The beginning of the school year is all about routines and procedures. Teaching students how to line up. Where to return materials. How to choose a book from the classroom library. It is also the perfect time to teach mindfulness.
Mindfulness is more than paying attention. According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, a renowned mind-body author, mindfulness is that, yes, but done on purpose in the present moment, nonjudgmentally. Maura Bradley, the author of Mindfulness for Kids, defines mindfulness as “paying attention to where you are, what you’re doing, and how you’re feeling—all at the same time.” Bradley believes that mindfulness can improve all aspects of our lives by reducing stress and anxiety. It can also strengthen our ability to focus, she says.
In 2015, I participated in an eight-week mindfulness stress-reduction course based on Kabat-Zinn’s book Full Catastrophe Living. Each week, we learned a new mindfulness technique. The purpose of learning different methods, our instructor explained, was so we could find one that resonated with us.
At the time, I taught 2nd grade. I decided to teach the same exercises (simplified) to my students during our morning meeting. Each day, we spent two to three minutes practicing mindfulness. The results were incredible. All 20-plus students sat on the rug, criss-cross, with their eyes closed (usually). Parents thanked me, mentioning the enthusiasm that their children shared at home. I remember a child who fidgeted and appeared disengaged, yet his mom told me that he spoke fondly about our mindfulness routine. Another child wrote a note to me, asking if we could add a session in the afternoon. “It feels crazy when we come back from lunch. Can we try some mindfulness?”
Here are a few techniques to weave into your back-to-school lessons. If morning meeting is part of your repertoire, mindfulness fits seamlessly into this structured activity. The goal is not necessarily to do all the exercises below. Instead, choose one (or more) that works for you and your students. After a few weeks, mindfulness will become a regular part of your classroom routines, like packing up and placing lunch orders. Students will know exactly what to do.
The first lesson that I teach my students is to sit in their “mindful bodies.” Sitting this way helps to facilitate the different techniques to follow.
- Sit cross-legged on the floor, with your back straight.
- Place your hands gently on your knees or legs.
- Close your eyes.
Tip: Sitting in a chair is an alternative. Remind your students (and yourself) to sit up straight and tall. No slouching!
Here are more mindfulness exercises:
1. Five-Finger Breathing. I love this activity because it’s easy for students to remember. All they need is one hand!
- Hold up one hand with your palm facing away from your body.
- With your pointer finger from the opposite hand, inhale and simultaneously trace your pointer finger up the left side of your thumb.
- As you exhale, trace down the other side of your thumb.
- Continue this way, inhaling and exhaling, with the other four fingers.
Tip: This is an excellent grounding activity right before a test or other stressful situation.
2. Anchor Breathing. There are three main spots where people feel their breath: the abdomen, chest, and throat.
- Get in your mindful body, close your eyes, and put your hand on your stomach.
- Take a deep inhale and exhale.
- Next, move your hand to your chest, inhaling and exhaling, before repeating the activity with your throat.
- Where did you feel your breath the most? That place is your anchor spot.
- Continue by taking a few deep breaths in and out, focusing attention on the anchor spot.
Tip: This is a great technique to try anytime you feel your students need to refocus or feel nervous.
3. 20 Breaths. I personally use this exercise in and outside of school. All you have to do is count and breathe!
- Close your eyes.
- Take an inhale and exhale. That is one breath.
- Continuing inhaling and exhaling, counting 10 breaths. When you reach 10, count backwards through 0.
Tip: When I have time, I do this before I get out of the car in the school parking lot each morning.
4. Thought Train. Another powerful mindfulness exercise, which Bradley calls “Thought Train,” is to notice our thoughts.
- As you breathe in and out, silently state, “inhale” and “exhale.”
- When you notice a thought, refocus your attention to your breath by repeating “inhale” and “exhale.”
Tip: Instead of letting our thoughts carry us away, we can observe them as we would cars on a passing train. As they pass by, we stay grounded in the present moment.
5. Sounds. We can practice mindfulness by noticing the sounds around us.
- Get in your mindful body.
- Focus your attention on all the sounds you hear, including silence.
- Afterward, have students share what they noticed. You will be surprised at what we hear when we actually listen.
Tip: Try focusing on the sounds farthest away from you (like birds chirping outside). Next, focus on the sounds closest to you (your breathing).
6. Movement. We can use movement to stay grounded in the present moment. Some of my favorite yoga poses for kids are Down Dog, Mountain, Tree, Chair, and Warrior 2. The poses can also be associated with desirable characteristics, such as feeling brave in Chair or steady in Mountain.
Additional resources for movement are:
- Just Breathe by Mallika Chopra
- Yoga Pretzels card deck. Just pull out a card and try it!
Tip: After you teach different poses to your class, play a game of Yogi Says, a fun alternative to Simon Says.
Once you teach your students all the exercises, involve them in the planning. Consider adding “Mindfulness Chooser” as one of your classroom jobs. My students loved this!
Although it is ideal to practice mindfulness in a quiet spot with your eyes closed, you can incorporate these exercises anytime, anywhere. Just breathe and focus on the present moment.
A version of this article appeared in the September 20, 2023 edition of Education Week as Strengthen Students’ Focus in 3 Minutes a Day