Volume VIII, Issue I
Heather Clayton, the author of Making the Standards Come Alive!, is the principal of Mendon Center Elementary School in Pittsford Central School District, New York. She is also a co-author of Creating a Culture for Learning published by Just ASK.
The Whys and Hows of
Becoming More Mindful
The alarm rings and you feel as if you haven’t slept at all. From the time your feet hit the floor your thoughts are laden with worry; addressing that angry parent, completing nagging paperwork, preparing students for mid-term exams, all while managing the behaviors of your students with challenges. It’s only Tuesday and your patience has worn thin. Between your responsibilities at home and your responsibilities at school, you feel spread thin.
Does this scenario strike a chord? The level of anxiety educators experience as a result of mandates, increased academic demands, high stakes assessments, and the complex needs of students has resulted in a greater amount of stress and burnout for educators. However, there are ways to manage. Just as we take care of the emotional health of our students, many districts are now focused on taking care of the emotional health of their educators. One way many are doing this is through the use of mindfulness training. When teachers use mindfulness to reduce stress, there are benefits to not only their overall well-being but to their students’ learning and well-being.
We have to engage in the assume the practice of mindfulness for ourselves before we can begin to teach it to our students. When we can quiet our minds, eliminate distractions, and focus on the present the rewards are many. Therefore, this issue is dedicated to the well-being of the educators giving their best each day and who deserve to work in environments that are calm and focused.
Why is mindfulness important?
We ask our students to “pay attention” more times than we can count, yet we rarely teach them how to pay attention. The ability to pay attention is innate in all of us, yet it requires practice and care. When stress impacts our ability to teach and our students’ ability to learn, we need to attend to this important social-emotional quality.
Over 30 years of research tells us that mindfulness decreases anxiety, stress, depression, and anger. On the flip side, mindfulness improves organization, attention, impulse control, compassion and empathy. Mindfulness also improves teachers’ sense of well-being, their ability to manage behaviors in their classrooms, and helps them develop and maintain supportive relationships with their students. In the absence of a way to manage stress and emotions, the classroom climate can suffer. Students inherit their teacher’s emotional state, regardless of how instructionally sound a lesson may be.
According to Meena Srinivasan in her book Teach, Breath, Learn “In spite of the differences in cultural and educational environments, I’ve seen how the principles of mindfulness beneficially transform teacher practice and classroom climate. This is because, regardless of background and setting, we all want to feel connected. Mindfulness enables us to connect deeply with ourselves so in turn we can authentically connect with others.”+
How are mindfulness and empathy related?
At the heart of empathy is the ability to “walk in someone else’s shoes” and understand another person’s feelings, experiences, and perspectives. However, before we can truly practice empathy towards others, we need to have greater self-awareness and an ability to understand our own thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Once we are able to do this we have a much greater chance of making meaningful empathic connections.
As shared in his post “Mindfulness and Empathy,” Matthew Brensilver points out the relationship that empathy and mindfulness have with stress. If we are consumed by stress, we have little ability to be empathetic to others. When mindfulness reduces this stress we have a greater capacity to show compassion, pay attention, and empathize with others.
What are the benefits of educators practicing mindfulness?
In order to effectively teach mindfulness practices to students, it is a prerequisite that educators practice mindfulness themselves. The benefits are many and the effects far-reaching.
- Mindfulness helps educators to tune in to their own emotions. Rather than being hyperfocused on things that need to be accomplished in the future, mindful educators are grounded in the present and a realistic view of how things really are. They have a greater degree of regulation and control over how they respond in certain situations.
- Educators are able to communicate more effectively with their students when they practice mindfulness. By being mindfully self-aware, educators can monitor how they are communicating and responding to students. Educators who regularly practice mindfulness report being less reactive and responding more effectively in a number of stressful situations.
- Being mindful helps educators manage difficult behaviors in the classroom. When a child struggles with behavior in the classroom, it is crucial that the educator pay attention to what is causing the student to misbehave. An important aspect of mindfulness is the absence of judgment. By remaining nonjudgmental and tuning in to their own emotional responses to students, educators can get a better sense of what is behind the behavior.
- Practicing mindfulness sets a positive tone in the classroom environment. If educators carefully control how they are communicating and responding to students, they will be better able to effectively set and reinforce high expectations for learning. In addition, the educator is also mindful of the best way to physically set up the classroom so students may do their best work, transition effectively, and remain highly engaged.
- Mindfulness strengthens relationships with students. When educators are mindful, students will have their full attention. Tuning in to students sends and important message that they are valued and deserve to be heard. An educator who exercises mindfulness has a greater capacity to create and sustain supportive relationships with their students.
- Mindfulness reduces bias. Whether based on race, ethnicity, gender, socio economic status, or ability, mindfulness can decrease implicit biases and the negative behaviors tied to them. If an educator has a biased thought process, the results can be destructive and misaligned with their values. When educators are mindful they act more thoughtfully in the moment.
