Educators today must do far more than teach content. We are expected to figure out how to get students to access the curriculum, “shut off” distractions and focus during lessons, stay calm and sit still during long high-stakes exams, and work cooperatively. But doing all this is much harder than it was 10 years ago.
In a world of digital distraction and information overload, we are constantly pulled away from the present moment. For many of us, it feels as though we are multitasking 24/7. Are students of the digital age interconnected or are they disconnected from others, and from themselves?
As they contend with the digital world, teachers can find a great ally in mindfulness meditation. We can use it to enhance students’ attunement, promote connection, expand cognitive capacity, and gently challenge relational patterns, with the self and others.
Mindfulness meditation has been shown to decrease stress and anxiety, boost working memory, focus attention, reduce emotional reactivity, and increase relationship satisfaction.
What is mindfulness? It’s surprisingly simple: It’s when we bring attention to the present moment, nonjudgmentally. And I think it should be included in every teacher’s toolbox.
As a public school science teacher who has established a mindfulness practice in her classroom, I’d like to offer a few easy steps to help you get started, even if you are brand new to mindfulness.
Step 1: Make it relevant. Before you jump into meditation, discuss shared experiences with your students, like how often we find ourselves distracted during class, anxious while finding friends to sit with in the cafeteria, or worried as we take high-stakes exams. Then explain that it isn’t your job just to teach content, but also to teach students ways to access the curriculum and grow socially and emotionally. Let them know that scientific research supports the effectiveness of meditation. When students’ feelings and experiences are considered and they believe mindfulness meditation is relevant, it increases “buy-in,” or an openness to engaging in an unfamiliar process.
Step 2: Explore the mind-body connection. After you discuss the relevance of mindfulness in school, draw attention to the mind-body connection. Do this by trying out different poses or postures and sharing how everyone feels in them. You might have the class stand with their feet planted flat and firmly on the ground, and then on their toes, and then on the sides of their feet. Have them stand up straight and then slump over in their seats. Ask them to turn their palms up and open, and then clench them shut. Have everyone press their lips shut and then gently let their jaws drop and lips part.
Students quickly report feedback, revealing that they feel more alert when sitting up straight, that they feel “grounded” and far less insecure when their feet are planted flat on the ground, and that they feel less tense when their hands are relaxed, open, and up and when their lips are gently parted and their jaws are soft. After exploring various poses, optimal body posture for mindfulness—posture that is conducive to taking in deep breaths of oxygen, promotes muscle relaxation, and allows energy to flow—suddenly becomes intuitive.
Step 3: Find an anchor. Help students find an anchor that works for them. Anchors are helpful ways to bring us back to the present moment when we get distracted. Two that I use often are focusing on breathing and feeling your feet in your shoes. Explain that it’s common and normal for your mind to wander, especially when meditating. The key to mindfulness is simply to recognize it and bring attention back to the present moment, often with the help of an anchor.
Try giving your students an example: Perhaps you find anxiety creeping in as you worry about catching the bus when the bell rings. You can manage this if you catch yourself and draw your attention to your feet planted firmly on the ground. Notice your warm cozy socks. Notice your solid footing. If you are still feeling anxious, follow your breath through your nostrils and deep into your belly. Notice the cool air as it enters your nose. Notice the warm air as it leaves your body. You will find yourself back in the present moment where you are safe, where there is no danger.
Step 4: Do it with compassion. Once students are feeling open to the practice and have identified postures and anchors that work for them, introduce the theme of compassion. A mindfulness practice won’t be very helpful if students are hard on themselves when their minds wander or when they don’t experience immediate success. You want them to be curious and kind. Practicing mindfulness in a nonjudgmental way means being aware when the brain is rigidly labeling something, and instead pausing to find a more flexible, generous perspective.
Step 5: Give it a try. After teaching the power of posture and anchors and the importance of compassion, try meditating with your students. If you feel confident enough to lead the practice, I suggest starting with a basic body scan. To do this, gradually bring awareness to different parts of the body, taking in breaths to relieve tension and stay present. If you are not confident yet, try guided audio meditations.
A few of my favorite websites offer free guided audio meditations. They are Fragrant Heart, Meditation Oasis, UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness, and Tara Brach. Browse the various intentions listed and choose the ones that are most appropriate for your class. Typically, 10-minute meditations are long enough to be impactful but short enough for young people to stick with. You will find mindfulness meditations that address everything from bullying to test anxiety.
Writer and meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn said: “The little things? The little moments? They aren’t little.” Teachers, create space—vital moments—for mindfulness in your classrooms. With your eyes closed, a slow deep breath, and an eagerness to expand in a way that brings greater academic success and personal fulfillment, begin the journey today.