Mindfulness For All: A Focus on Educators
“We ask an awful lot of teachers these days… Beyond just conveying the course material, teachers are supposed to provide a nurturing learning environment, be responsive to students, parents and colleagues, juggle the demands of standardized testing, coach students through conflicts with peers, be exemplars of emotion regulation, handle disruptive behavior and generally be great role models. …the problem is we rarely give teachers training or resources for any of them.” ~Patricia Jennings
Research shows that educators who regularly practice mindfulness have a higher sense of well-being and teaching self-efficacy. Additionally, these teachers are better able to manage classroom behavior and maintain supportive relationships with students. For students, mindfulness can lead to reductions in exhibiting challenging behaviors and greater compliance with teacher requests.
Research also shows that regular engagement with mindfulness practices is associated with increased academic achievement. This is likely because self-regulation is a critical factor in academic success, and self-regulation is highly influenced by stress-induced emotional arousal.
THE WHAT AND WHY OF MINDFULNESS
Mindfulness is cultivating awareness of one’s self through purposefully paying attention to the present moment and non-judgmentally allowing the unfolding of experience moment-by-moment.
Mindfulness is not the suppression of negative or distressing emotions like sadness, anger, and anxiety. Distressing emotions provide an adaptive function of attracting your attention to the potential need to take action.
Mindfulness is the practice of training ourselves to be fully present and aware of where we are, how we are feeling, and what we are doing in the present moment.
Mindfulness is not coping through simple passive acceptance of current circumstances. Mindfulness includes acceptance of present-moment realities but not necessarily submitting to that as one’s future.
Repeated practice of mindfulness induces changes in areas of the brain associated with attention regulation, learning and memory, emotion regulation, impulse control, and empathy. Learn more about how the brain changes in response to the intentional practice of mindfulness.
MINDFULNESS IS A TRAUMA RESPONSIVE
PRACTICE FOR STUDENTS
When trauma remains unaddressed and unacknowledged, it becomes the lens through which children process all subsequent experiences; thus, they are not fully in the present moment.
Traumatized children's heightened state of vigilance and sensitivity to being triggered by and perceiving events as threatening means that they are repeatedly feeling intense and distressing emotions like fright and fear. Each time distressing emotions are triggered, cortisol, adrenaline, and other stress hormones flood their brains and bodies. This is toxic to the development of higher order brain structures like the hippocampus, which affects our ability to memorize, recall, and learn, and the prefrontal cortex, which affects information processing and rational decision making. Additionally, chronic exposure to traumatic experiences prevents children from learning how to calm themselves and regulate their behavior in response to intense emotions, leaving these children’s decision-making dependent on emotionally driven processes.
These chronically stressed children can appear as hyperaroused—students who are highly active and reactive and overly sensitive to stimulation—or hypoaroused—students who struggle to become engaged, have little energy, and are slow to process your statements. Yet others fluctuate quickly between these two states and are over-reactive one moment and struggle to stay awake several moments later. This dysregulation is because traumatized children live in a constant state of anxiety even when there is no obvious threat in the present moment.
Thankfully, children’s brains and bodies can and do change in response to new experiences. Educators can play a powerful role in building students’ self-regulation because, for some, school may be the one place where they regularly experience what calm feels like, and teachers may be the primary adults who take time to teach them the self-regulation skills needed to succeed in life.
Mindful detention is a particularly trauma responsive use of mindfulness. Across the United States, schools are beginning to either replace being sent to detention with being sent to the mindful room for guided calming and reflection, or they are starting detention with a mindfulness practice before engaging the student in a discussion about their behavior and the consequences. This changes detention from an often mindlessly punitive practice to a developmentally supportive practice that builds self-regulation skills.
3 Strategic Ways Of Using Mindfulness As An Educational Tool In The Classroom
Because of the importance of developing your own mindfulness practice before introducing it to students, the remainder of this resource will focus on strategies for developing and strengthening your mindfulness practice. Repeated practice will cultivate mindful ways of being that you can then bring to all interactions with your students and colleagues. Next month's resource will focus on cultivating mindfulness among your students.
MINDFULNESS IS A TRAUMA RESPONSIVE
PRACTICE FOR EDUCATORS
Given long-standing reports of beginning teachers’ difficulties managing the negative emotions associated with challenging student interactions and the high number of beginning teachers who report that occupational stress was the direct cause of them leaving the profession, developing a personal mindfulness practice should become required training for pre-service teachers and those just beginning their careers. Furthermore, developing a personal mindfulness practice should be required professional development for all educators working in schools serving high-needs student populations. This is because it is in these schools and classrooms where educators are most likely to experience negative emotional stress in their interactions with students, and students will most benefit from having teachers who can regulate their emotional reactivity in response to student dysregulation.
Mindfulness has been shown to help educators’ sense when a negative emotion was beginning to form, acknowledge the beginnings of its formation, such as noticing the feelings of a tightness of the chest, heat rising to the cheeks, or a slight jerk reaction as though you were slightly pushed back, and then feel and recognize, without judging, the situation that brought on the negative emotion. By doing so, mindfulness allows educators to stay present when a situation brought about negative emotions.
MINDFULNESS FOR EDUCATORS HOLDS THE POTENTIAL ...
