With all the talk about mindfulness and learning, are there simple mindful practices teachers can use to make students available for optimal learning? The answer seems to be promising as growing enthusiasm for professional development and mindful teacher certificate courses support a positive shift in the classroom.
Adopting mindful practice in the classroom helps promote self-awareness, self-reflection, self-regulation and sustained attention, which can support teacher efforts to put students at ease and therefore become fully available to access their learning potential.
Brain development in early adolescence is a time of rapid growth as the rational part of the brain begins to mature and connections between brain cells make learning pathways more permanent. Meanwhile, processes in the amygdala can trigger panic, impulsivity, and distractibility. As a result, getting middle schoolers to stay in the moment is not a polished skill, and acting on impulse instead of reason can be the norm.
Add screen time, texts, and social media to the mix and it becomes easy to see how a shorter attention span and increased anxiety correlates to a negative impact on learning.
Incorporating these four simple mindful practices in your middle school classroom may go a long way to help students reach their learning potential while keeping you calm along the way.
1. Get to know your students
Teachers who make an attempt to know about their students' passions and interests outside the classroom are able to show genuine interest and empathy. While subjects like language arts and foreign language are more conducive to teachers getting to know students through writing, those of you who teach analytical subjects like STEM can benefit from getting to know the whole student. One common activity is starting the year with an interest survey and then using this information throughout the year to connect with your students. When a middle school student fears algebra, a mindful teacher will recognize the challenge and access student strengths to reduce anxiety and build resilience. To test this theory of teacher-student connectedness, take a few moments to think about a favorite teacher from your childhood. Most people report that their favorite teachers were identified not by the content taught, but because the teacher showed empathy and made all students feel valued.
2. Create time for self-reflection
As teachers you already know that if students reflect on how they learn, they become better learners. A mindful middle school classroom provides constant opportunities for students to reflect on their learning. Infusing the use of "think time" into your everyday class routine is a powerful mindful practice. When teachers have a question they want to ask, the think time tool asks students to close eyes or cover their faces and take 30 seconds to self-reflect on the question posed. When using think time, I recommend teachers count down the last seven seconds. The use of think time as a mindful practice, allows slower processors time to come up with an answer and fast processors as well as "pleasers" to take a bit more time and think at a deeper level. Typically the slower processors don't pay much attention to formulating answers to thought provoking questions because they simply can't keep up.
Another way teachers can foster self-reflection is to introduce students to the cognitive executive function of metacognition. Metacognition defined simply as "thinking about thinking," helps students recognize at what point they get confused and then advocate for support. When teachers promote the mindful practice of self-reflection, students learn a far more valuable skill than the subjects themselves. Other mindful self-reflection tools like peer editing, revision, and "reflection exit slips," help students ask questions and demonstrate levels of lesson comprehension.
3. Slow down
With high expectations and increased accountability for teachers, making every minute count is key. Taking a few minutes during transitions for students to close their eyes and listen to a guided meditation, calm music, or a short breathing meditation may sound unrealistic, but when used consistently, this practice can increase teaching efficiency and improve student attention and general readiness to learn. Consider a sixth grade science class entering from recess and asked to listen to a series of complex directions for a lab experiment. Even a well-managed classroom could benefit from taking a "mindful minute" to help settle students and refocus attention before introducing directions to the lab experiment.
Being a middle school teacher means multitasking, and when we multitask our minds become full, which can cause our minds to race. When our minds race we should pay attention to changes in rate and pressure of speech. Teachers who speak at a fast rate can raise anxiety in students. If you notice your rate of speech is fast, try raising awareness of your breath and slow your breathing. Teachers who speak with a slow rate of speech often come across as more relaxed than teachers with pressured and rapid speech.
4. Practice what you preach
As teachers are asked to teach students with high levels of anxiety, distractibility, and impulsivity, it has become increasingly important to take time to address their own self-care. If you don't take time to take care of yourself by being mindful, how can you expect students to do the same? Teachers in New York City public schools participated in "Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education," or CARE, a mindfulness professional development program. According to Audrey Breen (https://news.virginia.edu/content/curry-study-reducing-teachers-stress-leads-higher-quality-classrooms), teachers in the program not only felt an improvement in their own well-being, they also felt an improvement in the quality of their classroom.
Self-care starts with getting enough sleep, eating healthy, and getting a moderate cardio workout three times per week for approximately 20 minutes. Mindful self-care allows you to be present and aware of your whole self in each moment. Being present in the moment promotes clarity, self-regulation, and sustained attention. Take time to learn how to tune out distractions and lower your stress response by practicing how to bring attention to your breathing. While driving to work I spend 15 minutes with the radio off and simply practice being present in the moment.
Self-care can also come in the form of a healthy activity, passion, time spent with those you care about (including pets), or time alone. Popular mindful activities include yoga, reading, walking, listening to music, cooking, meditating, drawing, playing an instrument, volunteering, cleaning, and working out.
Middle school teachers who adopt mindful practice throughout their daily lives are best prepared to put students' minds at ease in a classroom that promotes a healthy learning environment for all students.
David Hughes, LICSW is a social worker at West Middle School, Andover, Massachusetts.
Published November 2019.