How Teaching Mindfulness Benefits Learning
It’s no secret that social and emotional well-being can directly influence academic outcomes. When we are in tune with our emotions, we pay attention to the right things and make sound decisions; when we fail to manage our feelings, our thinking becomes impaired. Many of us have been incorporating social-emotional learning (SEL) into our lesson plans for years. So what’s the deal with this “mindfulness” movement we keep hearing so much about?
First off, mindfulness is not a replacement for social-emotional learning; it’s one strategy that supports it. Goals of SEL cover everything from self-management and independent growth to communication with and respect toward others. Practising mindfulness is one way to achieve these goals, along with other strategies like community service, collaborative learning, and exercises in emotional awareness. But unlike other strategies, mindfulness has the power to effect change in any setting, at any time, with or without the presence of others.
And therein lies one reason it’s become so popular: in our fast-paced, often individualistic society, mindfulness has acquired the same appeal as DIY and self-help techniques. Once you know how to practise it, you can carry it with you into any situation and rely on it for moral support.
In an educational setting, mindfulness has proven effective in enhancing attention, reducing stress, and boosting retention. To learn, a student must engage her prefrontal cortex to focus and monitor her attention and to inhibit impulsive tendencies towards distraction. The latest science suggest that regular mindful awareness practice can change how our body and brain respond to stress, possibly strengthening connections in the prefrontal cortex and reducing reactivity in our limbic system, supporting self-reflection and self-regulation. These functions play a critical role in learning, memory, and retention.
Teachers know that if they can equip students with this tool, students will carry it with them throughout their educational careers. And that is perhaps the most powerful reason to join the movement. Whereas most instructional strategies end upon delivery, mindfulness becomes the gift that keeps on giving, serving students in potentially every aspect of their daily lives.
We All Talk About It, But What Is It?
Put simply, mindfulness is the act of paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, without judgment. It’s being aware of your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations with an attitude of curiosity and acceptance. According to Patricia C. Broderick, PhD, research associate at the Prevention Research Center for the Promotion of Human Development at Penn State University, this “shifts cognitive focus away from the past and the future, thereby disrupting the connections between automatic cognitive interpretations and patterns of reacting.” In other words, when you step back and observe yourself from an “objective” point of view, you start seeing your thoughts and feelings for what they really are: just patterns.
Broderick also says that focusing on one’s present thoughts and feelings “broadens attention and allows for suspension of previously practiced patterns of reacting (avoidance or overengagement), sometimes called decentering.” It’s this decentering, coupled with a nonjudgmental attitude, that helps us calm down and prevent stress. Over time, it can “strengthen [our] tolerance for distress by altering automatic response patterns.”
To understand the role mindfulness plays in learning, it is also important to consider the nature of attention and the way we typically portray it in an educational setting.
“We often think of attention as a trait-like characteristic that is relatively immutable or inborn,” Broderick says. “For example, students might be described as having ‘short attention spans’ or as ‘highly attentive.'”
We now know that neuroplasticity allows us to make profound changes in the way our bodies and minds function at any age. So helping students learn to train their bodies and minds through the use of mindful awareness practices can make a real and lasting difference. Learning to channel attention to productive tasks, to sustain motivation when work becomes demanding, and to handle the frustrations of sharing, learning, and communicating with peers are skills that depend on a student’s ability to understand and manage emotions.
“[Mindfulness] helps us to live in a way that is more reflective and accepting of diverse views, qualities that are critical in a world of growing global integration and communication.”
Demands for these types of interpersonal, intrapersonal, and problem-solving skills only increase as students progress through their educational careers. That’s why the call for mindfulness has become so urgent.
Why Should We Believe It Works?
In 2013, Black & Fernando found that mindfulness training benefited lower-income and ethnic minority students at an elementary institution in Oakland, California. The program lasted five weeks, with three sessions per week, and focused on mindfulness practices that helped students pay attention, build empathy and self-awareness, improve self-control, and reduce stress. More than 400 students were evaluated in total in this study.
Immediately after the program ended, student behavior improved significantly in all four areas measured: attention, self-control, participation, and respect for others. These gains were maintained seven weeks later.
The same year, Klatt studied a similar program, lasting eight weeks, called Move-into-Learning (MIL). Third graders at a low-income, urban elementary academy in the Midwest participated in a weekly 45-minute session, led by an outside trainer, that included mindfulness meditation, yoga, and breathing exercises set to music. Positive self-expression through writing and visual arts were also included. Two teachers led shorter, daily practice sessions that reinforced these skills.
At the end of the eight weeks, teachers observed significantly less hyperactive behavior, ADHD symptoms, and inattentiveness among their students; these improvements were maintained two months later. In fact, students continued to show improvements in their attentiveness even after the program had ended. What’s more, interviews with the participating teachers revealed that they found the program to be feasible to implement, appropriate and enjoyable for their students, and effective in boosting attendance and positive behavior.
Findings like these are reflected in older age groups, too. Wisner and his colleagues measured at-risk high school students’ perceptions of the benefits of mindfulness meditation at an alternative, low-income high school in the U.S. Students participated in half-hour guided mindfulness meditation sessions, offered flexibly at least twice per week for eight weeks. After the program ended, students were asked what changes they had noticed since beginning to practice meditation. From eight types of potential benefits identified by the study’s authors, those rated as most important by the students were stress relief and enhanced learning setting, including improved teacher mood.
In another study, students in the UK participated in a program that consisted of nine scripted mindfulness lessons, delievered weekly by trained teachers. In the study, which involved over 500 students total, six institutions that had received the mindfulness training were matched against six that hadn’t.
