Mindfulness is the awareness of the present moment that allows a person to choose what to focus their attention on. Mindfulness can act as a stress-coping strategy because it can train the brain to become less reactive to threatening thoughts and to focus on completing tasks before us with a calm and determined attitude. Rather than rehashing the past or imagining potential future outcomes, mindful people often stay focused in the now. Taking deep, slow breaths can help a person be mindful while also calming the body. Furthermore, actively thinking about our breathing can help us to reduce stress and distractions. Mindfulness techniques can act like an anchor to the present moment and help us be calm and present-focused. Constant distractions and overwhelming stress can keep us from living in the moment and mindfulness training can help to refocus our attention to the present on a regular basis.
I teach at an Orange County High School with high-achieving students who are often anxious, overwhelmed, and tired. From the outside, the students mind their manners, do their work, study for assessments, and follow rules. However, inside their bodies, my students are often panicked and more focused on the past and future than the present. This school year, I decided to teach a once-a-week mindfulness lesson as a way to hopefully create a long-lasting effect on my students’ well-being. I realized that mental health is as important as learning the rules of grammar and practicing persuasive writing. When I chose to implement mindfulness, some goals in mind were to help students realize strategies to reduce anxiety, create a calm and focused classroom environment, and remind students that life is a journey that is meant to be enjoyed in the present. While I don’t have any extensive training in mindfulness, I do have personal experience with yoga, calming myself and staying centered in the workplace through breathing techniques, and have participated in a few trainings offered at my school district. The students took a few weeks to get used to the routine of Monday Mindfulness. Believe it or not, many students wanted to use that time to work, thinking that they may miss out or get behind the other classes. Other students immediately relished the opportunity to develop their social-emotional skills and learn about stress-coping strategies and self-awareness.
Each Monday, I begin class with a Google slide presentation of the topic that includes many opportunities for peer-to-peer discussion, and then we listen to a guided meditation audio from a company called Illumination (https://www.illuminationinst.org/what-is-mindfulness/) who gave mindfulness curriculum to my school district. The curriculum so far in Quarter One has been mindful posture, belly deep-breathing, body awareness, and sense awareness (vision, sound, smell, taste). Each week is a delightful surprise in topic and comes with a Google slide presentation that includes information to instruct about the topic, visuals and examples, an activity, discussion prompts, and a final reflection; the curriculum also includes a 7-10 minute audio file for each topic that corresponds to the Google slide.
I have enhanced the curriculum by revising the slides to make sure it is engaging and rigorous for my students. My students view mindfulness practice with high-interest because of the activities, discussions, and examples that bring the topic to life. This way, students are more likely to remember what we practiced in class and put it into their daily practice. The peer discussion allows students to be aware of what that lesson on mindfulness means to them personally and compare that to the ideas shared by others. For example, during the deep-breathing topic, I had students practice many types of breathing such as open-mouth dragon breath (on exhaling), belly breathing (expand and contract abdomen), shallow chest breathing (hyperventilation), and even holding their breath (for 5 and 10 seconds to build up carbon dioxide and notice the calming effect it has on the body). For the body awareness lesson, I asked students to practice Progressive Muscle Relaxation by guiding them through tensing and relaxing muscles to notice the difference in how it feels. The goal is to be aware of your body’s tension so that you can make adjustments (relax, stretch, reposition) once the physical symptom of stress manifests itself. Students make more meaning from the lessons when they are actively engaged with their body and mind. In line with growth mindset, I always remind students that our brains are like muscles and can be trained with repeated practice. Practicing the habits of mindfulness help train our brain to be mindful automatically and with ease and more and more often.
As adults, we are often better at regulating our impulses and staying calm in stressful situations than teens, but we aren’t always good at being mindful. Imagine sitting in traffic, cooking a time-consuming dinner, or being in a work meeting; we spend a lot of our lives just waiting for something to be over. Instead of pushing away obstacles and boring moments in our day, we can train our brain to focus on our well-being such as breathing deeply, taking a moment to appreciate something in our environment, or remaining curious about the words and actions of those around us. When we find ourselves thinking about the past (regret) or the future (worry), we can remind ourselves to stay in the present (and the present isn’t so bad!). Sometimes we don’t focus on our current physical and emotional needs because we are caught up on accomplishing everything we need to do. Being mindful helps you recognize when you need to take a break, release tension, breath slowly, and focus on the present. Long story short, mindfulness helps you be calm and focused on the now. Practice mindful habits deliberately in order to automatically choose a mindful mindset when you aren’t practicing it.