In its most basic, mindfulness helps us to be more aware of what is actually happening, rather than worrying about what has happened or might happen. We learn to bring greater curiosity to whatever it is that we are experiencing. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founding father of secular mindfulness, described this skill as ‘being alive and knowing it’.
The Mindful Schools focus on the approach of adoption—where mindfulness begins at the individual teacher level—versus a rollout, or top-down decision made by leadership to implement a new programme. “We don’t mandate this for all the teachers; we let it grow organically,” said Camille Whitney, former head of research at Mindful Schools. “We encourage any number of people to take the course voluntarily, and encourage it as a group so they can practice and build a program together.”
Integrating mindfulness into a health and wellness curriculum is another alternative for implementation. Rather than adding on, the practice can be integrated into an existing school programme. When mindfulness practice is accepted and embraced, it can change the tone of an entire school.
Research has shown that mindfulness practice can increase attention, improve interpersonal relationships and strengthen compassion. Our goal in education is to provide emotionally supportive learning environments that can offer students and educators ways to calm their nervous systems, focus their attention, work with their emotions, and cultivate open and curious minds. In these mindful learning environments and “mindful schools,” a new generation of students will be nurtured and prepared to lead a thriving world.
In mindfulness exercises, we encourage students to practice limiting their focus to their breathing and/or a single concrete thing. The instruction will inevitably have students breathe deeply and think only about their breath as it enters and leaves the body—to focus on the here and now, not what might have been or what they’re worried could be.
The ultimate goal is to give them enough distance from disturbing thoughts and emotions to be able to observe them without immediately reacting to them.
In the beginning, the exercise should last no more than a minute or two. We tell our students their thoughts will naturally wander but to be aware of that and gently bring their attention back to the task at hand. We let them know they should not judge themselves or their thoughts but rather just take note of what is going on and redirect their focus. It is important to let them know this is not an easy process but it will become easier with practice. Ultimately, students learn to understand that they do not have to react or respond to every thought they have. They begin to realise they are strong individuals who can calm themselves, think things through, and consciously choose a course of action.
Some recommendations for implementing mindfulness in your own school:
In Yu Neng Primary School, pupils and teachers take the first 5 minutes of each day with an exercise called “Rainbow Breathing”. See photos below.
For more information on how to conduct simple mindful exercises, check out Dr Jessica Poggioli’s song and instructions on how to get pupils to “breathe in a rainbow”.
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