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The Benefits of Teaching Mindfulness in the Classroom

How classroom mindfulness techniques can help students and teachers find a sense of calm.

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When second grade teacher Paula Isaacson asks her students at Crest View Elementary School in Boulder to show her their mindful bodies, the children settle on the rug in cross-legged and bended-knee poses. Isaacson taps a small black mallet on an aluminum hand-held chime and immediately a bell-like reverberation releases into the space. Students close their eyes and remain quiet until the chime can no longer be heard. Then the teacher holds up a spherical toy and tells the students to breathe in as she expands it and breathe out as she collapses it. After several breaths, she invites students to take another breath in and, this time, to think of a word that plants a seed of happiness—the school’s mindfulness theme for the week. She asks if anyone would like to share their word or phrase.

“I tell myself I’m amazing and beautiful,” says one child.

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“I can be better than I am now,” states a second.

“I’m unstoppable,” adds a third.

The teacher then shares an example of her own mind quieting before they all line up for lunch.

Practices in mindfulness—paying attention to one’s thoughts without judgment—have become more and more popular in schools, in hopes of reducing stress, anxiety, and even depression. Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is more than a buzzword. Students in elementary, middle, and high schools are learning to sit with their breath and give distance to their thoughts.

“Embedding mindfulness practices into schools helps center kids, teachers, and the school atmosphere,” says Eric Swan, elementary school counselor in the Boulder Valley School District.

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One of the benefits of a consistent practice is that students learn to be aware of their emotions and thoughts in a nonjudgmental way. When they become aware, they have the space to think about how they might react to something before actually doing so. Ultimately, mindfulness gives students tools to be in charge of themselves. If mindfulness is new to you, here are a few frequently asked questions about the practice.

Is Mindfulness Affiliated with a Religion?

Mindfulness has no affiliation with any religion; the practice refers to being aware of the mind. “Mindfulness is more secular than meditation and this change in terminology has given permission to schools, and parents, to sit and work on breathing and self awareness,” says Swan.

How Does a School Adopt a Mindfulness Program?

Hollene Davis, principal of Crest View Elementary, saw the need for students to regulate their behavior. As a result, she began researching programs in mindfulness and evaluating them based on cost, depth of practice, and ease of implementation. She chose The Mindful Life Today program, from Kristen Race, Ph.D. which teaches the four key areas of mindfulness: attention, wisdom, values, and an open heart. She brought the idea to the school’s parent organization; the program was quickly approved and all the teachers were trained. “Parents like it,” Davis says. “It helps them and it keeps us all on the same page.”
Parent Patti Schrader conducted research on the effects of mindfulness and, impressed by the results, wrote her own program, Reboot. Now, Nederland High School has adopted her program, as have other schools across the nation.

Brooke Reves, a physical education teacher at Denver Center for International Studies, saw a need that wasn’t being met and trained with Passage Works Institute in Boulder. She has now convinced other teachers at her school to get the same training.

“The (teachers) saw how it impacted me as an individual and my ability to manage stress changed dramatically after the course,” Reves says. “They also were looking for ways to meet the needs of all of our students and many of them having lots of trauma or inconsistencies at home, which caused a lot of struggle at school. Mindfulness has helped these students tremendously.”

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How is Mindfulness Measured?

The benefits of mindfulness can be better heard and seen rather than scored, so its success can sometimes be hard to measure. A child who has difficulty controlling his own body, for example, can learn to self-regulate; a child who angers easily can learn to breathe before reacting; a child who doesn’t feel good enough can learn to quiet the critical voice in her head.

After the first year of the Mindful Life Program at Crest View Elementary, Davis polled students. She found that 80 percent of students were using mindfulness to calm themselves and to feel better about themselves.

In other schools, practices in mindfulness may be the reason for fewer suspensions. “We have seen data showing its impact in fewer behavioral incidents and an improvement to school culture, which I believe has to do with this being a collective school-wide program,” says Schrader.

However, there still isn’t the research on the effects of mindfulness in children and teens like there is for adults. For adults, research shows that a consistent practice can improve sleep and reduce depression, anxiety, and stress.

Is Mindfulness Just Another Passing Trend?

According to Rona Wilensky, director of Mindfulness Programs at the PassageWorks Institute in Boulder, it’s the teachers and parents—the adults in children’s lives—who must have a practice themselves in order to successfully pass it on to students.

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“People want to bring mindfulness to kids but going directly to kids misses the best way to support them. We pay more attention to the how, but seldom do we think about the who, and how skilled they are,” says Wilensky, who now trains teachers in an eight-week program called SMART, Stress Management and Relaxation Techniques in Education.

As with any subject, students learn best from teachers who know their subject well and care about it deeply. The practice needs to be consistent so students are learning to use strategies throughout the day and at home. “We talk about the importance of practicing our breathing strategies when we are calm, so they (breathing strategies) are ready when we need them,” says Erin Shea, a counselor in Jefferson County.

In addition to Passage Works, other programs that offer researched-based training to teachers are The Center for Courageous Living and Cultivating Awareness and Resilience for Educators (CARE).

“If we treat mindfulness as a gimmick,” Wilensky warns, “then we won’t get the results we want. Only if genuinely practiced, will we see change.”

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