Bringing Mindfulness to the K-5 Classroom
“Imagine that your mind is a television,” I told the small group of students I was visiting at the rural Oregon school where I worked as a counselor. “And you have a remote.”
I then asked them to change to a sad channel and notice how it made them feel. “Now let’s change it to a happy channel.” How did that feel? What differences did they notice?
We practiced this for a while, the students taking turns to see how all sorts of different channels made us feel. We tried it while holding tree pose. The students noticed that certain thoughts made it easier to balance; others made it harder.
What they were learning, of course, was how to be mindful of their thoughts and how those thoughts affect their bodies.
They were also learning that they could direct their thoughts – that none of us is ever stuck on just one channel; that mindfulness gives us tools for dealing successfully with all manner of challenges and difficulties.
The Need for Mindfulness in the Classroom
One of the most common challenges is chronic stress. According to the American Psychological Association’s 2014 Stress in America report, kids today are even more stressed out than adults.
At the same time, more students than ever come to our classrooms with real deficits in social and emotional intelligence, histories of trauma, and behavioral issues that can get in the way of learning.
As educators, we can easily become even more stressed out ourselves – having to respond to the challenges these factors bring to our teaching, even as we’re already dealing with fewer resources and more academic mandates.
Student or teacher, getting caught up in our stress means living 180 degrees from mindfulness. For stress is focused on imagined futures and lived pasts. It looks everywhere but to the moment in which we are right now.
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Too often, growing up leads us to grow away from our awareness of right now. We stop knowing how we feel. We may not even know what we think. We grow used to operating on autopilot. We follow habitual patterns of action and thought as the path of least resistance.
But if we teach children how to be aware of themselves – their minds and bodies – we lay a foundation for better focus, listening, and self-control. We make them more ready to learn, as well as provide them with tools for dealing with stress and other issues outside the classroom. We prepare them for life.
Mindfulness Starts with the Teacher
In order to teach, of course, you have to learn the material yourself first. Teachers who take up the practice of mindfulness thus become the first beneficiaries.
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Indeed, there’s good research supporting its benefit to teachers.
For instance, a 2012 literature review in the journal Mindfulness found that
personal training in mindfulness skills can increase teachers’ sense of well-being and teaching self-efficacy, as well as their ability to manage classroom behavior and establish and maintain supportive relationships with students.
A later randomized controlled pilot trial in Mind, Brain, and Education found similarly:
Results suggest that the [mindfulness training] course may be a promising intervention, with participants showing significant reductions in psychological symptoms and burnout, improvements in observer-rated classroom organization and performance on a computer task of affective attentional bias, and increases in self-compassion. In contrast, control group participants showed declines in cortisol functioning over time and marginally significant increases in burnout.
Maybe the best thing about mindfulness training is that it doesn’t take a formal class to get you started. There are plenty of practices and even online courses you can try right now to start developing a more mindful approach to life.
Formal training, however, provides you with specific strategies to use with your students on a day to day basis – as well as the opportunity to connect with other teachers who want to bring mindfulness into the classroom. Such community is invaluable.
And that’s something else that mindfulness can bring to your classroom: a stronger sense of community.
Another activity we often practice is sending compassion to others, practiced in tandem with a yoga activity we call Heart Thoughts. We bring our hands to our hearts and think of someone we care about and a thought we’d like to send them. We take a big breath in and then we lift our arms above our heads and exhale while moving our arms outward (like a volcano erupting) and send the thought. Afterwards we ask the students who they sent their heart thoughts to. The bonding that this creates in the classroom is palpable. The students enjoy this practice a lot and often send heart thoughts to each other.
Compassion and community? That’s a winning combo for any classroom. For life.