What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness has been become a trending topic, popping up on education forums, social media, and even the evening news. But what does mindfulness really mean? There are many definitions of mindfulness out there, but nearly all of them include two important elements: awareness and non-judgement.

Being mindful means drawing your awareness and attention to the present moment, observing your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations as they happen, without trying to analyze or correct. It involves getting quiet and curious, so that you can notice what’s happening in your inner and external environments without letting your mind get carried away by anxieties about the future or regret about the past. While this practice certainly takes a lot of patience, when you dedicate time being attentive to your present state, you can cultivate intimate self-awareness and powerful self-management skills. Whether you enjoy finding quiet time to meditate, or you prefer to walk, run, do yoga or play sports, the quality of mindfulness can be accessed through a wide variety of activities that you already enjoy, and can be integrated into the more mundane activities you do everyday, like sitting down for a meal or doing the dishes.

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Why Are Mindfulness Programs Important for Schools?

Research shows that practicing mindfulness can help reduce anxiety, ease depression, and foster resiliency in the face of stress. The applications of mindfulness practice are varied, being used to promote productivity and creativity in business, to teach life skills to inmates in the prison system, and to promote healthy eating and portion control in nutrition clinics.

So what is mindfulness’ place in schools? Teaching mindfulness techniques can help students thrive in the following ways:

1. Improve their attention:

By definition, mindfulness encourages students to draw attention to the present moment, to notice what’s happening in their thoughts and in their environment. They may notice that they feel hot or cold, tired, hungry, frustrated or excited. They may observe that their teacher is wearing yellow, or that their friend has a new backpack. While this may appear like mindful students are actually more distracted, the key to mindfulness is that as observations move to the forefront of the student’s consciousness, they learn to simply acknowledge them and let them pass, like clouds moving through a clear sky. Rather than obsessing over an emotion, or following a train of thought, children and teens learn to manage their attention, always returning to the present state and the task at hand so that they can be present and productive.

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2. Increase their emotional regulation:

Teaching students mindfulness techniques can also help them steady their emotions in the face of the ups and downs of their daily life, by creating the space for children and teens to start paying attention to the dialogue that’s playing out in their brain. Let’s say it’s first thing on Monday morning, and you tell your students to clear off their desks for a pop quiz. For most, this unfavorable request would cause the emotional brain to lash out, resulting in anxiety, anger, and maybe a little bit of attitude. But a more mindful approach might look a little different. Even if the emotional part of the brain still swells with anger (this isn’t fair!), mindfulness would give your student the awareness to recognize the negative emotion, identify the urge to react, and choose a more appropriate response. In this case, they may realize that they actually do know this material well, and in fact the teacher did warn them about pop quizzes throughout the semester.

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3. Increase compassion:

Mindfulness may be a personal practice, but the effects aren’t limited to the individual. Children and teens who learn mindfulness techniques become more self-aware, and consequently are more familiar with their thoughts and feelings. This knowledge gives them both the capacity to exercise greater control over their actions–how they speak to and treat others–and the insight to understand that their peers also experience a complex range of thoughts and emotions. This social awareness opens up the possibility for more understanding and empathetic relationships with peers, and an increased capacity for compassion.

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4. Feel calm in the face of stress and anxiety

Not all stress is a bad thing. But in large doses, stress becomes more and more difficult to manage, essentially putting our bodies into overdrive and exhausting our ability to cope. Children and teens are particularly vulnerable to stress, because they lack the years of experience and perspective to help them adapt to stressful situations. Bringing mindfulness programs into the equation can help. Mindfulness teaches students to recognize their own physiological response to stress and anxiety, so when they sense their muscles tensing or butterflies fluttering in their stomachs, they can queue their own counter response to stay cool, calm, and collected.

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Your Path to a Mindful School

With the incorporation of a mindfulness program, you’ll create a school environment that empowers students to build essential life skills that will lend to their adaptability, resilience, and focus, and that promote compassion, stress reduction, and calm (Mindful Schools, 2016). But if you’re ready to incorporate a mindfulness program into the classroom, it’s important to consider your school’s existing culture and values, so that you can best serve the needs of your students and teachers, as well as parents and other staff. Want to set aside time for mindfulness exercises at the beginning of each day? Great. Want to focus on professional development for teachers? That works too. Finding a program that promotes the shared values of your community, and strengthens the important social bonds that hold it together, will ensure greater buy in, and starting with small steps may help you create a program that is more sustainable in the long term.

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Yoga Ed. as a Mindfulness Program

At Yoga Ed., we put mindfulness into action (literally) with programming that integrates mindfulness and movement through yoga. For most kids and teens, sitting cross-legged trying to meditate may only leave them feeling frustrated and restless, but during a yoga class, even the youngest students are kept engaged and tuned in through conscious breathing, movement, and relaxation. And in the end they can access the same mindful self-awareness and non-judgement, all while they reap the essential health benefits of physical activity.

For instance, when Yoga Ed. mat yoga programming was integrated into the curriculum at an urban K-8 charter school in Los Angeles, researchers discovered improvements not only in student behavior, outcomes, and attitudes, but also in their physical fitness. Students at The Accelerated School who had high participation rates in yoga class were reported for discipline issues less often, and for middle school students in particular, more yoga meant higher grades (Slovacek 2003). And regardless of age, students across the board reported improved self-esteem at the end of the year, a change that teachers at TAS observed as well (Slovacek 2003). While these social, emotional, and academic outcomes could come from any mindfulness program, these students also became significantly more physically fit when compared with peers at other schools without yoga programming.
 
Specifically, an average of 23.4% more 5th graders and 28.5% more 7th graders were rated physically fit than the district means at the end of the school year. How powerful is that?

But it gets better.

The benefits that yoga can foster in kids and teens is not restricted to the mat. One study demonstrated that when teachers incorporated chair yoga into their classrooms each day, using Yoga Ed.’s Tools for Teachers program, students experienced mental, emotional, physical, and interpersonal growth (Chen 2014). Students reported being more relaxed, focused and rested. More calm and confident, energized and joyful. On top of that, they improved their posture, knowledge of the human body, eating habits and interpersonal relationships (Chen 2014). By just shifting the focus to prioritize health and wellbeing through mindfulness and movement, even for just 5 to 10 minutes a day, these classrooms saw significant enhancements in the quality of life of their students. The researchers themselves said it best, when they observed that the yoga was “instrumental to enhancing mental focus, reducing negative behaviors, increasing physical vigor, improving awareness and practice of eating, enhancing communication with family and friends, and enhancing emotional resilience and joy.”

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Establishing a mindfulness program schoolwide can be an overwhelming endeavor, but making teachers feel qualified and confident to lead mindfulness activities is a great place to start. When you begin with teachers, you not only help them prioritize their own wellness, but will allow them to maximize the productivity of their classrooms without the extra stress. Yoga Ed. was built in schools and for schools, and our programs are proven to help teachers feel empowered in bringing mindfulness to their students through yoga. We’re here to help you get started.

References

Chen, D.D., & Pauwels, L. (2014). Perceived Benefits of Incorporating Yoga into Classroom
Teaching: Assessment of the Effects of “Yoga Tools for Teachers.” Advances in Physical Education, 4, 138-148.

Mindful Schools. 2016. Why Mindfulness is Needed in Education. Retrieved from
http://www.mindfulschools.org/about-mindfulness/mindfulness-in-education/

Slovacek, S.P., Tucker, S.A., & Pantoja, L. (2003). Study of the Yoga Ed. program at the Accelerated
School. Los Angeles, CA: Program Evaluation & Research Collaborative, Charter College of Education.