me to chew my food exactly 32 times before swallowing, which allowed me to focus on the full experience of the food. What are other daily activities that might benefit from nonjudgmental awareness? Ask students to brainstorm daily life occurrences and ways to bring mindfulness to them.
The act of remembering and sharing daily gratitude has been shown to have positive impacts on both cognitive and emotional well-being. Encourage students to practice acts of gratitude by creating a gratitude tree. It can be a drawing or wire frame of the trunk, limbs, and branches of a tree. Each day, students write one thing they are grateful for on a paper “leaf” and attach it to the tree. The leaves can be anonymous, or students can share their gratitude with the class. Students can add to the tree as part of the daily routine.
Another option is to ask students to make and decorate a jar of inspirational quotes and take turns pulling one out and reading it aloud. This is an activity that translates easily to online instruction, bringing mindful reflection to virtual learning.
Demonstrate mindfulness in motion
Mindfulness activities do not have to be in stillness. Find a recipe for kinetic sand, slime, or oobleck. Because sometimes, mindfulness has to be a little messy. My teenage sister and I learned how to make aromatherapy play dough.
Settling one’s thoughts can be difficult. A glitter focus jar helped some of my students with ADHD and ASD learn ways to calm their minds. Fill up a mason jar halfway with water, and then add some glitter glue and glitter of various sizes. Glue on the top so students can shake the jar and watch the glitter swirl around before settling slowly back to the bottom. The settling of the glitter mirrors the settling of our thoughts, something that can be hard for many of us to do without help.
Mandala coloring pages are made up of repetitive shapes and patterns that students can take their time to color as they choose because there is no right or wrong way to complete the designs. I find this especially useful for students who prefer to process their thoughts silently.
Use Written Reflection
Mindful writing can become an important part of a daily routine. Whether through daily journal prompts or written reflections after discussions, the act of putting your thoughts on paper brings about a similar kind of metacognition and awareness as meditating. Reflecting on earlier writing can show students how perspectives change.
The practice is useful for academic writing tasks, asking, “How has your opinion on this topic changed after reading and discussing this text?” as well as social and emotional understanding, asking, “What did you think/feel after witnessing or hearing about the fight that happened today?” Writing and reflection may be intimidating at first, so remind students that their ideas do not have to be fully formed.