- Mindfulness helps educators to slow down when necessary. When educators take time out of their busy days to pause and reflect, they are better able to identify what it is their students need. Consciously pausing when delivering information helps our students to process their learning and think carefully about answers. Slowing things down allows for opportunities to deepen the learning for students.
- Mindfulness builds community. When we mindfully listen to our students we are modeling caring and respect in our classrooms. Our students need opportunities to collaborate with classmates and to reflect on the experiences and needs of others.
- Mindfulness reduces stress and burnout in educators. When educators are practicing mindfulness, they are sleeping better, have reduced psychological and physiological symptoms, and improved self-compassion. Educators do a better job of caring for themselves, as well as balancing the demands of personal and professional lives.
Ways to Get Started on Your Mindfulness Journey
The only way to access the benefits of mindfulness is to practice. A place to begin is by carving out five to fifteen minutes a day for mindfulness. In addition to that, it’s important to take advantage of the many opportunities to use mindfulness informally “in the moment” throughout each day. Listed below are some ways to get started on your mindfulness journey.
- Begin the day mindfully
At the start of each day, take the time to greet each student in a caring and attentive way. By doing so we are sending the message “I see you. You matter. I’m glad you are here.” We have our greatest impact on our students through our relationships with them. When our students feel connected, they are able to learn and grow.
- Connect with your breath
Concentrating on your breathing helps you to manage stress and prevents you from getting caught in a “fight or flight” response. To time your breathing, try putting glitter and water in a bottle, shake it up, tip the bottle over and breathe deeply while the glitter settles to the bottom of the bottle.
Another recommendation is to take ten slow, deep breaths through your nose. As you breathe close your eyes and keep your feet on the floor. Exhaling your breath should take longer than inhaling your breath, and it’s helpful to say to yourself “Breathe in, breathe out.” This breathing routine should take about one minute and can be done at any point throughout the day.
- Allow yourself time
When facing a difficult situation, answering a tough question, or managing a challenging behavior, take time to stop, think, and breathe. It’s ok to say “I need to get back to you,” or “Let me learn more before I answer.” By taking the time to respond to questions thoughtfully you will not only feel more confident, but the other person will feel heard.
- Use positive affirmations
When you repeat positive thoughts throughout the day, you are programming your mind to believe what you say, resulting in significant changes. Speak your affirmations, meaningful statements, over and over at least three times per day.
The best affirmations come when you turn a negative thought or self-judgment into a positive one. For example, instead of thinking “This is too hard,” say “I can do this.” Here are some other examples:
- I am content.
- I will be productive today.
- There is nothing I can’t handle.
- I am present.
- Be Present
When we are mindful, we are focused on the present experience without judgement. When we are aware of our experiences, we are less likely to become overwhelmed or unable to manage our emotions. Some tips for being present include:
- Making eye contact with the speaker
- Focusing on body language
- Avoiding interruptions
- Asking follow-up questions
- Set intentions
A powerful practice is to begin each day with an intention, or a guiding purpose for the day. The goal of setting intentions is to align your thoughts and actions with the intention you set. An intention can be a word or a sentence that describes how you want to be with your students that day. For instance, you may set an intention of greeting every student by name as they come into the classroom or sharing a positive comment with each student throughout the class period. When educators start the day with intentions rather than expectations, they are better able to stay in the present with their students and engage with them in meaningful ways.
- Keep it Real (Authenticity)
Never underestimate the power of taking care of yourself and being honest about your needs in the classroom. For example, saying things like “I’m finding the room too noisy to think right now, so I’d like to take a minute of mindful breathing before we begin again,” models self-awareness while also reinforcing important classroom expectations.
- Attend to language
The words we use in the classroom are one of the important ways we show our students we are present and teaching from a place of kindness. For instance, rather than stating directions as orders we state them as invitations. We can say things like “I would like to invite you to open your books and join me on the third chapter,” or “Today you get to do some writing that will give me a window into your thinking.”
- Clear your head and clear your space
A disorganized space or excessive clutter can be a source of anxiety. When we are surrounded by “stuff,” it is a reminder of all of our unfinished business and our never ending to do list. Not only can clutter reduce your energy, but it can distract your brain so it is hard to focus. Take time to recycle, reduce, and clear out your space so you can think clearly and work productively.
- Use apps
There are a number of apps designed to support educators learning mindfulness practices including everything from breathing to meditation to visualization. Try these links:
Free mindfulness apps worthy of your attention
Fifteen Best Mindfulness and Meditation Apps
- Practice gratitude
Practicing gratitude allows us to focus on the good in our lives and distracts us from our hardships. When we are mindful, we are able to react to any hardships with acceptance and grace. Mindfulness and gratitude together bring about positivity, hope, and happiness. Some ways to practice gratitude include:
- List the things you are grateful for/keep a gratitude journal
- Write gratitude notes to show your appreciation
- Track three things you are grateful for each day
Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution of this newsletter for non-commercial use only. Please include the following citation on all copies:
Clayton, Heather. “Becoming More Mindful.” Making the Standards Come Alive! Volume VIII, Issue I 2019. Available at www.justaskpublications.com. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development. ©2019. All rights reserved.