Finding mindful moments during testing season
Every year the shift of the season from winter to spring brings about excitement as we patiently await for the warmer temperature to thaw our bodies and enjoy the beauty mother nature adores us with as the trees burst with various hues of pinks, whites, and greens. However, for the average teacher and student there is little time to enjoy the outdoors during spring as anxieties about the standardized tests increase for students as young as eight. We all can agree that standardized tests, especially high-stakes tests, are a burden for teachers and students. Such high-stakes assessments even change the way educators approach teaching. Often we can find ourselves teaching to the test and focusing a significant time in class on test taking skills. We know that drilling and cramming for such exams are not engaging and not effective teaching and learning methods. Even though states across the country are starting to realize the negative impact of these tests and decreasing the number of tests students take in a year, the changes are slow and don’t always address the core concern about how such exams are used to punish teachers, students, and learning communities.
Perhaps what is most disturbing is the impact high-stakes tests have on students well-being and engrain in them that school and learning is stressful. The American Psychological Association (APA) surveyed teens living in the United States, ages 13 to 17, to understand how teenagers experience stress and the impact stress has on their lives. Eighty-three percent of teens cited school as a source of stress, 69% cited, “getting into a good college or deciding what to do after high school,” and 65% cited, “financial concerns for their family” (APA, 2014, p. 35). Wow! That’s a lot of stress for a developing mind to have, which can lead to health issues. For instance, 36% percent of teens reported feeling anxious, 31% reported being overwhelmed, and 30% reported feeling depressed or sad due to stress in the month prior to the survey. However, increased levels of stress have been found in students as young as eight (Munsey, 2010). These rates of stress and health issues are concerning and much of the stress can be linked back to school.
Mindful practices for you and your students
Unfortunately, teachers do not have the power to immediately change policies, but with persistence and informing policy makers the quantitative and qualitative impact such draconian policies have on students and in learning environments change is possible. In the meantime, many schools are introducing programs for children and teenagers on how to manage stress. This is where mindfulness practices can support teachers and students. People who are more mindful tend to have better emotional regulations (Chambers et al., 2008, Davidson et al. 2012), stress reduction (Waymen, Sullivan & Warren, 2011), and less mind-wandering (Panksepp & Biven, 2012), which are all qualities that support a healthier lifestyle and mental state.
I’m going to share with you four simple mindful practices that you can incorporate into your class tomorrow!
Breathing is such a natural part of our lives. We breath without even noticing it. The only time we notice our breath is when there is something wrong. Using our breath is a great way to anchor ourselves in the present moment and notice what is here and now. The breath is a great mindful anchor, because it is always with us. It doesn’t take long to practice this mindfulness technique, and it’s something you can introduce to students. When you introduce this technique explain to them why mindfulness and connecting with the breath is an important practice.
Here are some brief instructions on how to support your students during this practice:
Invite students with a bell to sit, stand, or lay down quietly. Students can close their eyes or leave them open. Give students a few seconds to settle into the posture that they have chosen. Ask students to pay attention to the breath as it enters their nostril. You can ask them questions to guide them such as, “does the breath flow easily through both nostrils or just one? Is the breath cool or warm when it enters your body?” Ask students to follow the breath. Again, you may ask guiding questions to support students in this process. For example, “where does the breath go? Does it remain in your nose, mouth, throat? Or does the breath move with ease to your lungs and diaphragm?” As you guide them through this process. Remind students that this is not about judging their breath, their body, their thoughts, or feelings. It’s about focusing on what the breath is doing today. That sometimes this exercise will come with ease and other times the practice is a little more difficult, but that’s part of practicing mindfulness. Here is a simple meditation that focuses on the breath that you can use to support your class’ practice.
If you haven’t noticed our students tend to sit for long periods of time. Sitting is not healthy for anyone. Working with teachers in my region, I’ve noticed that teachers are incorporating more opportunities for students to move in their classroom. Whether having an informal rule about moving around in the classroom or providing students with structured time to move, especially after a long period of seated work. There are many incredible short videos that are kid friendly and allow students to be silly, jump, sing, dance. Though these high-energy activities are wonderful and engaging, sometimes students may need a couple of minutes of slow, focused movements and stretches such as, yoga. Yoga also incorporates focused attention to the breath. It is well established that movement, even gentle movement, is a great way to decrease stress, get more oxygen to the brain and heart, and energize the body and mind. You can create a beautiful sequence that flows from one pose to the next. There are even yoga poses and stretches that can be done seated in a chair.
