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Sunday, January 24, 2016

7 Ways to Bring Mindfulness Into Any Classroom

Photo by nappy from Pexels

by Catharine Hannay

Are you interested in teaching mindfulness but not in a context where it's understood or supported? 

Perhaps there are worries about mindfulness instruction taking away from other subjects.  This is a common concern, but as elementary school principal Renee Metty points out, 
"A growing body of research shows that certain parts of the brain and nervous system inhibit functioning in other parts of our system. When we (adults and youth) are stressed, anxious, depressed or operating from a fight- flight response, we are unable to access the higher-level “decision making” part of our brain – the part needed for academic learning.

So, for me the question is how do we flip the equation and prioritize mindfulness and social emotional learning in schools as a gateway and foundation for students’ academic learning."

Or perhaps there are concerns that mindfulness is at odds with religious teachings, or is an attempt to convert students to a particular religion.  (This is a very common misunderstanding; see point 6.)

Or maybe you're simply wondering if it's possible to incorporate mindfulness into the classes you're already teaching.

Here are seven ways you can teach mindfulness-related skills to your students...  

But first, a couple of words of caution. 

1) I'm assuming that you have an established personal mindfulness practice and some training in working with the age group you plan to teach.  If you don't, please hold off on teaching your students meditation or yoga, and stick to things like noncompetitive games.  

2) Especially if you're teaching in a public school, you should check with parents and administrators about the types of activities you plan to share with your students if there is any possible misinterpretation that you're teaching religious practices or doing something that might conflict with religious beliefs.  

That said, here are some suggestions that have worked well for other teachers:

1. Call it something else.

Most objections to mindfulness classes seem to come from a misunderstanding of the terminology.  There's a wide range of perspectives on what should or shouldn't be included as a 'mindfulness activity,' but I've never heard of anyone objecting to kids learning to be calmer, healthier, and nicer to each other.

2. Don't call it anything at all.

Younger children tend to enjoy noncompetitive games like Marble Roll, or interactive activities like Human Camera, or a chance to "get the wiggles out" when they've been sitting too long (for example, through Giant Strides).  

All of these can be considered "mindfulness activities," but they don't have to be labeled anything for kids to benefit from them.

3. You can integrate aspects of mindfulness into academic content.

Meena Srinivasan suggests that when teaching reading, 
"you can incorporate books that either include stories of how characters use mindfulness strategies or books that have activities that help students practice mindfulness... it’s also incredibly important to help your children/students see how characters in other books use mindfulness (even though they may not call it that) or how the characters are in need of mindfulness."

Dr. Amy Saltzman, director of the Association for Mindfulness in Education, recommends a mindful approach to classroom management that also helps students become more aware of their own behavior: 
"Wow, there's a lot of energy in the room, let's do a quick movement practice," or "I notice a lot of people talking; please re-focus your attention on your work."

Math professor Rachel Levy thinks it's important that students learn self-compassion: 
"I think it is important for [kids] to know that it is OK to fail, especially if they are working hard.  In order to do STEM, you have to be willing to try and fail and try again.

4. You can incorporate mindfulness into physical education.

There's been a lot of research on mindfulness and performance in competitive sports.  (For example, in this article from the Journal of Clinical Sports Psychology.)

The martial arts can also be a very effective way to introduce mindfulness.  
Pete Reilly, author of A Path With Heart: The Inner Journey to Teaching Mastery, is a black belt in Aikido:
"On the mat we train ourselves to feel or blend with the energy and force of the attacker, to sense how they are moving, and in that very moment respond with an appropriate technique that brings the situation to a conclusion without hurting them. 
We don’t know what technique we’ll use until the moment we blend with the attacker, and we don’t use any more force than is necessary for the situation. You have to be totally present in the moment and to the energy of the attacker to do this effectively."

In her classes, yoga instructor Kelli Love emphasizes mind-body awareness and acceptance: 

"I tell students that to honor their bodies right now in this moment is more advanced than to struggle in an unstable posture that they think looks like what someone else is doing, or even what they were able to do yesterday. There is enough pressure and anxiety in the modern school culture as it is. I’m trying to help my students move away from unnecessary comparison to their peers, and more importantly I’m trying to get them to experience joy in their own bodies."
5. Mindfulness is a key component of the arts.

Several of the people I've interviewed see a strong connection between mindfulness and the performing arts.

Kimberly Hoffman, former principal flutist with the 132nd Army National Guard Band, explains the benefits for musicians:
"Mindfulness reduces performance anxiety, improves productivity of practice sessions, and creates a space to fully experience the emotions that arise while performing." 

Ronit Jinich of Mindfulness Without Borders finds that dance can be a wonderful way to see things from different perspectives:
"In dance, you learn to think sideways and upside down. You’re lying on the floor, or carrying someone, or someone’s carrying you. You hold a point of view and then drop it and go to the opposite side of the stage. 
When you practice mindfulness… you realize that your point of view is just that; a point of view in a sea of other points of view. You can drop it and go to the other side of the stage to hold another point of view, only to drop it again!" 

Renana Fox and Hannah Todd of Lean & Hungry Theater connect their mindfulness practice with their work as directors:
"I try to be conscious of the behavior of others in stressful situations and how they react. It forces me to consider my own reactions, but it’s also quite helpful when I’m directing and need to help actors rationalize specific choices... As a director, you have to be mindful of it all – attentive, with open eyes, ears and heart. If any part of you is closed off, you will not get to the deepest truth of the story."

