By Erin Richmond, M.Ed. 2017 CILSE Fellow Cohort
July 11, 2017
Moderate levels of stress are normal and fairly benign. However, high doses of stress over time produces neurobiological changes in the brain, which researchers have linked to poor health and cognitive performance (Harris, Cox, Brett, Deary, & MacLullich, 2017; Evans & Schamberg, 2009). This is particularly concerning within the field of education, where both teachers and students report high levels of chronic stress.
In 2015, the American Federation of Teachers conducted a survey of more than 30,000 U.S. teachers and found most teachers report high levels of stress and low levels of autonomy (American Federation of Teachers, 2015). Seventy-eight percent of teachers surveyed reported feeling physically and emotionally exhausted at the end of the day, and seventy-three percent surveyed reported chronic stress. Students are also reporting high levels of stress. Experiences of trauma related to living in poverty, homelessness, abuse, neglect, malnutrition, divorce, or major life changes all contribute to an unhealthy level of toxic stress. Felitti and Anda (2009) note that “more than half of the students enrolled in public schools have faced traumatic or adverse experiences and one in six struggles with complex trauma.”
Undoubtedly, teacher and student stress impact one and other. As educators, how can we support teachers in relieving stress? How can we provide students with the coping skills and strategies needed to combat stress and trauma and improve focused learning? How can we foster resilience in teachers and students in the school setting?
Mindfulness practices have gained popularity in recent years in fields such as medicine, psychology, business, and now, education. Mindfulness has been described as, “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment” (Kabat-Zinn, 2003). Many school leaders and teachers recognize the importance of the welfare of teachers, as well as nurturing a child’s social, emotional, and cognitive well-being and are expressing interest in bringing mindfulness into the classroom (Meiklejohn et al., 2012). In cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness has been found effective in helping children with anxiety, stress, pain, and mood (Harris, 2017). Research surrounding mindfulness in K-12 classrooms is newly evolving. Here we examine some of the evidence-based benefits to using mindfulness within the school setting.
Benefits of Mindfulness in K-12 Classrooms:
Recent research has found that mindfulness practices in schools have a positive impact on learning, behavior, and overall academic performance (Harpin et al., 2016; Vickery & Doriee, 2015). According to the Association for Mindfulness in Education, “Mindfulness practices help students focus and pay attention. Many teachers report that on the days when students practice mindfulness, the students are calmer and the class accomplishes more than on days when mindfulness is not practiced.” Mindfulness practices create a classroom community in which students can contribute in a meaningful way. A compilation of research findings suggest that mindfulness-based interventions are beneficial to young children and adolescents. Meiklejohn et al. (2012) explain that “preliminary findings … showed correlations between mindfulness training and increased thickness of cortical structures (i.e., gray matter) associated with attention, working memory, professing sensory input, EF, self-reflection, empathy, and affective regulation.” Increases in executive function and attentional skills, as well as mental health and interpersonal skills, improved in trial studies (Mieklejohn et al., 2012)
Qualities of a Mindful Teacher:
Mindful teaching is teaching with intention, presence, awareness, non-judgment, and compassion. Mindfulness practices that focus and expand behaviors such as “attention, understanding, and authenticity help teachers maintain composure, compassion, and sensitivity to children’s needs and interests, while supporting and building the resilience required to maintain well-being in a highly stressful work environment” (Harris, 2017). It is important for educators to establish their own personal practice before teaching meditation or formal mindfulness practices to adults or children. When educators can acknowledge their self-worth and act with purposefulness, they are better able to instill compassion, authenticity, and joy in their classrooms and help students feel safe to be themselves.
Creating a Physical Environment for Mindfulness:
Seating arrangements, lighting options, alternative seating, and designated areas for mindful moments are critical for establishing the foundation mindfulness in the classroom. When possible, replace harsh fluorescent lighting with natural light, floor and lamps, light covers, and more. Designate special areas in the classroom for mindful moments and creative expression (Harris, 2017). Creating mindful spaces in the classroom invite tranquility, solitude, and happiness. Create a mindful moment or peace corner, where students can draw or write for conflict resolution, or a place to go when they need a break to meditate. Designate a “Catch a Dream” corner with dream catchers or a Growth Mindset affirmation of the week. Provide picture books that instill kindness and touch children’s hearts.
Strategies for Teaching Mindfullness:
Additional mindful strategies that may teach children gratitude, contentment, optimism, and calmness include mindful breathing, mindful sensing, meditation, and guided visualization using nature picture books for children.
- Mindful breathing exercises promote mind-brain-body integration and can occur throughout the school day.
- Mindful sensing is taking the time to appreciate what students’ feel, hear, see, smell, and taste. Teachings can guide students through mindful sensing activities by going on nature walks, classroom garden, cooking activities, using pictures, items for sensory exploration, to name a few.
- Meditation is “a form of holistic practice to cultivate and quiet the mind … to cope with stress and anxiety of everyday life” (Harris, 2017).
- Wordless picture books can be used to guide visualization practices.
- It is important to instill a sense of responsibility and teachers can promote this by establishing classroom jobs for every student.
- Establish a peer-buddy program to instill kindness, empathy, and helpfulness.
- Promote character education and become involved with class or school-wide service learning projects.
- Turn discipline into teachable moments.
- These strategies should be combined with opportunities for student self-reflection, perspective taking and understanding, and extending their creativity and imaginations.
Meiklejohn et al. (2012) explain that “preliminary findings … showed correlations between mindfulness training and increased thickness of cortical structures (i.e., gray matter) associated with attention, working memory, professing sensory input, EF, self-reflection, empathy, and affective regulation.”
Growing bodies of evidence support the use of mindfulness practices for the improvement of self-regulation skills. Practicing mindfulness allows teachers to be in the moment, reduce emotional reactivity, and regulate thoughts and behaviors to effectively manage difficult situations within the classroom (Jennings, 2009). Implementing mindfulness-based strategies and teaching practices “promotes a wholesome way of living” and provides teachers and students with “a sense of security and comfort, allowing children to think, explore, and be mindful of their feelings” (Harris, 2017). Designing classroom spaces and participating in activities such as these will instill compassionate, genuine, and mindful teachers and learners.