Mindfulness For All: A Focus on Students

For traumatized students, school success may hinge on learning to inhibit the activation of strong, learned responses that are maladaptive in educational contexts, and learning to instead, activate less practiced, more adaptive responses. This effortful regulation—the ability to restrain an intense desire to react impulsively and replace it with a more considered response—can be strengthened through the regular practice of mindfulness.

 

PRACTICING WITH STUDENTS IN MIND

You have your student's bodies in front of you...

When you practice mindfulness along with your students you are deepening your mindfulness capabilities. The more you practice mindfulness, the better equipped you will be to demonstrate it to your students through your own mindful ways of being.

Mindfulness utilizes a limited number of core practices that can be repeated in an endless variety of ways to develop students’ capacity to maintain present-moment awareness of their experiences and awareness of their physiological and emotional reactions to experiences.

BREATH Learning to focus on your breath to moderate emotional reactivity to external and internal events.

 

FOCUSED ATTENTION Learning to non-judgmentally notice when your attention strays and gently bring it back on the focal object.

 

BODY SCAN Learning to recognize the stress and emotional reactivity that is held in and expressed through your physical well-being.

 

OPEN MONITORING Learning to sit with the totality of your mental and emotional states as well as take in visual, physical, and auditory stimuli without the need to immediately push away the experience

The effortful regulation skills that are learned through regularly engaging your students in these core practices builds their ability to:

  • Selectively focus attention

  • Sustain focused attention

  • Flexibly respond to changing demands

  • Inhibit inappropriate response

  • Moderate emotional reactivity to stress
     

As students repeatedly practice the letting go of thoughts and distractions and returning their focus to the mindfulness practice, they are strengthening their ability to maintain focus on a goal while inhibiting distraction. This effortful regulation will have cascading and reinforcing benefits for meeting the behavioral and academic expectations of your classroom.  

 

TRAUMA RESPONSIVE MINDFULNESS

The emphasis that mindfulness places on emotion regulation—the ability to skillfully experience emotions and become aware of how those emotions are connected to our thoughts and behaviors—is particularly beneficial for students coping with trauma. By improving emotion regulation, mindfulness is believed to reduce biological vulnerability to negative emotional cues by the activation of our stress systems.

Ensuring that mindfulness is practiced in schools in ways that meet the needs of students coping with trauma is important because although mindfulness is simple, it is not easy!

Successful mindfulness within schools requires a trauma responsive approach that is based on strong teacher-student relationships. As trauma responsive educators, we must be alert for when mindfulness as a practice is harming rather than helping a student. Depending on what students have or are currently experiencing, several common mindfulness practices, such as closing the eyes and taking deep breaths, sitting still in one’s seat, or remaining silent, can be triggers for re-traumatizing thoughts or feelings.

 

Mindfulness is about being in the present-moment and can be practiced in many different forms. Asking all students to adhere to one specific mindfulness practice that may work well for you or even for most of the students in the class may be very harmful for the student whose traumatic experiences are triggered by flashbacks when forced to close their eyes. Similarly, being forced to sit in one particular position would be counterproductive for students who feel most relaxed when sitting on their knees rather than their butts.

 

For students who may have experienced/are experiencing trauma—students for whom the feeling of calm or awareness of their inner emotional world may be new and may be uncomfortable—teachers should:

  • Invite them to participate with the class and make explicitly clear that they can also quietly observe without participating as the class engages with mindfulness

  • Invite them to participate with the class and provide an alternative silent activity should they decline to participate

  • Provide additional reminders that they can keep their eyes open if they feel any discomfort

  • Include whole-class mindfulness practices that are better suited for traumatized children, such as mindful mazes and other visually- and movement-based mindfulness practices

  • Acknowledge and celebrate any attempt at mindfulness, no matter how small

 

STEP 1: DEVELOP YOUR PRACTICE

Refer to our Mindfulness for All: A Focus on Educators resource for more details. 

 
 

STEP 2: INTRODUCE IT TO STUDENTS

Developing mindfulness among your students, like any other skill, takes time, practice, and space for them to make errors, so be gentle towards yourself and your students. Here are some important considerations to keep in mind as you prepare to introduce mindfulness to your students.

We developed a set of lessons to introduce your students to mindfulness. Each lesson has a 5 minute and a 10 minute version. 

Lessons for grades K - 2nd

Lessons for grades 3rd to 5th

Lessons for grades 6th to 8th

Lessons for grades 9th to 12th 

Introduce mindfulness with less talking and more action

It is important that students of all ages begin to explore mindfulness through guided actions. Rather than explain mindful breathing, demonstrate for your students and have them repeat.

Never force students

The benefits of mindfulness are not meant to be forced upon anyone, and this is particularly true for students. If a student is not open to mindfulness the benefits will never be realized.

