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Virginia Journal of Education
Just Breathe: Mind over matter in the classroom
Educators are adding mindfulness to reading, writing and arithmetic.
By Maria Fleshood
Last year, Mary, a fourth grade teacher in a public school, approached me to learn mindfulness skills she could use with students to address classroom distraction and defiant and often hostile behavior.
She’s far from alone in considering mindfulness as a classroom tool: “Mindfulness is having its moment right now, branching out from clinical and therapeutic settings and entering classrooms and boardrooms, congressional offices and military bases…scientific research confirms the physical, cognitive and emotional benefits of a mindfulness practice,” said a 2014 Huffington Post article.
Fast-forward to the present, and we find an explosion of interest in school-based mindfulness programs, which have become widely used in U.S. and Canadian schools. Such programs can offer a positive response to the enormous pressure students and educators face today, and research is demonstrating benefits from these calming techniques on children. Work at the Inner Resilience Program in New York and the Mindsight Institute in Santa Monica, California are two examples of how teaching mindfulness techniques to youth is profoundly beneficial to their development, enhancing their emotional and academic intelligence.
Good question. One answer is that 40 percent of students report feeling anxious and stressed on a daily basis. Severe, unmanaged stress in the lives of today’s children and adolescents is a problem that crosses socioeconomic levels and shows in the rise of mental health issues, adjustment difficulties among students, and the frequent derailing of learning and teaching in classrooms.
As a former public school teacher and administrator, and now a clinical psychotherapist who incorporates MBSR (Mindful Based Stress Reduction) into my practice, I believe mindfulness is a valid tool to help schools better understand and deal with the complex interplay going on in school environments.
Research shows that integrating mindfulness into the classroom has been associated with many positive outcomes, including:
1. Less aggression and opposition toward teachers; students are more attentive in class and display more positive emotions and optimism.
2. Reduced anxiety and increased ability to focus; greater attention in class for students with attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD).
3. Less stress, allowing more concentration when taking tests, presenting to groups and responding when called upon in class.
4. Increased ability to cope with impulse control and practice emotional regulation.
5. Development of social-emotional skills.
6. Activation of empathy and compassion.
7. Less burnout among teachers.
Incorporating mindfulness into your curriculum does not have to be difficult, and can be done with limited resources. Planning five to 10 minutes at the beginning or midway through the day can foster qualities of resilience, curiosity, reflection and focus in students. Those qualities can strengthen academic success and developmental achievement in the classroom, reduce stress and increase instructional time for teachers. Before you sigh and think, “Is she kidding? One more task to check off!”, I’d encourage you to take a deep breath, pause and consider the possibilities.
The first step is to establish your own personal practice. Building your own awareness and comfort with mindfulness, as you would before introducing any new concept to students, results in greater success. If students observe that you are “into this,” there is a greater chance they will be, too.
Professional development and recertification classes are excellent opportunities to learn and prepare to teach simple skills that can shift a chaotic classroom into a peaceful and productive atmosphere for both student and teacher. It’s worth exploring with your staff, colleagues, PTA, parents and students. There are a number of resources to assist in this journey, including those cited in the accompanying box entitled, “To Learn More.”
One typical mindfulness exercise, and one used by Mary, the teacher introduced at the beginning of this article, is this one:
Morning Mindfulness Exercise:
Step 1: Tap a bell so students know to be silent.
Step 2: Before instruction, ask students to stand by their desks, tall like trees, hands by their sides, eyes closed. Tell them they will be taking three, slow breaths with their eyes closed.
Step 3: Modeling each step, instruct students to take one deep breath through the nose on the inhale and then slowly feel the breath as it leaves the body on the exhale. This process continues three to five breaths, depending on the stress level of the students, making sure to pause between each breath.
Step 4: After the breaths are taken, instruct students to keep their eyes closed and together, out loud, speak four affirmations: “I am honest. I am kind. I am important. I am loved.”
Step 5: Students sit at their desks and instruction time begins.
It makes sense that a few minutes of quiet and reflection at the start of the day would provide some benefit to potentially stressed children and teachers. However, some teachers can get stressed at the prospect of adding one more activity to their already busy instructional time. In spite of a typical, rushed agenda, Mary reported that this practice took little time and was not difficult to implement. After less than a month, she reports, her students had caught on, and there had been little resistance to starting the day with mindful breathing and affirmations.
“Although this practice takes five minutes each morning, I gain at least 20 by the end of the day,” Mary says. “Beginning our day with mindful breathing has helped create an inner sense of calm, curiosity and reflection among my students, which helps both myself and my students start the day on good footing. Now, when a student becomes distracted or rowdy, I say, ‘Just breathe,’ and most of the time, that seems to redirect their energy and get them back on track.”
Some Simple Mindfulness Strategies
Here are some easy-to-implement activities you may find helpful in your classroom and throughout your school:
De-stress Solution: Coherent Breathing
Students who practice coherent breathing can balance a high-stress response within a few minutes—without anyone knowing what they are doing. This is a powerful discipline that adolescents report to be helpful in class when taking tests, doing homework and when navigating peer pressure situations.
Step 1: Pause for a few moments, quiet the mind and the body.
Step 2: Take two deep breaths inhaling and exhaling…slowly.
Step 3: Breath in through the nose while slowly counting to four.
Step 4: Exhale through the nose slowly, counting to four.
