Focus. Awareness. Resilience. Curiosity. Reflection. All are elements of thriving classrooms and students. All are trainable skills that can be intentionally taught and cultivated to strengthen student opportunities for success. I’ve come to realize that the extent to which I purposefully incorporate them into my curriculum makes just as much of an impact as how I teach academic skills.
Mindfulness in the classroom has the capacity to train students to nurture these qualities for success. While some may be hesitant to include mindfulness in the classroom, it is simply a way of equipping students with tools to help with attention and focus when they work. In my 10th and 11th grade English classes, our attempts to build a mindful practice have had a powerful impact on their learning. Taylor, a student of mine, recently said mindfulness has “really helped me grow as a person and a student by helping me focus on being present in body and mind.” Another student, Jennifer, said “being mindful has taught me how to respect myself and others, and how to make this time useful.” This priority creates a powerful space for students to be able to access our English curriculum from a place of awareness and empowerment.
Though many definitions of mindfulness exist, simply put, it means being present with moments and experiences as they are. Research, such as that compiled by UCLA’s Mindfulness Awareness Research Center, points to countless classroom benefits, including enhanced levels of attention, self-control, relationships, and decision-making as well as reduced amounts of anxiety, depression, and anger. It has the potential to transform classrooms and schools into spaces of greater reflection and awareness, while equipping students with necessary tools to navigate difficult emotions and challenges in life.
In building a mindful classroom, here are a few things I’ve been experimenting with lately:
Messages of Growth and Reflection. A growth mindset encourages students to approach focus as a practice, while examining the root of their distraction. Rather than coming from a place of shame or blame, this enables students to be more curious and aware of what they do and why they do it.
Ritualized Pauses in the Day. Starting and ending class with a few collective, guided breaths helps build community, resets students (and me) from the busyness of the school day, and allows time to set or return to an intention.
Tools to Navigate Difficult Emotions. Students can learn to explore their relationship to challenges and big emotions. They come to realize that though they may not be able to control their outer circumstances, they can manage their responses and approach life with awareness and curiosity, rather than reactivity. Guided techniques include:
- STOP (Stop, Take a breath, Observe, Proceed) can help students pause and reflect before making impulsive decisions.
- RAIN (Recognize, Accept, Investigate emotions with Non-attachment) trains students to work with difficult emotions by staying with them and realizing that though they are a part of them, they do not define who they are.
- Somatic awareness body scans can help students explore where they feel certain emotions in their body and give them space to stay with their emotions as they process them, rather than suppressing or numbing them through distraction.
Mindful and Reflective Curriculum. Student-centered themes, texts, and activities can help them examine their own lives and stories with awareness. Topics like identity, reactivity, decision-making, and healing can help students reflect on questions like: What in my past has shaped my present perspective and decision-making? What are the storylines I tell myself that feed, rather than ease, pain? At the same time, bringing a mindful lens to texts and incorporating activities like narrative writing helps students honor their own stories as transformative vehicles that have gotten them to where they are, not in spite of, but because of their challenges.
An intentionally mindful classroom practice allows students to examine how they show up every day and cultivate presence in the uncertain groundlessness of life. Equipping them with tools to reflect on experiences and navigate feelings allows them space to choose their responses from a place of empowerment, not reactivity. This has emboldened my students to be more focused and present learners who are able to do the fierce, openhearted practice that true learning requires. My student Frances recently wrote in a class reflection: “The meditations in the morning help me handle feedback in a positive way to make me a better writer.”
It is through mindfulness that she is able to build tools to learn, grow, and explore with openness and curiosity—in and out of the classroom. Mindfulness is a powerful vehicle for students to cultivate academic skills, while building more tools to help them better navigate the challenges that being a teenager brings. This makes our investment in building a mindful classroom practice worth every step, or more accurately, every breath.
Mindfulness Tips for Schools and Districts:
- Connect with local meditation and mindfulness organizations
- Offer teachers mindfulness professional development
- Design mindfulness classes for students, families, and staff
- Designate a room on campus to be a place to recharge, relax, and get present
- Incorporate mindfulness into existing discipline and school culture programs, such as Restorative Justice
- Helpful Organizations: UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center, Inward Bound, Hemera Foundation Contemplative Fellowship for Educators
- 60 Minutes segment on mindfulness
- Athletic and corporate applications of mindfulness
- Books: Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly, Mark Epstein’s The Trauma of Everyday Life, Pema Chödrön: Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears
Though school situations, culture, and tools vary, one thing is for sure: students need to be trained to cultivate tools for success. This is particularly true for at-risk students who may not have sufficient prior access to such tools. Though there is no singular path, mindfulness is one way of doing it that has already made a tremendous difference for my students this year. I’ve applied to attend UCLA’s Mindfulness Facilitator’s Training next year, and I’m excited to learn more about how it can be integrated into my class to build awareness and focus. My students are too—one even wrote my recommendation for the program!