Keep a light-hearted perspective

Keeping your expectations reasonable and remembering that mindfulness is not about achievement will re-engage your commitment to mindfulness and your classroom when the tougher days come, and they will come…

Not every day is going to be amazing

Building the self-awareness and self-regulation skills most beneficial to students requires consistent practice. Be kind to your students and yourself by feeling happy with any amount of progress.

Use brief practices to keep students’ attention

It is common for teachers to feel as though they can barely keep their students’ attention with the typical teaching routine. Begin with brief practices (see list to links below), and add longer practices when ready.

Build your students' mindful vocabulary

Call-to-action phrases such as “checking-in” or “listen to your inner voice” can help clarify key aspects of mindfulness and work both in and out of the classroom.  

 
 

MINDFUL TESTING

Given that fall “testing season” will soon be upon us, we recommend introducing and practicing one or two brief mindfulness practices that utilize breath to mindfully manage your and your students’ anxieties about testing. Use the two practices detailed below throughout the year and intensify the frequency in the weeks leading up to major exams or standardized tests. It takes time and repeated practice for mindfulness to become integrated into students coping skills.

There are many ways to incorporate teaching students about mindful testing into your class:

  • At the start of each lesson that focuses on preparing for an upcoming test

  • During a discussion with students about test-taking skills

  • During a discussion with students about studying for tests

 

By repeatedly using these practices whenever discussing or teaching content for tests, you are helping students to get into the habit of engaging their body’s relaxation and regulating systems before taking tests. Test anxiety can derail students’ abilities to show what they have learned.

 

Tests are stressful and the goal of mindfulness is to change how we experience that stress and our reaction to it.

 

These mindful testing practices are beneficial for students of all ability levels. Oftentimes, high ability students experience the most distress by tests, but they have learned to hide it well. The pressures that high ability students place on themselves to do well can be psychologically damaging.

Practice 1: Settling Into The Test

Tell students that they will be regularly practicing a mindful way of starting any test. Tell them why: Slow, deep controlled breathing calms the brain and reduces the cortisol levels that increase our heart rates and our anxiety. Tell them that when taking a deep breath they need to exhale longer than they inhale. Now, practice inhaling for a slow count of three, pausing for a moment, and then exhaling for a slow count of four. Then begin the mindful practice of Settling Into the Test.

 

Modeling is one of the best ways for your students to learn, so do it with them!

 

Ask students to:

1. Stand next to their desks with their hands over their heads and take a deep belly breath; inhale and exhale

    (add modified instructions for students' different levels of physical mobility)

2. Press their shoulders down, away from their ears and take another deep belly breath; inhale and exhale

3. Slowly lower their arms and take a third deep breath with their shoulders still pressed down, away from their ears; inhale 

    and exhale

 

4. Slowly settle into their seats

 

5. Take a deep breath and press their feet into the floor; inhale and exhale

 

6. Take another deep breath with their feet still pressed into the floor; inhale and exhale

 

7. End by relaxing their bodies while taking one final deep breath; inhale and exhale

While students are still learning to master their breathing remind them to inhale for a count of three, pausing for a moment, and then exhale for a count of four. Count it out for them.

Practice 2: Reconnecting With Your Body

Tell students that getting caught up in your thoughts can increase the anxiety of getting stuck on a challenging question, and that one way to change this is to get out of your thoughts and into your body by using your breath to reconnect with your body.

 

Help students practice this by letting them know that you will interrupt them once or twice during class tests so they can learn how to interrupt themselves when they encounter a difficult question or feel themselves getting anxious during a test. Tell students that you will signal the start of the interruption by sounding a chime (you can use this link for an audio chime).   

  • After sounding the chime, ask students to: 

1. Press their feet into the floor and take a deep belly breath; inhale and exhale

2. Keep their feet pressed to the floor, and press their backs into their chair and take another deep belly breath; inhale and 

  exhale

3. Take one final deep belly breath before returning to the test; inhale and exhale

 

While students are still learning to master their breathing remind them to inhale for a count of three, pausing for a moment, and then exhale for a count of four. Count it out for them.

STEP 3: PRACTICE WITH STUDENTS

Here are some direct links to resources that you can do/share with your students. Start with brief practices and build as you go.

Teach Students About Mindfulness

  1. What Does Being Present Mean?

  2. Baltimore Students Get Meditation, Not Detention

  3. CNN Profile of Baltimore Schools

Grades 4-8

  1. Observing A Train of Thoughts

  2. Baltimore Students Get Meditation, Not Detention

  3. CNN Profile of Baltimore School

  4. Mindfulness at Mission High School  

Encourage Students To Participate At Whatever Level They Feel Comfortable

  1. Present Moment Guided Mindfulness

  2. Be Kind to Yourself

  3. 5 Minutes to A More Productive, Joyful Day

  4. Relieve Anxiety

  5. Manage Frustration (requires space for movement)

Grades 6-12

Keep A Consistent Routine And Add Variation By Using Different Audios And Videos

Mindfulness is never to be used as a reactive consequence for challenging student behaviors. It is to be proactively taught and responsibly used to help students self-regulate. 

