Teaching Mindfulness in the Classroom Transforms

Imagine someone being mindful. Now, imagine that someone is a child. What might he or she look like? Do you picture a child focusing on his or her breath? Sitting in a yoga position? That’s what I perceived mindfulness to be four years ago -- before I attended The Changing the Odds Conference. There I was introduced to the MindUP program that educators may introduce into a classroom curriculum. A collaboration between The Hawn Foundation and Scholastic, the MindUP program presents a toolbox of lessons and strategies to help students achieve self-regulation, focus, and mindful attention. Students are also taught the parts of the brain and its functioning.

I watched MindUP in action in a variety of ways at the conference.  For instance, I saw students practicing mindfulness through videos and student work samples.  

Kindergartners learned how to be mindful. The students wrote about a time when they were mindful. Photo taken at the Momentous Institute by Allison Hogan.

Photo taken at the Momentous Institute by Allison Hogan.

I also visited the laboratory school at Momentous Institute, a leading provider of therapeutic and educational services based in Dallas, Texas, where I observed a second-grade class engrossed in a MindUP lesson. Immediately upon walking into the classroom, I felt a calming sense all around me. The students and teachers, even with the additional visitors, were at peace. The students were quiet and whispering to one another. The hallways, while filled with extra guests, were still calm.

At the lab school, many classes I visited were engaged in brain-centered activities, starting as early as pre-kindergarten. In the second-grade class, one lesson began with breathing and moved to mindful smelling in which the teacher passed around a few small containers, each one containing a different smell. Students passed around the containers one at a time, smelling and guessing each scent. The lesson concluded with reflections from students describing how sometimes we don’t notice smells because we’re so caught up in other things. The takeaway for me was that sometimes just breathing and being in tune with our bodies can help us with further academic, social, and emotional situations. After witnessing the power of these lessons, I returned to my classroom Monday morning with a chime to ring for breathing exercises.  
Eager to try out mindfulness with my students, I introduced the chime and breathing. Initially, the breathing exercises felt a bit uncomfortable. I saw students looking down and eventually closing their eyes. I completed the lesson by talking about the benefits of breathing: helping to calm us down so we may make wiser choices in difficult circumstances. During the class, I even modeled the practice myself by closing my eyes and breathing in a deeper manner so my students could hear it. After practicing for about a week, my students began to immediately focus attention on their breathing.  
Similar to the way a teacher gradually releases curriculum, I have been doing the same with breathing. When I model deep breathing, I talk about why and what is happening in my brain to help me as a learner. My goal is for the students to see the purpose and importance of breathing and calming down before speaking or reacting on impulse. Often, I point out students who have used these strategies before reacting to certain issues – whether it’s having a difficult partner experience or expressing frustration about not being included in a recess game.  
With a strong breathing foundation in place, I add lessons from the MindUP curriculum. The lessons help my students understand what’s happening in their mind when they are making a difficult choice.  The MindUP program centers on a core practice, involving belly breathing. I like the term belly breathing for my primary students because they can see their breaths. I highlight belly breaths and make it visual by adding a Beanie Baby to students’ bellies. Each day, I guide the students in my class through at least three breathing sessions. We start each day after our read-aloud with a belly breath, we practice it again in transitioning back to the classroom after recess, and finally, we conclude our school day with this practice. My students learn to watch the movement of their Beanie Baby and have come to the conclusion that the lower their animal moves, the calmer they are at that moment. These daily breathing sessions have been naturally assimilated into my students' routines, as I have seen them going back to this practice of breathing during times of anxiety or frustration. Take, for instance, our spring performance every April; students will breathe in the aisles of the theater before taking the stage.

Students practice their belly breaths by focusing on the movement of their Beanie Baby™.

At this point, one might ask: What are the long-term benefits of practicing mindfulness?
A study from The Momentous Institute found that “empathy and optimism predicted academic success in students.  That is, as a student’s empathy scores increased over time, so did his/her reading and math test scores.”  Specifically, the study tracked students who experienced four full years of mindfulness education compared to students who had only one or two years of mindfulness education.  The results were only significant for those students with three or four full years of the social emotional curriculum as opposed to those with one or two years of the curriculum.  This conclusion “means that repeated, long-term exposure to social and emotional health is critical,” according to the study.  Mindfulness will not stick with students by sprinkling in a lesson here or there.  It works when educators make it a daily practice -- and when the entire community works together and builds on one another’s work.

I’ve discovered that most independent schools either include educating the whole child in their missions or practicing mindfulness in their curricula.  MindUP is one way schools may achieve both of these goals.  It is my hope that more schools and classrooms will focus on the bigger picture of educating the whole child. 
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Allison Hogan

Allison Hogan is a Primer teacher at The Episcopal School of Dallas (Texas) and a 2014-2015 NAIS Teacher of the Future.  She is on Twitter @AllisonHoganEDU and keeps a class blog.