When Mindfulness in Schools Really Works
If you’re connected to elementary education in any way, you’ve probably heard the buzz about mindfulness in schools by now: “Increases test scores! Reduces disciplinary issues!” You may have even seen videos of kids talking about their emotions and how much it helps them calm down to spend some time just breathing after recess. This makes a lot of sense intuitively, but it seems like it’s mostly just buzz; you may not see a lot of success in your own school community, or feel like your own attempts aren’t working like they should.
I have had for many years a personal meditation practice that includes daily “sitting” and several silent “retreats” a year, lasting from a weekend to two weeks. I have also been on the board at my school for several years. So it was natural for parents, teachers, and staff to ask me about actually bringing mindfulness meditation into the classroom at our school, where I have two boys of my own in third grade and fifth grade. People mentioned a few available programs and I knew of some myself, but none seemed right to me. Eventually, I realized that these programs were being utilized primarily as a behavior management tool, completely missing the core value as a vital part of mental and emotional health from which the entire school community could benefit profoundly.
It also struck me that the place to start was with the adults, not the students. One reason was that most of them had very busy, often stressful lives. I could relate, and I knew from personal experience that mindfulness practice had made me more confident, productive, and insightful as well as less reactive, worried, and frazzled. I was sure that it could do the same for parents and professionals at my school. A natural by-product of this would be happier children and better students.
Another, and more significant reason to start with adults instead of children, is that kids tend to learn most skills better when they have adults in their lives modeling them. Just as schools encourage parents to read with their children, help them with homework, and talk about their day, this is also the key to getting mindfulness to take root: we need to live it ourselves. So, I began by developing a series of meditation training classes for parents. This was a huge success. Parent groups embraced everything I offered to them. Several parents reported after a single lesson that they were sharing mindfulness with their children. I was elated!
I next developed a series of sessions for students that began with introducing the concept of tuning into our moment-by-moment sensory experience at an age appropriate level for grades kindergarten through middle school. What was most noteworthy was that my own passion for the topic and ability to be flexible in the moment due to my deep familiarity with mindfulness concepts was clearly the key to connecting with the students and hooking their interest in learning more.
The students were responsive not so much because the lessons themselves were irresistible, but because of my own practice, which allowed me to act as a role model as well as an instructor. Since coming to believe that teachers need also to cultivate their own regular practice in order to optimize mindfulness education in the classroom, I was gifted a remarkable resource by a parent: renowned Vietnamese peace activist and mindfulness teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s Happy Teachers Change the World.
Nhat Hanh’s book is by far the best resource I’ve found for bringing mindfulness into classrooms effectively. This is because he makes connections for teachers on why they need to practice too. This makes perfect sense, of course, once you see it. Most obviously, it’s hard to teach what you don’t know. You wouldn’t try to teach French if you couldn’t read and write French. Maybe you don’t have to be a world-class tennis player to teach tennis, but you probably are not very effective as a teacher if you don’t play at all. Practicing mindfulness themselves will not only yield direct benefits to the teachers, it is virtually a prerequisite to teaching mindfulness effectively and it makes them role models.
Further, teachers do more than learn language arts and math and history in order to teach it; they also study how to teach it. They dive into best practices for transferring information on countless topics and for different learning styles. What they don’t typically do is skip straight from knowing what topic needs to be taught to pedagogical theory. Before learning to teach mindfulness will be truly effective, then, teachers need to learn how to practice on their own on a regular basis. Only then will sharing mindfulness in the classroom really take off.
Here’s the best news of all: teachers who practice mindfulness are likely to be more fulfilled, less stressed, and have less burnout. On second thought, let’s call that the second-best news. What teachers will really be amazed to discover is how little time it takes to develop their own practice: one that yields huge personal dividends and makes teaching the skills to their students become second nature.