Mindfulness in the classroom: Does it work?

  • The teacher writes numbers on the white board in front of the class, preparing a lesson on fractions and decimals. Two girls are passing notes. A couple of kids in the back row are laughing about a secret joke. Several students have lost focus entirely, distracted by the windows, the classroom aquarium, or each other. Someone’s books fall on the floor, and others turn and giggle. The classroom holds a mix of ethnicities, behavioral differences, and learning abilities. To an outsider, it can seem like a recipe for chaos: every kid for himself or herself, with the teacher riding herd.

    But the teacher has a secret weapon: Mindfulness.

    After she finishes her whiteboard work but before she starts the lesson on fractions, the teacher stands in front of the students to get their attention. She speaks in a soft voice meant to quiet them and get their attention. “Let’s practice our mindful breathing,” she says. She instructs her students to sit facing forward, place a hand on their bellies, and feel the rise and fall of their breath. “Inhale, one, two, three, exhale, one, two, three,” she repeats. The children follow suit. Some close their eyes. “Inhale, one, two, three, exhale, one, two, three.” The exercise continues for just about a minute. The students are calmer now, have more access to their self-control, and are more able to focus.

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    “Now more than ever, teaching mindfulness in the classroom is a necessity,” writes Edutopia. “Our children are stressed and anxious. Teachers and parents are stressed and anxious, too. Our lives are busy, and we often find our thoughts buzzing over the past or worrying about the future. We need mindfulness because it teaches us to live in the present moment, enjoying and experiencing what’s in front of us.”

    “They are learning the experience of settling their body,” said Liz Slade, a kindergarten teacher in Larchmont, New York, interviewed for the Mindful website. “What used to be a wild time now becomes a charming, sweet moment when we all take a pause and come back to being present.”

    The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that a significant number of children today are experiencing stress and anxiety. Approximately 4.4 million children between the ages of 3 and 17 have been diagnosed with anxiety (that’s 7.1 percent of the total population), and about 1.9 million between ages 3-17 have been diagnosed with depression (3.2 percent of the total population). About 74 percent of those diagnosed with depression also have anxiety. In addition, children diagnosed with depression or anxiety have a much higher chance of having behavior problems; 47 percent higher in the case of depression, and 38 percent higher in the case of anxiety.

    These conditions affect a child’s ability to learn, says the American Academy of Pediatrics. Four of its conclusions in its report, “The Lifelong Effects of Early Childhood Adversity and Toxic Stress,” addressed this issue in strongly worded language.

    “Toxic stress can lead to potentially permanent changes in learning (linguistic, cognitive, and social-emotional skills), behavior (adaptive versus maladaptive responses to future adversity), and physiology (a hyperresponsive or chronically activated stress response) and can cause physiologic disruptions that result in higher levels of stress-related chronic diseases and increase the prevalence of unhealthy lifestyles that lead to widening health disparities,” said one of the report’s conclusions.

    In 2015, the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence released the results of an online survey of 22,000 high-school-age students and how they felt about school. Among the top 10 emotions named, eight were negative and two were positive. The words used most often were “tired” (39 percent), “stressed (29 percent), and “bored,” (26 percent.) But there was good news, too: Students who believed that what they were learning was relevant to their lives and felt their teachers were engaged reported much more positive emotions, like interest, respect, and happiness.

    To be sure, the solutions to easing childhood stress, mood disorders and behavioral disorders do not rest entirely in mindfulness. But many schools are finding mindfulness practice a good way to make children feel more calm, secure, and ready to learn.

    In Richmond, Calif., a 5-week study was undertaken to determine the effects of a curriculum that included mindfulness training. Seventeen teachers and 409 students from kindergarten through sixth grade participated in the 2011 study, in which 83 percent of the students were from low-income households and 95 percent were ethnic minorities. The results? Teachers reported “improved classroom behavior of their students (i.e., paying attention, self-control, participation in activities, and caring/respect for others) that lasted up to 7 weeks post-intervention.”

    So what does mindfulness in the classroom look like? It can be deep-breathing exercises, like the one in the example above.  It can be shared sensory experiences, such as listening to nature sounds or calming music in the classroom. It can take the form of guided imagery that mirrors the lesson you are teaching: an imaginary journey underwater, for instance, when studying marine wildlife. Or mindfulness can take the form of movement: yoga exercises in the classroom, for example, which students can do on the floor, in their seats, or sitting on top of their desks or tables.

    “Try picking one mindfulness practice to start for yourself,” suggests Edutopia. “Then introduce it to your students, adapting the experience to cater to their needs — even if it’s for only two to five minutes per day during transitions or for brain breaks. You might try introducing a new mindfulness practice every week, every month, or every term, or just choose one idea (mindful breathing, for example) and practice that throughout the year. Plant the seed of mindfulness and meditation right now, and it will stay with your students for their entire lives.”

    If you’ve never introduced mindfulness to your students, Dominican University of California’s Online Professional Development Program offers “Bringing Mindfulness Practices (Meditation) into any Classroom,” an online class that helps you practice mindfulness at first and then instructs you in translating those skills to your classrooms. The self-paced course has the following goals:

    • To help you understand different forms and techniques for meditation;
    • To help you understand and address any concerns that might be raised regarding bringing mindfulness exercises to the classroom; and
    • To learn some basic techniques you can then teach to your students.

    “Bringing Mindfulness Practices (Meditation) into any Classroom” is completely online, is self-paced, and earns you a semester credit toward your professional development. To enroll, click here; to get more information or browse course curriculum for Dominican University of California Online, visit the website here.

    Photo credit: Wavebreak Media, via istockphoto