Standardized tests, course exams, homework, after-school sports and activities, part-time jobs—many of our students live very busy and pressure-packed lives. As educators, we teach them how to better organize all of the “stuff” in their lives, but we rarely teach our students how to organize their thoughts and soothe their anxieties. Often, the stress of their daily lives accumulates until a “worry ball” forms. Soon students show signs of fear, anxiety and attention disorders. Soon after that, parents, teachers and administrators step in and attempt to fix these issues.
Many of these problems can be prevented if we would instruct our students to use a tool called mindfulness. It’s by no means a new idea, but its use in education is a recent development. A pioneer in this field, Professor of Medicine Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School (UMMS) Jon Kabat-Zinn says mindfulness “means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” Kabat-Zinn is the founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at UMMS.
Early research on the strategy shows its great promise. According to Mindfulschools.org, “Numerous studies have shown that mindfulness is a powerful tool for combating multiple mental and physical problems and disorders, for example, Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), mood and anxiety disorders.”
Last summer I had the privilege to attend the “Mindfulness in Education” workshop at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York. I was one of 200 educators from across the country who heard about the benefits of mindfulness in schools. Ohio Congressman and author of Mindful Nation Tim Ryan presented. Sir Kenneth Robinson, a keynoter at the 2010 NJEA Convention, also spoke. Other presenters included Fulbright Scholar and internationally known expert in social and emotional learning and conflict resolution Linda Lantieri, and Vinny Ferraro, training director of the Mind Body Awareness Project in Oakland, California, and a nationally recognized leader in designing and implementing interventions for at-risk, gang-involved, and incarcerated youth. This event convinced me that this practice has growing support among leaders in education.
Mindfulness in schools
Several years ago I noticed my students were anxious about taking Advanced Placement exams. It was easy to see that some students were so worried, they were not eating properly or getting enough sleep. Having suffered from years of anxiety and having learned the activities that accompany mindfulness, I began to utilize mindful techniques in my classes.
Within just a few weeks my students were asking for mindfulness activities almost daily.
Mindfulness is the act of giving space to being able to think differently, or simply being able to focus on the present moment. By offering these tools to my students, I noted a number of changes in the way they approached their work and the quality of that work.
Over the years, I’ve attended workshops and other courses to improve my mindfulness skills and continue to use them with my students. I’ve also worked with athletic teams, clubs and teens in other schools. I even introduced mindful activities at my daughter’s preschool, and now, in her kindergarten as well.
Using mindfulness has helped these students control their thoughts, calm themselves down and do better work. Learning how to slow their thoughts, listen, communicate, focus and become more aware through mindfulness is a tool, many tell me, they don’t want to lose. In fact, many students are now practicing at home, teaching and sharing with their friends and families. It is a tool they are bringing with them to college and work. With time and practice, mindfulness has become a part of their everyday lives.
Here are some mindful techniques you can use in any classroom:
* Observe your breath. Breathe in “I am” and breathe out “Peace.” Repeat several times.
* Observe thoughts or feelings as you breathe and acknowledge them.
* Count to two as you breathe; hold the breath for a two count and release the breath for another two count. Repeat.
* Watch Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Body Scan video on YouTube, and then use the technique in your classroom. This guided meditation quiets the body and mind by placing awareness on all parts of the body.
* Have students practice mindful eating. Have them observe what they are eating (taste, smell, texture, etc.). Then have students take one full minute to experience one mouthful and ask them for their observations.
* Mindful walking involves concentrating on one’s feet, muscles, sensations, etc. Have students take 10 to 20 steps in a circle or line (in or out of the classroom). This should be done in silence to increase awareness.
* In a circle or row, have students pass an object that needs careful attention (e.g., a bell that should not be allowed to ring or a cup of water that should not be allowed to spill). Again, the students should not speak, but only notice their movements and the sensations associated with them.
* Mindful work/reading. Have students focus on the work presented to them. Ring a bell to begin and end the exercise. Students should work quietly and place their full attention on the task at hand.
Today I teach mindfully. I work mindfully. I am a mindful parent and a mindful daughter, sister, wife and friend. Mindfulness is a powerful tool and resource that our students can use in every class, club, sport, job and activity. It can help organize their lives, because they can begin to better organize their thoughts and control their emotions. Mindfulness is a “win-win” tool for students and teachers. We all benefit when everyone in the learning environment is more aware and better focused.
Tara Hornich-Lisciandro works in the Matawan Regional School District. She has taught for over 14 years in the U.S. and Italy as a language and history teacher. She also works as a private consultant. Contact Hornich-Lisciandro at firstname.lastname@example.org.