Repeat this five times or until the anxiety relaxes, allowing more thoughtful decisions and a calmer demeanor.
Release and Refocus
This simple tension release practice is highly effective in the middle of the day when students are tired, restless and losing focus.
Step 1: Students stand at their desks.
Step 2: Pull shoulders up to the ears, breathing in on the inhale.
Step 3: Release shoulders, breathing out on the exhale.
Step 4: Rotate shoulders forward, breathing in on the inhale.
Step 5: Rotate shoulders backward, breathing out on the exhale.
This is a practice that reminds students to slow down to activate rational thinking.
Step 1: The teacher can tap a bell softly. Students should use this as a cue to set down their work and be silent and still.
Step 2: Breathe in the nose on the inhale.
Step 3: Breathe out of the nose on the exhale.
Step 4: Pause. Repeat four or five times.
Step 5: Now focus on your body, scanning it with your mind.
See if you notice any tightness, stress or discomfort—or are you relaxed? Don’t judge yourself—just notice. See if you can focus on relaxing your body or mind for this moment and be right where you are now—with what you are doing in this moment.
Immediately following this practice, teachers can read a poem, exhibit a piece of art, introduce a historical event or present a cultural conflict or social concern. Students then take 5 to 10 minutes to write their reaction to what has been shared. With their rational brains activated and relaxed, their quiet minds and calm bodies have greater accessibility to their creative thinking and also to empathy.
Simple Self Check-in
Step 1: Students should sit at their desks with their eyes closed, focusing on their breathing.
Step 2: As they take a deep inhale, they should focus on filling up their lungs with air; as they exhale, they should focus on letting go of anything that is bothering them. This is about feeling the breath entering and leaving the body.
Step 3: If students find it hard to concentrate, have them count their breaths, silently, as they inhale and exhale.
Let students know that these activities can be difficult—it isn’t about “getting it right or perfect.” Taking a moment to just breathe sometimes makes the mind wander. This is normal. When it happens, you just redirect your mind back to your first intention, which is to focus on the breath. It may be necessary to help students understand that this may be simple for some and difficult for others.
Some teachers may find it useful to experiment with listening to music or if you have room, place yoga mats on the floor and have your students lay down, close their eyes and practice breathing.
Incorporating mindful techniques into your curriculum can be a critical practice for stabilizing a classroom environment and providing a more effective educational climate. Teaching students positive ways to respond to stress and pay attention is a significant addition to instruction, well worth the time and effort.
Dr. Fleshood is a Licensed Professional Counselor practicing in Ashland, Virginia, and the author of From Tweens to Teens: The Parents’ Guide To Preparing Girls For Adolescence.
Real Students, Real Success Stories
Here are two examples of how mindfulness practice can help students, both taken from my book, From Tweens to Teens: The Parents’ Guide To Preparing Girls For Adolescence.
Betsy’s Story: Dealing with bullies
Several years ago, a 12-year old client named Betsy, who attended middle school, told me that she had been skipping a class she dreaded. Throughout the semester, several students in the class had bullied her to the extent that she was fearful of speaking when called on, even if she knew the answer. Her anxiety grew until she felt panic when she walked into the class. Betsy began to cut class and forge notes from her parents explaining her absences. I was asked to facilitate an intervention by her parents and guidance counselor.
Betsy and I began working to build a repertoire of breathing exercises she could use when she started to feel panic. By becoming aware of her anxiety and having a new response to it, Betsy was able to manage the overwhelming urge to run and hide when it hit.
With the bullies reprimanded and Betsy’s growing ability to calm the panic when triggered, she was able to think and respond more rationally. Betsy maintained a B average and successfully checked the class off her list. Her guidance counselor asked if I could teach her how to help students with breathing techniques when they became anxious, and later developed a “Brain Break” space in her office where she offered simple breathing techniques and practice skills. Students and teachers were receptive to this offering and the following year, this middle school organized a 15-minute mindfulness practice session before school, which was attended by various teachers, administrators, staff and students.
Elizabeth’s Story: Conquering the test
Elizabeth (all names in this article are fictitious) performed well throughout her young academic career and had kept a 4.3-weighted GPA throughout high school. Feeling frustrated, angry and pressured to attend an Ivy League college, Elizabeth came to me to discuss her anxiety about taking the SATs. She had frozen each time she took them and couldn’t complete the test. After four tries, she was desperate. After several sessions of learning mindful breathing techniques, Elizabeth went into her fifth try at taking the exam and nailed it! She reported that every time she felt her body getting anxious, she picked up her pencil, pretending to read the exam, and practiced the techniques of mindful breathing. Focusing on her breath rather than her fear enabled Elizabeth to move forward with the questions, completing the exam. The panic didn’t disappear, but Elizabeth finally had the tools to not let the panic take control.
To Learn More
• Jennings, Patricia. Mindfulness for Teachers: Peace and Productivity in the Classroom. Dr. Jennings is an Associate Professor of Education at the Curry School of Education, University of Virginia.
• The Inner Resilience Program, New York. (http://innerresilience-tidescenter.org/), Dr. Linda Lantieri, director.
• Fleshood, Maria. From Tweens to Teens: The Parents’ Guide To Preparing Girls For Adolescence. Familius Publisher @ families.com, 2016. (mariaclarkfleshood.com).
• Apps students can download: Stop, Breathe and Think; Smiling Mind; Take a Break; Insight Meditation Timer; Headspace; Calm