Creating Mindful, Heartful Classrooms
“Hello, everyone. I’m happy to see all of you again. Let’s begin today by getting into our mindful bodies. Feet flat on the floor, sitting tall like a mountain, hands resting comfortably in your lap. Close your eyes, or if that’s not comfortable, gaze softly down at your desk or on the floor. Now let’s bring ourselves into the present moment by doing our mindful breathing.”
This is the beginning of a mindfulness lesson. The simple definition of mindfulness is being aware of what is happening right now, in the present moment. This practice improves attention, adaptability, emotional regulation, compassion, and resilience.
Those who practice mindfulness develop the ability to notice what is happening with their thoughts, in their bodies, and in the environment around them. We train the brain to be less reactive, to become more aware of our emotional responses and then better able to regulate them. When we’re triggered and about to react, we can slow our breath, notice what we are feeling and respond from a more peaceful state. Once you develop the habit of noticing, rather than reacting in a way that may cause you problems or harm, you can make intentional choices about what to do next.
Healthy stress is a natural part of life and helps keep us sharp and improve our performance. However, when life becomes too difficult to manage, stress becomes toxic. Consistent exposure to toxic stress impairs students’ attention, emotion and mood regulation, sleep, and learning readiness. Toxic stress impacts teachers as well. Prolonged exposure to toxic stress for teachers decreases productivity and creativity, and can advance to more serious symptoms like increased anxiety, frustration, and, eventually, burnout.
To combat this, the Mt. Laurel School District is integrating mindful practices one committed teacher at a time. In addition to my own training, a variety of staff members in the Mt. Laurel School District have taken courses through Mindful Schools including several principals, teachers, and counselors. We deliver the Mindful Schools curriculum, which consists of sixteen, 15-to-20-minute lessons on a variety of topics including mindful listening, seeing, walking, eating, and test taking. We also practice being mindful of our thoughts, bodies, and emotions. In addition, there are lessons on heartfulness-sending kind thoughts to ourselves and others, generosity, and gratitude.
It is very important that staff and parents know that this is a secular practice. I never refer to our mindfulness lessons as meditation due to the religious overtones that can carry. We send a letter home to parents prior to beginning the lessons explaining the program and giving an overview of the types of lessons which will be taught. We stress that the focus of the lessons is on increasing attention and focus and improving emotional self-regulation. The feedback from parents has been extremely positive.
Teachers who have not been specifically trained can easily adapt mindful practices in their classrooms. Teaching children to assume a position of alert stillness, which we call mindful bodies, can help re-center a classroom when it is a bit too busy or noisy. Many of the teachers in our district have taught their children how to be mindful of their breathing. Ask your students to take a couple of breaths and notice where they are feeling their breath the strongest. It is typically in the nose, chest or belly. Then ask the children to focus on this area as they continue to breathe. When their mind wanders, as it will, remind them to bring their focus back to their breath. This helps slow down and calm the nervous system. It is a great tool to use following recess or gym class when the children may have a difficult time slowing down and adjusting to being back in the classroom.
Since children really do reflect the nervous system of the adults around them, I encourage teachers to participate in some mindfulness training. In addition to classes which you can find locally or online, there are a number of excellent apps for your mobile phone which provide guided practices. I have noticed a significant shift in my own ability to manage the stress of work and home as a result of practicing mindfulness. And, the ability to practice is never more than a breath away!
Mindfulness for Your Students, Teachers, and School Community. (n.d.). Retrieved February 09, 2019, from http://www.mindfulschools.org/