Lean & Hungry's Artistic Director, Jessica Hansen, adds that "It’s paramount that an actor learn to pay attention."
"Pay attention to your body and your experiences, and listen to others. You can learn so much by watching others on the street, the bus, in a café, anywhere. Pay attention to life within yourself and around you, and use that in your work."

Of course, paying attention is also essential in the visual arts.
“Once we start to draw, all of a sudden we begin to see again. Were we blind? How could we have ignored… the convoluted network of veins on an oak leaf… the starry splendor of a humble dandelion?”  (Frederick Franck, Zen Seeing, Zen Drawing)

In fact, present-moment awareness is so essential for artists that Danny Gregory says “It’s ironic that people speak of artists as dreamers." 
"I think [artists] are the most grounded people around. Conscious and present. As an artist, you really see life, connect with its beauty, and create something that shares those observations with others. You notice things… Life is not just a relentless tumult of obligations. It’s a wonderful gift, full of mystery and beauty. And by making art, you have made it yours. You have absorbed and explored and it has changed you for the better." (Art Before Breakfast)

6. Mindfulness is not incompatible with religious instruction.
"Historically, mindfulness has always been based on ethical values and allied to a body of wisdom; it has not stood alone as a skill in its own right."
(Mindful Compassion, by psychologist Paul Gilbert and Buddhist monk Choden) 

One of the most common misconceptions about mindfulness is that it's incompatible with religious teachings or only applicable to Buddhists.  In fact, mindfulness is appropriate for anyone, regardless of their religious beliefs or lack thereof.

In a beliefnet post, Dr. Arnie Kozak reassures us, "If you are a person of religion, don’t worry."  
"Meditation, at least mindfulness meditation, is not in conflict with your God or with your beliefs. A study found that people who practiced mindfulness became more of whatever they were already. If you are Christian, you’ll be more Christian. If you are Catholic, you’ll be more Catholic. If you are Jewish you’ll be more Jewish. If you are Muslim, you’ll be more Muslim.  Since meditation is giving our full attention to whatever it is we are doing now, this increase in piety makes sense. If you pay more attention to what is happening in church, you’ll get more benefits. Simple as that."

[update 3/20/16] Nigerian educator and peace activist Dr. Emmanuel Ivorgba is a seminary-trained Catholic who's met with the Dalai Lama.  In an interview discussing Christian practices of meditation and compassion, he explains:
"From my experience, mindfulness opens us up to embrace and accept others more freely as children of God, and this is the aspect of mindfulness that I love so much as a Christian. Though a lot of Christians do not feel comfortable with the Buddhist connection to mindfulness, I personally and honestly do think and believe that mindfulness is beneficial for people of all spiritual traditions."

Several of the other teachers I've interviewed have also mentioned a connection between mindfulness and Judeo-Christian religious practices.

For example, fitness instructor Debra Mazda focuses on mindful eating:
"I’m a Christian woman, and I believe in the power of prayer... I pray for help keeping my body pure and clean. While I also have days when I’m stressed out, I always try to stay mindful of what I’m eating and what it’s doing to my body. The Bible tells us that our bodies are temples of God. We have to respect them and not abuse them and not fill them with food. I keep mindful of that every day."

Ronit Jinich describes engaging the senses while celebrating the Jewish holiday of Sukkot:
"There are four elements or ‘Arba Minim.’ These are four kinds of spices and fruit that are blessed every day and appreciated for their scent, taste, texture, and shape... Becoming present can be done in various ways, one of them being through engaging with the senses of sight, taste, scent, and touch." 

Math professor Rachel Levy draws on her early teaching experiences at a Quaker school:
"I learned about the power of silence and the consensus process. Silent reflection can play an important role in learning and personal development. Quaker practices affect the way I conduct meetings, face difficulties, and think about decision-making processes. The philosophy also affects the way I think about students – there is a light in each one of them and it is my job to help that light shine."

7. Most importantly, teach through your own example.

According to Danish mindfulness experts Didde and Nikolaj Flor Rotne, it's essential for teachers and school leaders to practice mindfulness:
"Teachers and principals are the most influential people in the educational life of the pupils, and it is their task to create a fruitful and safe learning environment. We also know that pupils are more likely to do what we as adults DO rather than what we SAY."

Or, as Dr. Christopher Willard puts it in Child's Mind: 
"I have witnessed frustrated adults screaming at children, 'Calm down, just take a deep breath and count to ten!' I’m still waiting to see this work effectively."

Pete Reilly describes how adults can avoid getting caught in a "domino effect" with frustrated kids.   
"[Imagine] there’s a row of dominos as far as the eye can see. The first one is red and represents a difficult student, the next is blue representing you... Normally when an incident happens with a student the red hits the blue, the blue falls and hits the red, and the pattern is repeated until all the dominos are down. If we take ourselves out of the way, and remove the blue dominos, when the red falls, it doesn’t hit anything. The old pattern is broken. The situation doesn’t escalate."

As you can see, there are a lot of  ways to teach mindfulness without being part of a formal mindfulness program: 
  • Change the label (or don't use one at all).  
  • Incorporate mindfulness into the subject(s) you already teach.  
  • Above all, be a good role model.  

Your students will benefit enormously, no matter what you call it.

About the Author

Catharine Hannay is the founder of and the author of Being You: A Girl’s Guide to Mindfulness, a workbook for teen girls on mindfulness, compassion, and self-acceptance.


related posts:

7 Reasons Mindfulness Might Not "Work" for Everyone

Songs about Mindfulness and Compassion

Video Playlist: Using the Arts to Teach Mindfulness