Teaching Kids to be Mindful

The Mindful Classroom

In our last post, we gave background information on the idea of mindfulness and the powerful effect it can have on people… specifically teachers! This post will focus on how we teach mindfulness to our fourth-grade students and how you can teach your students to be more mindful in school, at home, and in their everyday lives.

‘Mindfulness’ seems to be a buzzword making its way around the education world quickly. This summer, an article and video about a school in Baltimore that replaced detention with meditation went viral and brought this idea of mindfulness to the forefront for many educators and parents.

For me, I began practicing mindfulness in my personal life a few months prior to having written this article and have already noticed positive benefits. After a few weeks, I felt like my brain was like a filing cabinet and I could file away my thoughts into appropriate folders and store them until they were needed. My mind no longer felt like an internet browser with too many tabs open at once!

I knew I had to teach this to my students but wasn’t exactly sure how to get started. When the video about the school in Baltimore came out, I decided to dive in and figure out how to bring mindfulness to our combined 4th-grade classroom. It was a relief for me to hear that Grayson had started teaching these concepts to his class last year and his experience could serve as our starting point.

In digging deeper, it became very clear that ‘mindfulness’ is not just a new buzzword, it’s also strongly backed by science. Research shows that by making Mindfulness Meditation a regular practice, people can physically change the neural pathways of the brain to make a person more attentive, compassionate, better able to regulate their emotions, and reduce stress/anxiety. See our previous post for more evidence pointing to the benefits of living a mindful lifestyle. These are just a few of the benefits of practicing mindfulness. For a complete summary of research showing the effectiveness of mindfulness, check out Mindfulschools.org/about-mindfulness-research .

From the beginning, our goal was to teach kids to stay mentally present in the moment. We strive to teach kids that If they are taking a math test, their brain should be focused on the problems on the test. If we are having a class discussion, their brain should be focused on the topic of discussion, and if they are playing in a soccer game, their mind should be in the game! The stress and anxiety comes in when the brain and body are not in sync. As an example – what may happen much more often if that kids are playing a soccer game, but can’t stop thinking and worrying about their math test tomorrow… or  vice-versa… while taking a math test and feeling frustrated and distracted by the intense game of recess soccer from which they just came inside. The goal is to have your mind match what your body is doing – being mindful of the moment.

Now that all might sound great in theory, but you may be wondering how exactly does one get kids to buy into this concept? Below are a few simple and easy steps that you can use to incorporate mindfulness into your class tomorrow to help students become more aware of their thoughts and feelings.

Introducing Mindfulness

One of my favorite ways to introduce any concept to kids is through a read aloud picture book. This takes the pressure of us as teachers always having to be the expert in the room. One great picture book that introduced this concept is, What Does It Mean To Be Present by Rana DiOrio. This book walks through simple examples of what it means to be present in the moment, along with examples of not being present. This book can be used for students as young as kindergarten and is still engaging and meaningful for upper elementary students as well. After reading this book aloud, we had a class discussion on what it means to be “present” and how we can apply these lessons to our daily lives. Check out the video below for the lesson we shared with our whole school – it gave all classrooms some common language to understand what it means to be present in the moment.

Making Mindfulness a Habit

Like anything, if we read a book and never talk about it again, the idea of mindfulness would never stick. One way we have tried to make mindfulness a habit within our students is by changing our language as teachers. Language is one of the powerful cultural forces in every classroom and it’s important that teachers leverage this in their favor.  When someone is talking to a friend during a whole group lesson, instead of saying “stop talking” we have been saying something along the lines of “please be present in our class discussion.” Or if a student is rushing to get ahead in their math books instead of listening during morning meeting (this happens often), we redirect them by asking them to be present in our morning meeting instead of focusing on math which will come next. In the beginning, it takes a few longer conversations to explain the benefits of being present in the moment and using these times a teachable moments for it to make an impact. After a week of reinforcement, simply inviting them to “be present” is enough to redirect students attention.

Daily Practice

To make mindful meditation a daily practice, we use GoNoodle. GoNoodle is an AMAZING resource with videos of short guided meditations, breathing exercises, and lessons to teach kids to maintain control of their emotions and state of mind. We play one of these videos every day immediately after students return from lunch/recess. We use this as a reset from any stress that was present at recess or during the morning, and to start the afternoon on a positive note. It is amazing to see our classroom go from the chaos of returning from lunch to calm and peaceful in the span of a short 2-3 minute video. Overall, kids have responded very well from this daily practice and many have remarked how calm and relaxed they feel afterwards. They even sometimes ask to watch two for a double dose of re-centering. We also try to play one of these videos before tests to get the jitters out. To use GoNoodle, you will need to sign up for a free account and create your monster that will represent your class.

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Fourth graders “get centered” after lunch with Maximo

After doing these videos daily, I have noticed students internalizing these habits especially when taking  math quizzes and tests. I have seen students stop, close their eyes, take a few deep breathes, then open their eyes to continue on with the math problem they are stuck without any prompting or reminding. Other teachers at our school have also mentioned noticing students being more calm and taking deep breaths when they get frustrated. This really shows that mindfulness is making an impact on the daily lives of students. I can only hope they take these skills with them outside of school hours.

After showing a group of teachers GoNoodle, many have asked how to choose appropriate videos because many videos on the site are crazy dancing cat videos that do the opposite of calm kids down! To find calming videos, I make sure to filter my search. To do this, log in to GoNoodle and click on the “explore” tab in the middle at the top. From there click on “Category” and then all the way at the end click “Calming” This will ensure any video you choose will be calming and peaceful. My personal favorite video is “From Mindless to Mindful.”

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A Food Truck For Your Brain

To build on the idea of teaching mindfulness, we looked for a way to create  a one of a kind experience for our students. We found the world’s only Mobile Meditation Trailer (mwstresssolutions.com) and brought them to our school for an afternoon. Students and teachers went into the Meditation trailer in small groups and were given a brief lesson on mindfulness from the MeditationWorks Guides. Next, students participated in a five minute guided meditation in the trailer. I wasn’t sure how students would respond to this but this seemed to be a huge hit. Students commented how calm and relaxed they felt exiting the trailer and going back to our classroom. Many asked if we could do this every day! Our student council even brought it up as a project they’d like to invest in to help bring the trailer back to our school, or set up a room in our building that could be the “relaxation room”. If you are from a school in Michigan I encourage you to check out mwstresssolutions.com and see if you can bring them to your school for a one of a kind mindful experience.

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Photo Credit: Rodney Curtis, School Life Troy
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Photo from: mwstresssolutions.com

We hope this encourages you to take some time out of each school day to help your students become more mindful of their actions. It has had a huge impact on our students and we know it can help you too! it can be as easy as 3 minutes every day after lunch.

HERE’s a Great Repository of Audio Files for Kids.

Anonymous sticky note left on my desk by a student this year…

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… I think it’s working!

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