by Claire N. Agard, PhD, CCTP
Probably the easiest way to explain what mindfulness is, is by explaining what it isn’t. Let’s start with an example of “mindlessness”. Some of us have many “mindless” moments during a single day. Take this example, I’m driving to work using the same route I do every day. suddenly I look up and realize that I’m several exits past the one at which I typically get off. That’s “mindlessness”! How about this example? I’m sitting on my couch enjoying one of my favourite television shows when suddenly, my smoke alarm goes off! It’s only then that I remember that I’d been cooking. I scamper to my kitchen and find that the meal I had so been looking forward has burnt and is stuck to the bottom of the pot.
After those examples, it should be pretty easy to guess to what the term mindfulness refers. mindfulness refers to being present in, and conscious of the moment while accepting our thoughts and feelings without judging them, i.e., without thinking that they’re either wrong or right, and without ruminating on past actions, feelings, or thoughts. The mindful person is also aware of his/her bodily sensations and does unnecessarily react to what’s going on around him/her. This tempered reaction is both physical and emotional and prevents the individual from feeling overwhelmed.
Surprising as it may be, we all have the ability to be “mindful”. While some of us are naturally that way, others have to work at it; have to practice until it becomes automatic. While the practice of mindfulness is based in Buddhist meditation, it was brought to mainstream practice by molecular biologist, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn via his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center during the late seventies. Kabat-Zin originally developed MBSR as a secular technique for use with chronically individuals who were not achieving desired results from traditional treatments. Since then, a large body of psychological and medical research has supported the efficacy of mindfulness meditation.
What does all that have to do with education? Practicing mindfulness has been demonstrated to reduce negative emotions and stress, increase positive emotions and productivity, and increase understanding of ourselves by observing our minds at work. It has also been shown to foster improved concentration and memory. Mindfulness has been used for pain management, and during the mid-1990s, mindfulness-based psychotherapy was shown to be as useful as a treatment for refractory depression. That’s probably because the practice of mindfulness improves both how the brain functions as well as the connections between its cells. This latter reason is why mindfulness should be taken “into the classroom”! As a matter of fact, a few large school systems in the United States have done so and have reported encouraging positive results from students’ practice of mindfulness. A recent study found that teachers also benefit from practicing mindfulness in that it results reduced burnout and improved resilience (Valosek, L., Wendt, S., Link, J., et al, 2021). Bringing mindfulness into schools now would especially timely given the levels of stress with which students of all ages and their teachers have had to cope as a result of the pandemic.
The practice of mindfulness in schools is based solely on emerging neuroscience and has been found to yield the following results:
• Teach children to calm themselves
• Increased focused attention
• Improved peer relationships
• Improved academic functioning
The best way to implement mindfulness in schools would be via an organized social-emotional learning (SEL) programme that’s implemented from pre-K to the 12th grade (in the United Kingdom, from primary to secondary school). In the UK, implementation of mindfulness programmes may be especially helpful to secondary school students during their years of preparation for the rigourous General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE). In the absence of a coordinated SEL programme, individual teachers may introduce the practice by beginning the day with a “preparation” exercise during which students may sit on the floor or remain seated in chairs in a relaxed manner as they focus on their posture and breathing. They can then be calmly and softly be directed to return to focusing on their breathing whenever their minds wander, as will happen. At the end of simple exercises such this one, students have reported feeling calm, relaxed and ready to learn. Mindfulness exercises do not necessarily have to be implemented at the beginning of the day but can be whenever the teacher determines to be the most appropriate/convenient time. There will inevitably be times when students will become upset during the school day. In instances such as these, rather than sending them to the principal’s office or using some other punitive technique, schools can have and send students to a dedicated ‘Calm Down Room’ that is well-lit (preferably with natural light), and furnished with beanbags, mats, possibly an armchair, and plants. Once there, an adult should lead the student through breathing and calming exercises focused on “taking care’ of himself/herself. Teaching qualities such as empathy and gratitude can also be included in mindfulness exercises.
While mindfulness is most beneficial when implemented through structured, quality programmes, until schools implement such programmes, it is up to individual teachers to educate themselves on the technique using evidenced-based information/programmes. Once comfortable with the techniques and scripts, teachers can use them with their students. They will find, that not only will their students benefit, but so will they.
Reference Valosek, L., Wendt, S., Link, J., Abrams, Alan A., Hipps, J., Grant, J., Nidich, R., Loiselle, Marie, Nidich, S. (2021). Meditation Effective in Reducing Teacher Burnout and Improving Resilience: A Randomized Controlled Study. Frontiers in Education. 6:627923. doi: 10.3389/feduc.2021.62792