Thinking About Teaching
By Greg Graber and Simon Jeynes
We all want the ideal student sitting in our classroom. Someone who has great focus, increased capacity for learning, improved observational skills, good emotional development, thinks well of themselves, continues to improve their grades and behavior, and who controls their impulsivity. The American Psychological Association believes that these characteristics are the very ones that are seen in children who are taught to practice mindfulness. In this article, we encourage you to teach this to yourself and your children – of any age – in order to experience these great outcomes in your own classroom.
But what is mindfulness? To be mindful is to be aware of your words, your actions, and your situation. This sense of awareness and the practices that lead to it have been known to have been practiced for literally millennia, in every spiritual and religious tradition, and in all cultures. An annotated bibliography of articles that speak to the impact of mindfulness on children and adolescents notes the following results from practicing some form of mindfulness for as little as :15 minutes a day or 50 minutes once a week or 30 minutes twice a week:
- Improved behavior
- Less depression
- Better self-esteem
- Reduced anxiety
- Improved sleep patterns
- Stress relief
- Strengthened empathy and compassion
Amazingly, these studies represent similar outcomes in children as young as preschool to adolescents. The research shows that anxiety is higher in this generation of students than ever before. One report states: “Rates of depression and anxiety among young people in America have been increasing steadily for the past 50 to 70 years. Today, by at least some estimates, five to eight times as many high school and college students meet the criteria for diagnosis of major depression and/or anxiety disorder as was true half a century or more ago. This increased psychopathology is not the result of changed diagnostic criteria; it holds even when the measures and criteria are constant.”
Given that the children / adolescents in your classroom are experiencing higher stress and anxiety, meditation is a practice to seriously consider. It is one of the six practices that decrease stress hormones, decrease inflammation and support neuro plasticity! The six practices are:
- Mental health
- Healthy relationships
The good news (and there is no bad news!) is that it is free to do, takes little time and no equipment, and is relatively easy to both learn and teach. At Lausanne Collegiate School, Greg Graber, the Middle School Head who works regularly with college and professional sports teams like the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies and the SEC’s LSU Tigers as well as in schools, says: “It’s not a quick fix elixir that facilitates perfection…. I talk to them (the players) about the way the mind works,” he says. “The flight or fight syndrome, how adrenaline works. How different parts of the brain work and how they can learn to control it through their breath to facilitate focus and calmness.” And he translated that into his Middle School context as well with 11 – 14 year olds until it is now an integral part of the Middle School community.
Beginning in 2009, Greg’s Middle School teachers began the process of training to integrate mindfulness techniques into the classroom setting, which was implemented in 2010. It enhances the students’ physical, mental and emotional well-being. Before every class period, classroom teachers now lead the students in a brief, 30 second to two minute, “Mindful Moment” to assist the students in getting focused and ready to learn.
“Whenever you do a mindfulness moment, it always helps your brain reset for the next class, said sixth-grader Will Carter. “Anything that might have been getting on your mind, forget about it, and go on with your day.”
What Will says is almost exactly what LSU sophomore guard and pre-med student Skylar Mays said in an interview: “It’s been really beneficial for me. With my major and how much we’re doing on the court, I think taking a little time away from it, for just five or ten minutes, it’s really helpful.”
Greg identifies four elements to his practice (although the Middle School does a simplified version of this): thinking about thinking; breathing, the vehicle for entering a mindful state; mindfulness as a daily habit; visualization, the mental rehearsal tool. He says that doing mindfulness as a habit is crucial. It has its best effect when carried out daily or, as they do in his Middle School, at the beginning of each class. ““It’s just like lifting weights is a physical exercise to build an athlete’s biceps. Meditation, focusing on breathing, and learning to deal with distraction, is a mental exercise,” he says. “It’s the mental equivalent of lifting a barbell for the student’s attention span. It makes them more patient, it cultivates their ability to deal with stress in more responsive manner, instead of being knee-jerk reactive.”
According to a 2017 article by David Gelles in the New York Times, mindfulness training habits formed early in life will inform behaviors in adulthood.
“Part of the reason why mindfulness is so effective for children can be explained by the way the brain develops. While our brains are constantly developing throughout our lives, connections in the prefrontal circuits are created at their fastest rate during childhood. Mindfulness, which promotes skills that are controlled in the prefrontal cortex, like focus and cognitive control, can therefore have a particular impact on the development of skills including self-regulation, judgment and patience during childhood.”
Maybe the best thing about mindfulness is that the students themselves want it. As Greg puts it: “If a teacher skips the mindfulness moment now at the beginning of class, they all complain and demand he put it back!”
Resources on mindfulness can be found on Greg’s webpage!
Greg’s Middle School students in a mindful moment.