Today’s students are under great stress as a result of academic pressures, busy schedules, constant input from multiple sources of media, worries about the future, as well as all the interpersonal drama and negotiation that takes place with family and peers. These stressors, combined with a lack of knowledge about healthy stress-reducing practices, has led to a climate in which “a concerning number of youth are engaging in maladaptive behaviours such as risk-taking, nonsuicidal self-injury, and problematic video game use to manage their stress” (Education Canada Magazine online, March 2014). I know I found my time in high school to be stressful , and I certainly wish I had been exposed in my youth to the mindfulness practices that have helped me navigate life as an adult. This blog is part one of two, and will highlight the benefits of mindfulness for students; part two will discuss strategies for integrating mindfulness practices in online environments.
What is Mindfulness?
While mindfulness is a buzz word these days, it is a good idea to discuss what it actually means and where it stems from. Practicing mindfulness involves learning to direct our attention to moment-by-moment experience, exactly as it is, with acceptance and curiosity. The mind naturally jumps to conclusions, concocts stories, replays the past, and worries about the future. Mindfulness practice trains us to be present and to respond skillfully to what is happening right now, whether it is pleasant or unpleasant. Mindfulness originated from Buddhist meditation practices over two and a half thousand years ago. Its purpose then (as it is today) was to relieve suffering and stress caused by the unhealthy ways people respond to their experiences.
Mindfulness is learned through practice and experience, not through theory. Common practices include focusing on the breath, counting the breath, and noticing bodily sensations while sitting, eating, or walking. It sounds simple, and it is, but as new practitioners will notice, the mind is a slippery thing that resists focused attention at first. My mindfulness teacher, Frank Jude Boccio, gives the instructions like this: “Focus on the in-breath, focus on the out-breath, notice that that mind has wandered. . .repeat a billion times.” This instruction always garners laughs because it is so true! With practice and patience, we are able to develop that “concentration muscle” and maintain focus more skillfully.
The very practice of noticing that the mind has wandered, and bringing it back, is most important. This helps to break the thought-habits (we all have them) that don’t serve us, like self-judgement and blame. Being able to notice that a thought is just a thought, and not the whole of reality, is pretty powerful stuff. For a wonderful info-graphic on the benefits of mindfulness, check out: The Effects of Mindfulness Meditation.
The Benefits of Mindfulness for Students
Many progressive schools have started making mindfulness practices available to students, and studies now document the powerful effects of this practice for calming the mind, improving behaviour and increasing students’ attention span.¹ For instance, an Oakland-based 5-week Mindful Schools program found that students’ behaviour improved significantly in four areas– paying attention, self-control, classroom participation, and respect for others. Another study in the Midwest demonstrated that students who practiced mindfulness meditation, yoga and breathing exercises for 45 minutes per week were calmer; teachers observed less hyperactive behaviour and ADHD symptoms. Finally, a British study utilizing a Mindfulness in Schools program with a similar curriculum found that students reported decreased depression symptoms after the program, which continued three months later during stressful exam periods.
Consider incorporating mindfulness practices in your classroom to help your students better manage stress. As you prepare your students for exams, do you have tips for reducing stress and anxiety? Please share your ideas below! Stay tuned for next week’s discussion on integrating mindfulness practices into the online environment.
1. Emily Campbell, “Research Round-Up: Mindfulness in Schools.” Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. October 10, 2013. [Accessed 15 Jan 2014].