Compared to students in the untrained institutions, students in the trained institutions reported significantly decreased depression symptoms immediately after the end of the program. In follow-up surveys conducted three months after the program ended, during the stressful summer exam period, they reported significantly less stress and symptoms of depression and significantly greater well-being compared to their untrained counterparts. Also, the more frequently students reported using mindfulness practices, the better their scores were.
2014 was marked by similar findings. For example, Greeson and colleagues found that a mindfulness training program called Koru proved beneficial for college students and other emerging adults. The training reduced students’ stress levels, improved sleep cycles, enhanced mindfulness, and increased self-compassion.
Smeets et al discovered that a self-compassion intervention based on mindfulness training enhanced resilience and well-being among female college students.
Bonamo et al found that when female undergraduates at a midwestern university engaged in brief mindfulness training exercises before studying Swahili-English word pairs, they were able to recall significantly more words than peers who did not engage in the training.
The scientific support for mindfulness training is only growing. It’s time for teachers to make room for it in the curriculum.
Activities to Try Out
The following is a listed of mindfulness training activities recommended by the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching.
“What we know of learning is that the predominant factor is not merely time on task; it is the quality of attention brought to that task,” says Tom Hart, professor of psychology at the University of West Georia. “If our attention is somewhere else, we may have little capacity to be present. Paradoxically, we may need to not do anything for a few minutes to be more available for doing the task at hand.”
At the beginning of a lesson, turn the lights off and instruct students: “Take a few deep, slow, clearing breaths. Let your body release and relax; let any parts of you that need to wiggle or stretch do so. Now feel the gentle pull of gravity, and allow the chair beneath you to support you without any effort on your part. Just let go and allow yourself to be silent and not do anything for a few minutes. You may want to focus on your breathing, allowing it to flow in and out without effort.”
Guided Meditation on a Raisin
During this exercise, students are instructed to silently contemplate a raisin for 10 full minutes: to take a close look at, touch, smell and, finally, taste, chew, and swallow a single raisin.
“You can imagine that spending 10 minutes with a single raisin helps students increase their powers of attention, but what I find most rewarding has to do with their heightened self-awareness,” says Sid Brown, Professor of Asian Studies at the University of the South. “As we discuss their experiences, they realise with astonishment what rewards they reap when they pay greater attention to their moment-by-moment experience of life. Slowing down to eat a raisin turns out to be really complex and exciting. Not only do they discover many facets of their relationships with raisins as memories arise, but they rediscover the taste of this wrinkly, ordinary fruit. They take notice of their own wonder, instead of allowing it to slip away, and they learn one way to cultivate wonder: to pay attention to what’s happening right now.”
Listening in Difficult Conversations:
In another of Brown’s courses, students are required to find someone whose religious commitments (or lack thereof) are different from their own or someone about whose religion they don’t know. With phones turned off and no interruptions anticipated, the student and the interviewee carefully answer a series of questions: “What’s your fondest and oldest memory related to your own religion or your secular ethics/values? Why is this such a fond memory?” and “What’s your most painful memory related to your own religion or your secular ethics/values? What makes this memory so painful?” Each person answers all the questions and has at least three minutes for each one. If the speaker uses only one minute of the three, the listener still waits patiently, making eye contact, waiting for any more words the speaker might want to share. Both students spend time as listener and speaker as they go through the questions. This kind of conversation can be awkward and exhausting. Students often report that they realise through the experience how little they actually listen. Often in conversation they are instead remembering something or planning what they will say next. This new kind of listening is different and differently rewarding. “Refraining from judgment, if only for a few minutes, opened the door to peaceful, honest, and directly spoken disagreements,” says Brown.
Beholding is the act of experiencing works of art “face-to-face.” You stand in front of a painting or a sculpture, hold it in your hands or gaze, awed by the scale of it or drawn in by the intimacy its tininess. “Beholding is a counter both to the usual two-second walk-by experience that characterises much museum looking and to the analytical dissection of art,” says Deborah Haynes, Professor of Art, University of Colorado at Boulder. “Beholding often leads to another kind of encounter. My own love of Islamic manuscripts and calligraphy has grown from this kind of sustained beholding.”
Writing at the beginning of a course or lesson can provide each student with something to say during a discussion. Writing in the middle of a lesson can provide a time for reflection and calming in the midst of a challenging or intense discussion. Michael Heller, Professor of English at Roanoke College, explains: “In most of my [courses] we begin with a short period of journal writing, which is a time of silence and a contemplative few minutes in the beginning of [the lesson]. I find that the students and I get centered by doing this. Then every few weeks I ask them to write a one or two page piece, called a ‘small writing,’ and then share that one small statement of where they are with the group. There are three basic questions [for the journal]. The first question is, ‘What matters here?’ I tell them that if they ask that question of themselves in every [lesson], they will get better grades. This question is about taking ownership for oneself in the world, and it leads to that…The second big question is ‘Where are you now?’ This question has implications about maps, the map of our lives, where are you on the map. It’s psychological and emotional. Where are you with your feelings, where are you spiritually? The third big question is, ‘What do you know now?’ This question is the question behind all traditional research papers. You’ve done the research or read the text, now tell me what you know, what you can say about it. I want the student to think about knowing on different levels, not just the intellectual level. So I’m trying to get them to write from their experience, to value their own experience.”
Assigning fewer texts and reading the texts in more intentionally and contemplatively can foster students entering into texts in deep and transformative ways rather than using the texts for their information alone. Reading aloud and in different configurations can highlight different aspects of a text. Alternating readers by line, sentence, or paragraph provides varied voices and different emphases. Specific strategies such as echoing frequently used or significant words influences students’ attention.
Though silence can be scary, it can make room for different dialogue and varied voices. Students must be comfortable with silence in order to reap the full benefits of mindfulness training.