 

STEP 4: REPEAT!

We are asking you to planfully integrate mindfulness throughout the school day because it is best learned: (1) when the class is calm, (2) as structured but flexible practices, (3) in short spurts repeated often, with variation.

Regular practice helps students apply mindfulness to other situations in and out of the classroom. The more inclusive your mindfulness practice, the more likely the practice will stick with your students.

Get creative! Have you been using mindfulness as a class opener? Consider using it to break up a long lesson. Only by regularly practicing mindfulness can students reap the full neuropsychological benefits and allow openness in their emotions, behaviors, and relationships.

To reinforce students’ use of mindfulness for academic success it is important to integrate it into your academic planning. This can be done by infusing mindful inquiry into teaching academic content. One example of this is asking students to slowly trace their fingers over each letter in the title of the textbook to prepare themselves to focus on math class. As detailed above, mindfulness can also be integrated by making time and space for students to experience the benefits of using a brief mindfulness practice before the start of any exams and during exams when any feelings of anxiety arise. 

Ultimately, mindfulness is a quality of being; therefore, the way that mindfulness will be practiced in your classroom is the intertwining of your personal mindfulness practices, the strengths and needs of your students, and the specific techniques introduced and practiced with students.

Regularly check-in with yourself and your students to determine if enhancements need to be made to increase the success of mindfulness in your classroom.

Plan For Best Use
 

MINDFUL MOMENTS

In addition to formally guided video and audio mindfulness practices, there are many short mindful activities that teachers can use with the whole class or individual students. Here are some mindful moment scripts that focus on sight, senses, and breath in order to connect students with their calm center. These scripts require few resources.

Mindful Moment With Our Eyes

DO IN ADVANCE

 

Fill a clear jar, like a Mason jar, almost all the way to the top with water. Next, add a big spoonful of glitter glue or glue and dry glitter to the jar. Put the lid back on the jar and shake it to make the glitter swirl.

INSTRUCT THE CLASS

 

Imagine that the glitter is like your thoughts when you’re stressed, mad or upset. See how they whirl around and make it really hard to see clearly?

 

That’s why it’s so easy to make silly decisions when you’re upset – because you’re not thinking clearly. Don’t worry - this is normal and it happens in all of us, including adults.

Now watch what happens when you put the jar down in front of you and be still for a couple of moments. Keep watching. See how the glitter starts to settle and the water clears? Your mind works the same way. When you’re calm for a little while, your thoughts start to settle and you start to see things much clearer.

The next time you are upset in class, take the jar, shake it up, put it down in front of you and calm yourself down while you watch the glitter settle.

Mindful Moment With Our Senses
 

DO IN ADVANCE

 

Place an individually wrapped mini candy in center of each desk.

INSTRUCT THE CLASS

 

We are going to use this candy to take an opportunity to be mindful. Pick up the candy.

Focus on how it feels. What does it feel like?

Now, unwrap the wrapper and focus on the sound. What does it sound like?

Now, look at the candy and turn it over in your hand. What does it look like?

Now focus on the smell. How does it smell?

Put the candy in your mouth. How does it taste? What is the texture like? What does it feel like on your teeth? What does it feel like in your mouth?

Take a minute to focus and reflect on the experience of eating the candy.

 

CITATIONS

Albrecht, N. J., Albrecht, P. M., & Cohen, M. (2012). Mindfully teaching in the classroom: A literature review. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 37(12), 

 

Blair, C., & Diamond, A. (2008). Biological processes in prevention and intervention: The promotion of self-regulation as a means of preventing school failure. Development and psychopathology, 20(3), 899-911.

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.

Chapter 17

 

Gross, J. J. (1998). The emerging field of emotion regulation: An integrative review. Review of general psychology, 2(3), 271-299.

Modinos, G., Ormel, J., & Aleman, A. (2010). Individual differences in dispositional mindfulness and brain activity involved in reappraisal of emotion. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 5(4), 369-377.

Roeser, R. W., & Peck, S. C. (2009). An education in awareness: Self, motivation, and self-regulated learning in contemplative perspective. Educational psychologist, 44(2), 119-136.

Rudell Beach, S. (2014, April 3). Teaching mindfulness to teens: 5 ways to get “buy-in”. Retrieved from https://leftbrainbuddha.com/teaching-mindfulness-to-teens-5-ways-get-buy

Sheinman, N., Hadar, L. L., Gafni, D., & Milman, M. (2018). Preliminary investigation of whole-school mindfulness in education programs and children’s mindfulness-based coping strategies. Journal of child and family studies, 27(10), 3316-3328

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