If around 20 years ago, when I began my teaching career, I had been asked my opinion on mindfulness in schools, I would have laughed and used my ‘get out’ phrase of ‘it’s all just a load of brown rice and lentil stuff’.
Back then, I couldn’t have told you much that would have shown any true understanding of the concept nor given any insight into how life changing it could be. I certainly would not have been able to share with any meaningful reflections.
The reality probably is, I have always on some level believed in the power of calmness, mindfulness, being present, and other awareness practices to improve educational wellbeing, but I just didn’t have a label or name for what I was doing.
What does mindfulness mean to me?
Mindfulness is, in a simple definition, the act of paying attention to the moment.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of Mindfulness for Beginners, Reclaiming the Present Moment—and Your Life, describes it as, “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.”
The ability to practise this skill throughout the day helps us manage stress and refocus our energy. Mindfulness is also powerful in supporting children to manage daily life in a classroom and boost learning potential.
As teachers, we must practice what we preach
In creating a calm and mindful classroom, we must make sure we practice what we preach; the benefits for practitioners are as powerful as it is on learners.
As teachers, classroom assistants, admin staff and leaders we are busy all day—busy teaching, busy planning, busy meeting with parents and colleagues and students. Then we eventually get home, it’s time to cook, be a husband, father and an amateur superhero.
Taking it easy was something my lifestyle couldn’t afford.
As a result, all of my roles suffered and burnout was on the cards. I ended up in a serious car accident that almost cost me my life. It did, however, give me time to reflect, understand and use my time to advance my skills in mindfulness. I trained in hypnotherapy, NLP, CBT, understanding the brain, and the impact of PTSD.
Moving into the here and now I have since discovered that I can’t afford NOT to slow down, NOT to make time and not to appreciate the here and now. My wellbeing is essential to everything else in my life, and using techniques involved in enhancing mindfulness is an astonishingly easy way to care for myself and a surprisingly easy concept to incorporate into the classroom and school.
So, here are some of the methods I’ve learned to be more mindful in my daily life. These are also great tips you can use in your classroom to help teach mindfulness to your students and colleagues. I now believe that everyone will also benefit from the opportunity to stop, observe, breathe, appreciate and then continue on with the important work we do each day.
Here are just a couple of simple mindfulness ideas:
Start the day positive
We go to sleep each night and wake up each new morning to new challenges and new opportunities. I believe the way we start our day influences how we set about our routine and how we approach and feel the rest of the day.
This also applies with how the pupils start their school day. It is so important to feed minds with something positive within the first few minutes of entering the learning environment. Take the time to say good morning to the students with a smile and a ‘hi’. I’m thinking of the teacher who personalised all his students’ handshakes; what a great energy to start your lessons with. Or the head teacher who led the school in a morning dance session; maybe the wake up n shake up idea wasn’t so daft.
For me, ‘starting positive’ means turning off my phone alarm and not looking at it again until I take a few deep breaths, and think of something I am looking forward to that day or something positive I want to do. If I can’t think of anything specific, I just think of the people who I will encounter (family, student, parents, colleagues), and say “let them see a smile and a positive”. That’s it. It takes two minutes but it makes a difference.
I repeat this thought and this positivity as I get out of my car and prepare for my day. I walk into work with a more optimistic outlook.
Breathing is something we all do, all of the time, yet we are often not aware of how it feels in any given moment or how it can control our nervous system. Mindful breathing is the act of focusing on our breath to calm ourselves. Our breath connects our body to our mind, and regulates the nervous system. When our minds are chaotic, focused breathing exercises help focus our thoughts and regulate anxiety. The act of mindful breathing can take less than one minute or can be practiced for longer periods.
Of all the mindfulness techniques, the simple act of mindful breathing has been the biggest revelation for me. Until I became a hypnotherapist I knew little about the two sides of the nervous system and how they work. Now, when I sit down at my desk to work I take a few deep breaths to calm my mind. Honestly, I still find myself amazed at how quickly this little act helps me refocus and recharge. I’m also astounded at how often, after I take my first few breaths, I think: Have I been breathing properly? When was the last time I actually filled my lungs fully with air today? I think we all need to learn how to breathe more and understand how it helps!
There are other methods and ideas for mindfulness both for self and the class. My favourite is ‘strong sitting’ – it is a gem for the classroom to regulate children’s moods. Make it into a contest to see who is the class champion of the week, it works well. Also, encourage expressing gratitude for what we have or achieved today and also not forgetting personal gratitude. What have I done that I am proud of? Stop singing the Mpeople song!!!
Incorporating and teaching mindfulness in the classroom and making a transition to mindful schools takes a commitment to slow down and take a minute when life gets too hectic due to curriculum demands and test scores.
Mindfulness practices have helped me be a better educator, parent, and friend. When the day feels too big, too chaotic, take a breath, take a pause, and tackle your challenges!