Through mindfully engaging in the present-moment with students during challenging interactions and making responsive, not reactive, decisions that are based on a calm and centered understanding, educators will be better able to make measured decisions and provide logical, rather than threatening, consequences.
The end result of the mindful teacher student discipline cycle depicted below is that both teachers and students would have more of their cognitive and emotional capacities freed-up for instruction and learning.
Adapted from Skinner and Beers' Mindfulness and Teachers’ Coping in the Classroom: A Developmental Model of Teacher Stress, Coping, and Everyday Resilience
STEP 1: DEVELOP YOUR PRACTICE
Because stress is contagious, student self-regulation begins with educator self-regulation. By ensuring that we remain calm in our responses to student dysregulation, we reduce the likelihood of escalation and model for students how we want them to behave. The educator’s goal is to provide co-regulation or interpersonal regulation. This is done by helping children regulate their emotions and behaviors by keeping yourself calm and regulated during a stressful interaction. Key to co-regulation is in-the-moment awareness of your and other’s emotion states, especially your counter-aggressive impulses in response to negative emotions that arise during student interactions. By acknowledging the student’s distress as well as the distress created in yourself, you are better able to respond.
Mindfulness can quickly become a brief and uncomplicated part of your daily routine by incorporating it alongside daily habits at home and at work with straightforward guided practices. Audio and video guided practices found in online resources is one of the simplest and most accessible ways of receiving guided instruction as you develop your personal mindfulness practices.
Next, we offer three strategies for integrating mindfulness into your school day.
STRATEGY 1: Breath Mantra
Integrate a morning breath mantra into your routine of walking through the school doors, down the hallway, and into your classroom or office.
Slowly say “breathe in, breathe out,” to yourself as you walk. This can be audible or silent based on your preference. As you say the mantra, take a deep belly breath in, then a deep exhale. Notice what is happening around you as you walk. Notice your shoes, the floor, the walls, and any people that you pass. Also, without judgment, notice the emotions that you feel as you walk through the door, down the hallway, and into your classroom/office. Without judgment, notice the emotions you feel in response to the people you see.
STRATEGY 2: Attuning to Your Mind, Breath, Body
Mindfulness includes three components: (1) attending to our thoughts, (2) attending to our breath, and (3) attending to our body.
During the first minute simply notice the thoughts that come to mind without the need to change or judge the thoughts that arise; “notice and let go.” During the second minute narrow your attention to the singular focus of your breath—“breathe in and breathe out.” During the third minute widen your attention to your whole body and, without judgment, notice any sensations that are present in your body.
STRATEGY 3: Mindfulness with Daily Classroom Encounters with Difficult Emotions
By using this exercise to mindfully reflect on difficult situations within the classroom, you are preparing to be an effective model of mindful coping and responsive rather than reactive decision making in response to stress.
First, begin to think about a student that you may find challenging in some way.
Then, think of the last time this student may have made something about your lesson difficult. What emotions come into your mind? Has your body done anything to react to the memory? (e.g., tensed shoulders? knotted stomach?)
Now, rather than attempting to halt the feelings or change your perspective on them, just sit with the feelings. Without judgment, listen to your own thoughts that emerge from those feelings.
Engaging in mindful activities does not exclusively mean listening to guided meditations or taking five to ten minutes of time away from instructional time. There are small but significant practices that take seconds but are effective in redirecting both teachers and students from a reactionary mindset to one that allows for more productive decision making and action. At the start of a challenging, frustrating, stressful event or interaction, find P.E.A.C.E. using the table below.
Adapted from Ernest Solar’s An Alternative Approach to Behavior Interventions: Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction.
Compas, B. E. (2006). Psychobiological processes of stress and coping. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1094(1), 226-234.
Davidson, R. J., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J., Rosenkranz, M., Muller, D., Santorelli, S. F., ... & Sheridan, J. F. (2003). Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic medicine, 65(4), 564-570.
Hölzel, B. K., Lazar, S. W., Gard, T., Schuman-Olivier, Z., Vago, D. R., & Ott, U. (2011). How does mindfulness meditation work? Proposing mechanisms of action from a conceptual and neural perspective. Perspectives on psychological science, 6(6), 537-559.
Jennings, P. A. (2005) “Seven Ways Mindfulness Can Help Teachers” which was adapted from “Mindfulness for Teachers: Simple Skills for Peace and Productivity in the Classroom”
Singh, N. N., et al.(2013). Mindfulness training for teachers changes the behavior of their preschool students. Research in human development, 10(3), 211-233.
Skinner, E., & Beers, J. (2016). Mindfulness and teachers’ coping in the classroom: A developmental model of teacher stress, coping, and everyday resilience. In Handbook of mindfulness in education (pp. 99-118). Springer, New York, NY.
Solar, E. (2013). An alternative approach to behavior interventions: Mindfulness-based stress reduction. Beyond behavior, 22(2), 44-48.
Van der Kolk, B. A., Roth, S., Pelcovitz, D., Sunday, S., & Spinazzola, J. (2005). Disorders of extreme stress: The empirical foundation of a complex adaptation to trauma. Journal of Traumatic Stress: Official Publication of The International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, 18(5), 389-399.