Picture a Pre-K classroom teeming with rambunctious students. Perhaps they’ve just finished lunch, and their energy is surging. Handing each student something sweet, such as a chocolate chip, might seem counterintuitive at that moment.
But unbeknownst to them, the students are about to partake in a powerful lesson in impulse control that will reinforce the concept of mindfulness.
The teacher implores the students not to eat the chocolate chip but rather to look at it, smell it, examine its every detail. The anticipation of finally tasting the chocolate chip becomes a game. The longer they can hold off, the more discipline the children will have exercised. Giggles might overcome them once they’re finally given the go-ahead, but by then, the exercise has had its desired effect.
That’s just one example of a simple sensory activity that can introduce mindfulness in the classroom. By utilizing practical exercises designed to keep students engaged and on-task, teachers can reclaim those crucial minutes when the collective learning conditions slip below optimal levels.
Students as young as 3 and 4 years old are trained to breathe deeper, move slower and become more attuned to the sensations they feel, sharpening their focus in the process.
But the benefits of mindfulness for students far exceed merely cutting through the chaos of an overstimulated classroom; studies show that students who adopt mindfulness techniques are better equipped to cope with anxiety and therefore better prepared to succeed. They’re instilled with habits that continue to serve them well as adults.
What is mindfulness
While it may seem a nebulous concept, a buzzword you might expect to be deployed in a corporate setting, mindfulness is quite simple to grasp. To be mindful is to be present, to live in the moment. It requires you to be aware of the world beyond yourself and account for how your actions affect everyone around you.
Yet, in our ongoing quest for self-gratification, so often achieved by tapping and scrolling and absorbing as much content as the day will allow, adults and children alike can abandon their most basic responsibilities as a member of society.
Or, as the renowned spiritual guru and best-selling author Eckhart Tolle puts it, “in today’s rush, we all think too much — seek too much, want too much — and forget about the joy of just being.”
“It is bare attentiveness, a quiet awareness of one’s own body in space,” writes Marilyn Wedge (Ph.D.) in an article for Psychology Today entitled “7 Ways Mindfulness Can Help Children’s Brains.” Those ways include a calm and patient approach to facing any adversity, improved brain function in areas like memory and classroom aptitude, and methods for coping with distractions.
Mindfulness has recently found traction across the educational landscape, but it’s nothing new. It has ancient origins that are traced back to the birth of Buddhism and other Eastern religions that utilize meditative exercises like yoga.
Many schools have employed mindfulness specialists to regularly visit classrooms and leave behind best practices to assist teachers in their professional development.
Studies link mindfulness with less stress, better performance in the classroom
Middle school students from Boston charter schools were the subjects for a pair of studies conducted by MIT researchers in 2019. The results were seen as a breakthrough, lending merit to including mindfulness exercises in the everyday curriculum of children in that formative age group, according to the studies’ primary author, John Gabrieli, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT.
The first study examined the positive effects mindfulness training can have on brain activity with a group of 100 sixth graders. Half of the students were exposed to daily mindfulness exercises for eight weeks, while the other half, the control group, took a coding class.
In a preliminary brain-imaging experiment, 40 of the 50 students from the mindfulness group were shown photographs of faces expressing different emotions as a method for measuring activity level in the amygdala, the area within the temporal lobe responsible for processing fear.
Prior to their mindfulness training, the students who were shown photos of fearful faces saw their stress levels elevate, aligning with existing research that indicates a stressful environment can exacerbate negative feelings in someone already prone to them.
After completing the eight-week training regimen, those same students saw a dip in amygdala activity when they looked at the fearful faces, leading researchers to conclude that mindfulness training had diminished the effects of mood disorders that can cause depression in children.
The other MIT study delved into innate mindfulness and whether it corresponds with classroom performance by subjecting 2,000 students in grades 5-8 to a questionnaire based on the Mindfulness Attention Awareness Scale. For instance, students were asked to gauge how much they agree with statements such as, “I rush through activities without being really attentive to them.”
By comparing results from the survey to participants’ grades, attendance, standardized test results and other measurables, researchers found a clear link between a mindful attitude and success in the classroom.
Still, teachers must understand that distractions can take many different forms and don’t always emanate from the classroom environment.
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Researchers at Johns Hopkins University noted how adverse home conditions seen in urban youth – defined as exposure to violence, “persistent poverty” or other “environmental stressors” – can severely damper a student’s ability to engage with learning materials and their classmates.
The study established how negative thoughts could consume a vulnerable student’s mind, leaving them prone to “rumination, intrusive thoughts and emotional arousal” and serving as a barrier to their academic progress.
But once a 12-week meditative yoga regimen was introduced in collaboration with Holistic Life Foundation (HLF), a Baltimore nonprofit specializing in mindfulness training, the same students who showed a propensity for outbursts were able to develop the coping mechanisms to stave off unwanted thoughts.
Another study saw some 200 elementary school students at a public school in Chicago improve their performance in the subjects of science and reading by listening to meditative audio recordings for 10 minutes per day over eight weeks. Similar methods have been used to help those who struggle with sleep to relax and quiet their minds at bedtime.
Additionally, schools across the country are stepping up their efforts to address the mental health needs of students, a response to rising depression rates and the prevalence of certain behavioral disorders.
Mindfulness has been prescribed as a therapeutic solution for children and adults with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. A student needs not to be diagnosed with ADHD to exhibit the behavioral tendencies that can be curtailed by practicing mindfulness in the classroom.
Straightforward exercises like deep breathing can produce tangible benefits of mindfulness for kids, such as managing excess energy and improving interpersonal relationships.
Fun and engaging mindfulness activities for kids
Another mindfulness activity aimed at younger students involves striking a heroic pose. Ask your students to adopt the puffed-up posture of Wonder Woman or Superman to inhabit that mindset of invincibility. It’s no surprise to find that children report feelings of bravery and strength after they’ve engaged in the role-playing exercise, a critical defense mechanism when confronted with the common, age-appropriate stressor of bullying.
And in staying on the superhero theme, students can switch on their “Spidey senses” – a nod to Spiderman’s otherworldly ability to sniff out danger – and refine their ability to put all five of their senses to use in the classroom. The activity also promotes a healthy sense of curiosity, another pillar of mindfulness.
Of course, mindfulness exercises for older children, including teenagers, must be tailored to address tension over grades and other results-based forms of stress that can ramp up during adolescence. The simple act of preparing a favorite after-school meal – and focusing on savoring every bite – can work wonders to tame an overactive mind.
But there are plenty of foundational techniques a person can carry in their mindfulness toolbox well into adulthood. Mindful breathing, heartbeat counting and various visualization exercises can help alleviate stress and center your thinking whether you’re 7 or 70.
Longterm benefits for students
Mindfulness has a proven track record when it comes to cognitive function in young people, fortifying areas like memory and emotional stability. From a learning standpoint, it promotes a patient and attentive approach, which results in better academic performance.
A student who masters mindfulness techniques is set up for success inside and outside of the classroom. While not immune to the factors that bring about social anxiety, the mindful student is better suited to ward them off, helping them build more meaningful relationships and improve self-esteem.
Mindfulness is here to stay. It’s not a phase or a movement but rather an advancement in the ongoing evolution of the American educator. By developing a practical set of skills and implementing fun and engaging mindfulness activities, teachers can improve their relationships with students and reach them more effectively.
Advance your career with an ms in education online at Eastern Oregon University and learn to bring mindfulness into your classroom by implementing practical strategies. You can specialize in several marketable concentrations in the ms education track and form more meaningful bonds with your most vulnerable students.