Integrating mindfulness practices into your school community can contribute to a healthier, more inclusive school climate. Mindfulness increases empathy, reduces bullying, and helps individuals notice judgmental thoughts, according to a 2012 report issued by The Mindfulness in Schools Project.
“Mindfulness has a profound impact on individuals’ emotional health, physical health, as well as their ability to focus and be productive,” says Laura Chackes, PsyD, mindfulness teacher, psychologist, and owner of The Center for Mindfulness and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in St. Louis.
What Is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the state of being conscious or aware of something. Chackes defines it as “exercise for the brain.” Each time a person redirects their attention back to the present moment in the middle of an activity, it’s like they are lifting a weight, she explains.
Including mindfulness for both students and employees into a school day can decrease stress and anxiety, improve working memory, increase ability to focus, encourage empathy and compassion, and result in greater self-control.
Just like physical exercise can transform a person’s body, a regular mindfulness practice can have a transformational effect on the human brain. But the key word is practice — for a transformation to occur, a person must meditate and engage in short mindfulness exercises daily for at least six to eight weeks, Chackes says.
Examples of the countless types of mindfulness exercises include guided meditation and doing everyday activities such as brushing your teeth with a close attention to your five senses. Yoga is also closely related to mindfulness. “It’s essentially a moving meditation,” Chackes says.
Creating a Mindful School Culture
The best way for schools to benefit from mindfulness is to integrate the practice across the entire community, Chackes says. Ideally, regular mindfulness activities would take place in classrooms, professional development sessions, staff meetings, and at events involving parents and families.
Regularity is important because it is difficult for children to develop mindfulness skills if they only practice them in one classroom or counseling session and then have to transition to less focused environments at school or at home, she says. It’s also difficult for teachers to effectively implement mindfulness in their classrooms if they aren’t practicing it on their own.
“Many people try to practice mindfulness using a YouTube video or an app without any training in it,” Chackes says. “Often they give up because they’re not fully learning all the concepts.”
To include all constituents, administrators and teachers could have community members read articles about the value of mindfulness and assign homework where kids and parents have to practice mindfulness together. Resources are available at mindful.org.
Involving families in mindfulness training can have a powerful impact. Chackes learned this through trial and error. She initially taught separate classes to children, teens, and adults but noticed the younger groups weren’t improving as much as her adult students.
“I realized that the kids were going back to this environment where their parents may be really dysregulated,” she recalls. “I think the parents need to be working on these skills themselves in order to have a good environment for the kids to come home to.”
Other tips for establishing a school-wide mindfulness practice include the following:
● Provide children with rewards for participating.
● Keep in mind that it takes approximately eight weeks of daily practice to reap meaningful benefits.
● It’s best to lead mindfulness activities with children who are close in age.
● Don’t force children to do mindfulness practices. If they resist, model it for them.
● Start with a short daily practice, such as starting the school day with a three-minute meditation or one minute of mindful breathing.
- Beginner Exercises for Schools
A key part of leading any sort of mindfulness exercise is reflecting and debriefing afterward, a practice called “inquiry.”
After any practice, ask the participants what they noticed, how this experience differs from their day-to-day experiences, what they think the point of the exercise is, and how it can help them.
Here are three basic exercises that could be used at the start of a class or meeting or before an assessment or other high-stakes task. Once participants have practiced the exercises for several weeks, you can use them in stressful situations when you want to reduce tension or de-escalate emotions.
Exercises that focus on the sensations of the breath are typically the most accessible for mindfulness beginners, Chackes says. Mindful breathing includes the following techniques:
● Close your eyes.
● Focus your attention on the physical sensation of the breath moving through the body.
● Put your hand on your stomach to feel the air coming in and out.
● Tell young children to imagine their stomach as a balloon.
● Whenever your mind wanders, bring it back to the physical sensations of the breath.
Check out this three-minute body scan from mindful.org: bit.ly/2P3SS4X. The exercise includes the following steps:
● Mentally “scan” through you whole body, reflecting on how each body part feels — e.g., your feet against the floor, your back against the chair, and so on.
● For children, start with three to five minutes. Body scans for adults can last as long as 45 minutes.
Stretching is a simple way to incorporate movement without having to reorganize the room or use yoga mats. Consider using the following steps yourself and with your students, parents, and other stakeholders:
● Stand up, if you are able.
● Move one arm very slowly to the side, feeling the movement.
● Reach your arm to the sky as if reaching for an apple in a tree.
● Slowly, mindfully, bring the arm back down.
● Repeat with other arm.
2. Three Exercises for Young Children
One aspect of mindfulness is learning to nonjudgmentally identify thoughts and then emotionally detach from them. Chackes uses bubbles to teach this skill to elementary age children.
● Start blowing bubbles.
● Ask, “Do your bubbles remind you of anything?”
● Discuss how bubbles are like thoughts. They come and go, they eventually fade away, some are big, some are small, some stick together.
Follow this up with the thought bubble worksheet.
This activity helps young children focus on their breath. Any object could be used, such as a stuffed animal.
● Children select a rock.
● They lie down and place the rock on their stomach.
● Lead them through deep breaths and have them notice the rock rising and falling.
The main idea behind mindful eating is to engage all five senses. This exercise could be used during a mid-day snack. As students eat a cookie or a piece of fruit, for example, slowly guide them through each of their five senses one-by-one, asking them what they see, smell, taste, touch, and hear as they slowly eat.
3. Exercises that Cultivate Empathy
Loving Kindness Meditation
Rooted in Buddhist teaching, this meditation helps participants cultivate a positive attitude toward people they love, people they feel neutral toward, and people they have negative feelings for. The full meditation takes approximately 15 minutes. Guides for this type of meditation are available through mindful.org at bit.ly/2ZawTOu and on exceltatlife.com at bit.ly/2ZawTOu.
Mindfulness of Feelings and Thoughts
Teachers, administrators, students, and staff members can cultivate compassion for each other and their differences by pausing to identify their own passing feelings and thoughts verbally or in writing. This exercise could be useful during discussions about culturally sensitive issues, when groups aren’t relating well or when students are disengaging, or on the first day of school and other high-energy days of the school year.
Mindful Listening and Talking
This activity can be done at the beginning of the school year to emphasize the importance of closely listening to diverse points of view. It could also be a good activity to lead with teachers as they prepare to speak in front of their classes. Here are some basic instructions:
● Participants work in pairs.
● A leader assigns a topic.
● Only one person talks for a few minutes, then they switch.
● The listener notices when their attention wanders and redirects their mind to what their partner says, engaging their five senses.
● The speaker tries to be mindful of what they are saying — e.g., staying on topic, not talking too much, paying attention to whether their statements are true, helpful, necessary, and kind.
● The leader debriefs with participants about what their experiences were like.
Chackes emphasizes the importance of doing exercises such as these on a daily basis, both in and out of the classroom. “If mindfulness was really incorporated into the whole school, becoming a daily practice for everybody, it could have a powerful impact,” she says.
Ginger O’Donnell is a senior staff writer for DiversityIS. This article ran in the fall 2019 issue.