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Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Mindfulness is getting a lot of attention these days. We read about it in our newspapers and our magazines. We hear how celebrities, professional athletes, corporate executives and even politicians are embracing the age-old art and science of mindfulness. Universities are teaching it and scientists are researching it. But while there certainly is a lot of buzz about it, mindfulness in education is relatively new.

Oftentimes when I put the words mindfulness and education in the same sentence I feel like I’m going to have to make a hard case for soft skills.

Mindfulness awareness is at the heart (double entendre intended) of social and emotional learning, which is all about soft skills like empathy, compassion and kindness, to name a few. Historically in education soft skills have taken a back seat to the hard skills of academic intelligence and performance. Academic rigor has driven our schools. But we are starting to see that it is equally, if not more, important to support the well-being of our students, as well as our own. What better way to do that than through mindfulness training?

What is mindfulness? Jon Kabat-Zin, PhD, who is internationally best known for bringing mindfulness into mainstream medicine and society, defines mindfulness as “paying attention in the present moment, on purpose, and without judgment.”

When articulated like this, it almost sounds simple. Just pay attention. And do it on purpose. Ok. “Without judgment,” hmm, that part might not be so simple, but come on, paying attention on purpose is easy, right?

As educators, we know better. None of this is simple. We know only too well in this age of constant distraction that paying attention is very difficult for a lot of our students, and for us, too. And throw in “do it on purpose” and then “don’t judge it,” well…that’s not for the faint of heart at all!

We, as educators, know that there is so much uncertainty about our students’ futures. We don’t know what jobs will be available for them. And quite frankly, like never before in the field, we don’t even know what we are preparing them for. But one thing we do know is that it will be of great value if they have an inner reservoir of tools like resilience, calming strategies, relaxation techniques and tools for self-awareness, modulation and regulation. A toolbox filled with these things will certainly help them better navigate through our changing times.

What if we taught students how to find peace and calm within themselves? If we could start teaching children, beginning at young ages how to do this through the practice of mindfulness, the benefits would reach way past the classroom. We would be equipping them with the necessary life skills to help them be more aware of, and tap into, their passions, interests and creative potential throughout their lives, helping them become valuable members of their communities.

But how can we teach our students if we don’t know how to do it ourselves? Teaching is demanding. Not only do teachers need to know their content, but also they need to be wizards of attention, being aware of the entire classroom and everything that’s going on in it. They need to be attuned to the level of student engagement as well as to the social-emotional dynamics of the classroom. Understanding the functions of emotions in the classroom and understanding that emotional reactivity affects teaching, as well as learning, is crucial in fostering a harmonious and healthy learning environment.

Developing and maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of what’s going on, beginning with thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and surrounding environment is a great springboard for creating a safe and supportive classroom that nurtures and supports growth. And this all starts with the teacher.

When a teacher can learn to pay attention to her own thoughts and feelings without judging them, she might just see that the student who is slumped in his chair and not engaged might be having a very hard day, with no reflection on her or her teaching. Having that awareness might make it easier to understand and respect what’s going on with him. Maybe he has trouble at home. Maybe just showing him a little compassion might better serve both student and teacher, creating a positive ripple effect throughout the entire class.

Current cognitive neuroscience research and evidence-based classroom pedagogy have shown that the regulation of emotion, attention, thought and behavior is the executive function in ourselves and our students that is cultivated with mindfulness training.

Harnessing the capacity for our attention, as well as pro-social behavior, empathy and self-regulation helps reduce stress, and improve self-awareness and reflective capacities, and these are all necessary for a successful classroom and for effective teaching.

