By: Ann-Noelle McCowan, MS, RYT
Therapeutic Yoga Instructor, NESCA
Open Google and type in Mindfulness in Schools and you are presented with a buffet of resources. What was once seen as an alternative idea has become mainstreamed. But what is Mindfulness and why is it something that deserves a place in schools?
Mindfulness was originally developed as part of the 8 Fold Path of Buddhism. With mindfulness your attention would be turned inward and also impact your relationship with the world through mindful actions and behaviors. Now it is scientifically studied and found in locations like professional locker rooms, jails and hospitals to fortune 500 companies like Nike, Google and Apple. Advancements in brain imaging show that a regular mindfulness practice creates increased activity in the areas of the brain associated with working memory, executive function, emotional regulation, perspective taking and empathy, with decreases in the areas of the brain associated with depression, PTSD and stress (correlated with a decrease in amygdala size).
Mindfulness’ increased popularity may be due to the fact that it is an adaptable, take with you anywhere antidote to a society that is increasingly fast paced and technology focused. In a global world it helps us feel both connected to ourselves and grounded where we are. More adults and kids are feeling stressed, anxious and depressed, and mindfulness can help soothe our worries without negative side affects.
Schools are responsible for teaching children skills and information across many content areas, yet how often are children taught the best way to pay attention, or how to use attention? Attention is the lens through which all of our experiences are filtered through, yet it is rarely directly and specifically taught! Mindfulness is at its core simply focusing on a single thing at time, in a particular way, without evaluation. It is an invaluable life skill for helping children be successful students as well as happy well adjusted and connected children. An informal survey of my colleagues and friends found that yoga and mindfulness is being adapted to various school settings. From class transitions that begin with listening bells, rounds of belly breathing before assessments, calming scented oils on cotton balls in the nurse's’ office, books clubs with teachers, introductions to mindfulness apps in health class and mindfulness or yoga activities and clubs. mindfulness is staking its place in schools.
When introducing mindfulness in classrooms and schools the following steps help outline ways to weave mindfulness into classrooms and schools.
1. Learn More.
Starting with this blog post the internet is full of articles and videos to explore.
How Meditation Can Reshape Our Brains: Sara Lazar at TEDxCambridge 2011
Kids getting lessons in mindfulness in school - Today's Parent
2. Model Mindfulness and Practice Yourself.
You can’t teach what you don’t know. Practicing mindfulness will help you be aware of your own reactions if at first your students are squirmy or resistant. Keep in mind that students may not use the words you expect to describe their experience, listen for what is behind their words.
3. In an age appropriate way, explain how mindfulness is beneficial for them.
My teens love learning about how their brain works and that mindfulness is a form of training for their brain.
Some videos for younger kids:
4. Teach about the monkey or animal mind.
Children of all ages enjoy the practice of noticing how many places their thoughts go and how quickly thoughts connect to others. There are fantastic books for younger kids such as Moody Cow Meditates and Mindful Monkey, Happy Panda. Teens understand how if walk into class and see their friend laugh with a peer after a glance towards them their thoughts immediately race.... “ “what did I do” ...“ they are mad”...“I’m not going to have a partner for this project”... “ there goes my secrets, begin the rumors”... “I’ll be left out of the weekend plans” … “I’ll be alone forever”. Teach them to acknowledge the chatter but not get caught in it.
5. Start small.
Begin with 1-3 minutes at the start of class directing kids to feel their seat in their seat, their feet on the floor, their hands on their lap and intentionally take 5-10 long inhales and exhales. Other ideas:
- Practice silent snack one day a week, take a mindful walk as a class and have them focus on their senses and record it in their own journal ( words or visuals) when back in the classroom. Create a mindful space in a corner of your room with coloring books, pencils, cushions as a safe break place.
- For kids it may be hard to focus on a single item at a time, so use manipulatives. A Hoberman Sphere, Pinwheels or feathers to demonstrate breath. Build Worry Jars, adapt Chutes and Ladders or other familiar games with mindful exercises. Use one of the many Yoga Card Decks.
6. There’s an App for this!
Ironic perhaps to use technology but most kids love technology and it offers choice and control. Try “Calm.com”, “Stop, Breathe and Think”, “Smiling Mind” or the “Insight Meditation Timer” (after medications my kids love to check out the world map and see all the locations where people are meditating!). Try a classroom program such as http://www.innerexplorer.org/.
7. Be consistent.
Greater benefits and habits are created when mindfulness is done repeatedly. Colleagues who practice mindfulness daily, even for a few minutes notice the impact is greater than if done sporadically.
Mindfulness is good for us and our children and has a natural place in our schools. Benefits abound like enhanced attention, self-regulation, social competence, as well as greater kindness and compassion. After I have practiced mindfulness with my students or clients they look different, calmer and relaxed and ask for it again. I too notice the rest of my day feels more manageable and my smile is broader. Enjoy adding mindfulness to your classroom or express your hope to your child’s teacher or school leaders that mindfulness be a part of your child’s school experience.