Published Online: November 5, 2013

Mindful Moments: Teaching Students Self-Awareness

Teachers know stress. And if we don't know how to manage that stress in a systematic way, we can become ineffective at what we do best (not to mention feel miserable).

Many of our students live with stress as well, and not just at school.

I've used mindfulness practices—paying close attention to thoughts, feelings, and body sensations—for nearly 10 years. In addition to cultivating awareness of my mind and body, the practices have changed the way I relate to stress. This practice became the foundation for a pilot program I started for students at my elementary school: Mindful Moments.

Research as a Backbone

My personal testimony and a handful of anecdotes were not going to be enough to educate my coworkers, or the students and their parents, about the value of the program. I needed to start with a solid definition of mindfulness.

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I tailored the definition to make sense for students and teachers by compiling evidence that supported how mindfulness practices reduce stress, increase attention, and create self-regulation and self-awareness. And after learning about some fabulous programs elsewhere, I put together three practices to benefit students—exercises focusing on breathing (Breath Focus), body awareness (Body Scan), and self-talk (A Kind Line).

These three practices can be used anytime, anywhere, by anyone. They ground us in the present moment, helping us to focus on making clear decisions, free of distraction. Using the research to convince my audience proved helpful as it gave everyone something to hold onto in new territory.

Mindfulness practices are wildly new to most students, so teachers need extra time to drive home the "how-to" for each practice. Introduce the practices gradually—commit to a simple five-minute session each day and introduce a new practice each week for the first three weeks.

Breath Focus

My coworkers and I began with the practice that may be easiest to teach: Breath Focus. The aim is to focus on natural breathing patterns. Students tune into their breath to root their attention in the present, and this awareness serves as a reminder when their attention drifts. The process itself is quite basic.

You can encourage students to count the "in" and "out" breaths, follow the feeling of cool air coming in and out of the nostrils, or try to "find" the end of the breath cycle. (I've found my students respond best to the first strategy.) Make sure students understand that manipulating the way they are breathing will result in the intended effects. I often say things like, "You are not trying to breathe a certain way; just notice the natural rhythms as they come and go."

Body Scan

Similar to Breath Focus, Body Scan requires us to practice acute awareness. The aim here is to focus on areas of tightness in the body. Because stress is manifested in our bodies differently, it is up to us to bring awareness to it and systematically release the tension.

I tell students, "As you breathe out, relax your shoulders. Open up your hands, and plant your feet flat on the ground." These are general areas that most people tighten when stressed, but you will want to encourage students to bring awareness to their own tightness.

Students can choose from one of two practices: Simply noticing where their tension is and loosening the muscles, or tightening their muscles and releasing the tension, starting with the toes up through the neck. The former has worked better for intermediate grade students and the latter with primary grades.

A Kind Line

Switching gears from focusing on the breath and body, A Kind Line is all psychological—being "kind" is what this practice is all about. A Kind Line is a repetitive compassionate phrase used to bring about our innate kindness towards ourselves and others.

Simple in action, profound in results, and integrated with Breath Focus, A Kind Line starts with the inhale of the breath. On the inhale, students recite a short compassionate phrase. Examples are endless, but here are a few to get started: "I deserve the best," "I wish for others to be happy," or a school-focused one, "I feel confident in my academic abilities."

To encourage self-reflection, ask students to choose or create a phrase that fits their mood or point in their life. Tell them that doing so will create meaning for this practice. But you can also make a list of various phrases for students to choose from if they are having difficulty creating an original one.

Consistent Practice

Habits are formed slowly over time and require nurturing. In the morning, when it's time for Mindful Moments, I tell students, "Get in your positions." I use the same online timer, count down from five, and practice alongside students in the same spot in the same position, every single day. The students come into the classroom expecting this, and have grown to anticipate the practice as a beneficial start to their day.

At our school, we signal the start of the practice for all students. After morning announcements on the loudspeaker, we hear, "Now it's time for your Mindful Moments." Teachers have told me this is as good a reminder for them as it is for their students—and that they too benefit from the practice.

Handling Disruptions

Disruptions are inevitable. At first, remind students to keep their composure while disruptions happen. Use the distraction as a teachable moment by encouraging students to remain focused on their practice.

By learning to notice how their attention jumps back and forth, students begin to understand the need for an anchor-like mindfulness practice. This is a great opportunity for you to model. If it's not a pressing distraction, then let it go and continue your practice. Your commitment will show students it's possible to keep focused during distractions.

This skill can help students remain focused while others are off-task during class and notice when their minds are drifting during test taking. I've noticed it also appears to reduce the number of "repeat" questions during instruction.

Making Mindfulness Matter

To make the most of the practice, try to find other moments throughout the day when it can be helpful. Teachers mention, "I use it after recess when they come in all crazy," or "When I'm feeling overwhelmed, it's a great reset button." A 1st-grade teacher recently told me, "I used Breath Focus to calm a student who was crying uncontrollably."

Mindfulness practices can extend beyond the classroom, and in unexpected ways. A student told me he uses the practice at home when he needs to clear his mind. And another student reported, "I have asthma, so when I don't have my inhaler, I use Breath Focus to get control of it. It works."

I didn't encourage students to find ways to use the practice outside our morning routines. But they find ways that suit their personal needs. Encourage this. It will solidify the individualistic nature of the practice and create ownership. Speaking of which, I hope you too will find your own ways to adapt the practices to reduce your own stress.

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