What would schools look like if when a student is frustrated, angry, disappointed, sad or even feeling joyful and proud, she would hear these words from her teacher, “Take a few moments to sit quietly…bring your awareness to your breath. Just observe its natural rhythm, watching as it rises and falls. As you watch and observe your breath, also have an awareness of the feelings you are having, without needing to change a thing. Watch them like waves of the ocean, coming and going. Now with conscious attention deepen your breath, and bring awareness to the stomach as the inhale makes it rise and the exhale makes it fall. Then to make the breath even deeper, on an inhale watch the stomach rise, then the ribs expand, and on the exhale watch the ribs release and the stomach contract. Now go even deeper, building the upward movement of the breath even higher while breathing deep into the belly, then the ribs, now the collarbones, and on the exhale allow the exhale to descend from the collarbones, to the ribs and finally the belly while engaging the abdominal muscles.”

There are many benefits to doing this type of wave breathing, including calming down difficult emotions and circumstances. Using mindfulness as an intervention like this helps students be more in touch with their internal state, physically, mentally and emotionally, helping them be able to identify their feelings and self-modulate which ultimately leads to better student learning.

Developing a mindfulness practice in schools is learnable and offers many benefits for both the teachers as well as the students, including an inner sense of calm and clarity, and improved concentration, focus, attention, conflict resolution and empathy. It also promotes teacher engagement, excitement, empowerment and satisfaction. This, in turn, reduces teacher burnout, resulting in greater teacher retention.

Sometimes we think that slowing down to pay attention in the moment is “doing nothing,” which in today’s high-tech, fast-paced world is perceived of as a waste of time. However, it is anything but that! When a teacher takes intentional pauses to focus on what is happening in the now, it is easier to take in the entire classroom, and each and every student. A purposeful pause allows time to notice even the smallest detail. It’s a break from the sometimes frenetic pace of the classroom. A time to ask, “What’s happening now? How am I feeling? What do my students need?” By doing this we are modeling mindFUL(L)ness vs. mindLESSness. And when students take mindful pauses, it allows time for them to process both content and their experiences, which leads to better retention.

While these are considered soft skills in education, and fall under the category of social emotional learning (SEL), they shouldn’t be considered second-rate to the more admired hard skills of academic intelligence and performance. Thanks to the valuable work of social scientists like Brene Brown and others, we are becoming more open to understanding that, while our culture associates weakness with emotional traits like vulnerability, for example, these traits do not represent weakness at all, just the opposite. It takes a tremendous amount of inner strength and fortitude to be mindfully aware of ourselves and others, which is exactly what our students will need for their future success, however that will be defined.

Parker Palmer says we come to teaching for reasons of the heart. Mindfulness education is one way to support and sustain that heart-centered love of the vocation, which will foster greater teacher satisfaction and gratified longevity in the field. When teachers take their own brief moments to pause and center themselves, they are leading by example and modeling the type of attention, self-control and regulation they hope to foster in their students.

Using mindfulness as a practice of self-discovery helps equip teachers with the skills they need, as continuous self-learners, to foster a calm, relaxed and enlivened classroom filled with creativity, innovation, collaboration and cooperation. When everyone in the classroom is able to tune into what is happening in the present moment without judgment, rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future, it fosters a greater sense of an appreciation for everyone. This is the perfect way to support the well-being of all, creating a positive ripple effect in the classroom and throughout the school. What a great way to promote a positive school climate and culture!

I have done this work in the classroom with educators and children of all ages, beginning with early childhood all the way through high school. I have seen firsthand how cultivating a mindfulness practice benefits both the students and the teachers. Occasionally I will bump into former students and I will hear things like “I remember the breathing we did together and it really helped me over the years, especially to help relieve my anxiety and nervousness before tests!”

In this fast-paced, technologically advanced world, sometimes, as educators, we just need to stop…before we can continue…to breathe…to pay attention in the present moment…without judgment…and bring mindfulness into the classroom.

Nancy Siegel began her career in the early-childhood classroom and is currently an Educational Consultant specializing in mindfulness education and kids’ yoga teacher training. She was the Founder and Director of CADDY Camp and Nesheemah Yoga Center where she created and implemented educationally based and yoga-inspired programming that has resonated with school leaders, educators, parents and children. Nancy has a M.A. in Educational Leadership and is a Yoga Alliance certified yoga instructor for both children and adults. Learn more at www.nancysiegelconsulting.com.

By Nancy Siegel