mindfulness in high school

The post that appears below is the original draft I submitted to Edutopia, an amazing website of all things education! (To all my readers working in schools, it is highly valuable and worth following.)

Some classrooms have a certain “aura,” don’t they? Upon entering, there is a sense of peace, community, clarity and active presence from all stakeholders. That is the kind of classroom I want to create. One way I have sought to accomplish this is by taking a course in mindfulness for educators. Since then, I have lead daily mindful moments in all of my classes. It has been transformative; here are some of my favorite examples:

  • One day in my IB class, students arrived with a heavy sense of deep fatigue radiating from them. After checking in, I led a mindful moment in which we focused on gratitude. After, we shared one compliment about the person beside us. Everything about the students and the classroom shifted.
  • One of my sophomores approached me in the hall to remind me of the upcoming anniversary of his relative’s death. He then asked if he could come to class early for a mindful moment. When he did, he and I sat for a moment of breathing and mindful honoring of his relative. As his classmates rolled in, they did so quietly, respecting his space.
  • I hear phrases like this from my students: “Guess what? I practiced mindfulness before my soccer game” or “Mindfulness helped me with my presentation” or “I used mindfulness before I went to sleep last night.”

I am fully aware of our field’s important reliance on (empirical) data, but all I can tell you is that in these kinds of moments, my classroom feels a certain way. And that is more than enough for me.

So, how did I get there?

First and foremost, I focus everyday on my own practice of mindfulness. As teachers, we know our students can spot a fake within three seconds flat. If the mindfulness practice in the classroom feels fake, meaningful engagement decreases. Some ways I have focused on my own practice: regular use of an app, retreats, research. (For more information, here is a piece in which I discuss my own regular practice.)

I introduced mindfulness from day one, giving the heads up to both students and parents that we would be practicing daily mindful moments, why, and what it would look like.

Each period after greeting students, I project something like this:

To begin the practice, I guide students into a space of mindfulness: computers at half mast, phones away, lights dimmed, voices off. Then, I cue the posture: often it is seated with a tall spine, neck tucked slightly, feet firmly planted on the earth, with eyes gently closed. Though sometimes it is legs up the wall, or student choice. After, I cue attention to the current experience: most often breath, sometimes sound, emotion, mental activity, etc. Some days, that is it; I close the practice verbally or with a student’s chime of the singing bowl. Other days, I introduce a specific kind of mindfulness focus. All of this can last anywhere from 1-10 minutes.

Often, mindfulness in education programs begin with small lessons where teachers explain the practice, then spend a few moments in mindfulness. I have found learning through practice to be the most beneficial, as well as the most time-effective. As such, it generates questions from students, allowing their experience to be more authentic and relevant.

Since this has been the first semester of leading daily mindful moments in my classes, at the end of the semester I solicited student feedback. It is clear students appreciate the practice:

  • I understand the value of having mindful moments every day. Average: 4.3/5
  • I benefit from our mindful moment practice. Average: 4.1/5
  • I want to continue our mindful moment practice next semester. Average: 4.4/5

(Here is a link to the full results; included are prompts, averages, individual responses, and student comments.)

Despite such positive results, there are challenges.

Some students just don’t get into it, resulting in whispers, giggling, and other forms of disengagement. I approach this both publicly and privately. Publicly, while the distractions are occuring, I address it head on through verbal cues such as, “Notice, without judgment, the sounds in the classroom: giggling, texting, etc; it is a part of our experience.” This minimizes the power of distractions. Then privately, I pull students for a chat. Typically that conversation goes something like: “You don’t have to like mindfulness; in fact, you don’t even have to participate. But under no circumstances can you distract your peers who might be benefiting from it.”  

Also, some days are better than others (said every teacher everywhere!). I accept this, without judgment, as part of the experience. Rather than using mindfulness as a technique to control student behavior (which can never be the aim), I neutrally observe what is the actual experience. As in all areas of instruction, I come back to the importance of my own practice: it is my authentic investment which encourages students to invest.

And in the end, it is worth it. Mindfulness helps with student stress, confidence, relationships, communication, metacognition, health, and focus–just to name a few.

And, it creates the kind of classroom where we all want to be.


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