In recent years, mindfulness meditation has been gaining popularity in schools and workplaces. With the lives of teachers, students and families becoming increasingly busier and saturated with technology, it is no wonder that many schools are turning to mindfulness to combat the stress of modern life.
Mindfulness meditation has its roots in Eastern religious traditions dating back thousands of years. In 1979, the practice was secularised by Dr. John Kabat Zinn through a programme called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. MBSR has helped mindfulness gain widespread popularity.
The scientific community has also researched and documented the positive effects of mindfulness. Mindfulness has benefits to cognition such as improving working memory and executive function (Zeiden et al, 2010). Mindfulness has successfully been used as an intervention for anxiety and depression (Hoge et al, 2013). Mindfulness can make us kinder and more open minded by reducing the impact of our biases (Lueke & Gibson, 2015). Students who practice mindfulness have improved academic outcomes, better relationships and less stress (Schonert-Reichl et al, 2014; Zenner et al, 2013). For teachers, mindfulness practice can reduce stress and burnout and improve performance in the classroom (Jennings et al, 2013; Flook et al, 2013).
With so many pieces of research and claims about the benefits of mindfulness, it can be hard for curious teachers to know where to start. Over the last few years, I’ve integrated mindfulness into my teaching practice, and I’d like to share my journey and a few tips with you.
To be completely honest, as a fidgety Type A extrovert, I found mindfulness a bit intimidating and uncomfortable at first. I felt awkward when I practiced alone and even more so leading a group of people in a mindfulness activity. One of the first activities I started using was Mindful Doodling, which was a more comfortable starting point for me than ‘meditating’ with my eyes closed. I got the idea from the adult coloring books that were all the rage a few years ago. I took that idea into my classroom and asked the class to sit silently for 3 - 5 minutes and draw whatever came to mind. After mindful doodling, I found myself and my class more focused and engaged. The activity was a useful transition after a break to help us let go of outside distractions and get back in a space for learning.
Another activity that I found very approachable was Mindful Listening. Sometimes, I did this as a listening walk, and we would go outside for a few minutes and listen intently without speaking. From this activity I learned how much I don’t see or hear when I am focused on getting from A to B. This activity also helped me to take a momentary pause and to slow the pace of my fast-moving world. I also found that mindful listening helped me to be more grateful and optimistic. I was also surprised to find that mindful listening made me more curious. As a result, sometimes I link mindful listening to a curricular topic by playing sounds or music as a provocation for an inquiry-based lesson or as a springboard for a writing or vocabulary lesson.
As I gained confidence in my own skills with mindfulness and saw the many benefits it brought to myself and my classes, I felt ready to try a more traditional mindfulness activity. In this activity, which I call Mindful Square, ask participants to put their feet flat on the floor, sit up straight, and invite them to either lower their gaze or close their eyes. Next, lead them through a breathing exercise by visualizing a square in front of them. Say 'Breathe in and imagine moving up the left side of the square. Hold your breath across the top of the square moving from left to right. Exhale moving down the right side of the square. Now rest across the bottom of the square moving from right to left.' Do this several times and then invite participants to ‘breathe’ a few squares at their own pace. After a few individual squares, invite participants to gradually open their eyes when they feel ready.
I found the mindful square helps me to reset my busy mind and move from automatic pilot or a reactionary stance to a more proactive one where I can be more intentional about my choices. This activity allows me to take a moment to gather thoughts and intentions before moving forward in a lesson. Now, I often explicitly ask the class to set an intention for the next portion of the lesson and sometimes we share those intentions. I’ve found that this improves not only the concentration and learning outcomes for my classes, but also helps to connect us and be more aware of the people with whom we are sharing a learning space. Not a bad outcome for a few minutes of breathing.
I have two pieces of advice for who want to try mindfulness in class. The first is to try out the practices yourself before introducing them to students. You’ll have a lot more confidence leading these with a class if you have experienced them and believe they work. Finally, there are tons of mindfulness activities out there and they don’t all involve you sitting silently with your eyes closed. Get out there, experiment, and find something that works for you!