Below is a sequence of of simple standing poses that don’t take up much space or time to incorporate in a classroom setting.
Mindful walking raises the attention of how the body moves, the sensations one feels while walking, and supports us in reconnecting with the body. In addition, it brings a careful awareness of how we use our space. This is really important for children to recognize, especially in the younger grade levels as they are still understanding how to regulate their bodies and have self-control. Formal mindful walking practice may not be ideal for a typical classroom setting, but it can be incorporated in elementary grades when teachers take students from their classroom to specials or library time. However, before practicing mindful walking between classes it’s important to introduce the concept and practice inside the classroom so students understand what the purpose of the practice is and the expectations during mindful walking. The goal is to remind students that they have control over their bodies and movements and we can honor our personal space and others by paying close attention to how we move in space.
Invite students to practice mindful walking with these instructions:
Meditation has a high impact on managing stress and becoming aware of our thoughts and feeling. When incorporating meditation in a classroom setting it is ideal that you, the teacher, have practiced meditation for a while and feel comfortable in incorporating it on a daily or frequent basis. It is also important that you have alternate activities for students who are not ready to practice meditation, such as silent journaling, silent reading, or maybe another mindful practice that doesn’t disturb others.
Before asking students to practice meditation it’s important to explain what meditation is and how it can positively impact our minds and bodies. It’s also useful to have a distinct but gently cue such as, a bell, a signal, or a word that indicates to students that they should settle down in order to start the meditation practice. Explain to students what the cue is and how they can start settling the bodies and minds in preparation for the meditation practice. The first time you practice mediation with your students do a brief practice such as a minute practice and then you can build up their practice to as long as ten minutes. Be sure that you have an audible cue for when the meditation session is complete.
Here are simple directions on how to lead a meditation session in class.
Note: If you’ve never led a meditation before prepare a script or at least some notes.
These are just some ideas on how to incorporate mindfulness practices into your classroom. There are many other ways to do this. Just be sure you incorporate practices that you and your students are comfortable with and there’s no need to do any of this practices immediately. Allow some of these concepts and ideas to simmer in your mind and envision how mindfulness would look like, sound like, feel like in your classroom before developing practices for students. Most importantly, be sure that you are practicing mindfulness in your daily life before introducing it to your students. Mindfulness is a fully embodied practice and experience. In order to truly understand mindfulness, its benefits, and the difficulty of some of these practices you must practice it yourself. Additionally, be patient with yourself and your students as you introduce these practices. It takes time for students to understand and feel the benefits of mindfulness. Finally, as you incorporate these practices keep a careful journal of your mindful lessons, the practices in your class, and students’ responses to these practices. Reflecting will guide you in developing the practices in your class, but also maintaining a careful documentation of these practices and impacts it is having on your students and the learning environments in your class.
Good luck this testing season. And don’t be afraid to take a moment with your students to just breathe.
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American Psychological Association. (2014). Stress in America. Are teens adopting adults’ stress habits? Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2013/stress-report.pdf
Chambers, R., Lo, B. C. Y., & Allen, N. B. (2008). The impact of intensive mindfulness training on attentional control, cognitive style, and affect. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 32, 303-322.
Davidson, R., Dunne, J. Eccles, J., Engle, A. Greenberg, M., Jennings, P., et al. (2012). Contemplative practice and mental training: Prospects for American education. Child Development Perspectives, 6, 146-153
Iberlin, J. M. & Ruyle M. (2017). Cultivating mindfulness in the classroom. Bloomington: Marzano Research.
Munsey, C. (2010). The kids aren’t all right. Monitor on Psychology, 41(1). Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/monitor/2010/01/stress-kids.aspx
Panksepp, J. & Biven, L. (2012). The archaeology of mind: Neuroevolutionary origins of human emotion. New York: Norton.
Waymen, H. A., Wiist, B., Sullivan, B. M. & Warren, M. A. (2011). Doing and being: Mindfulness, health and quiet ego characteristics among Buddhist practitioners. Journal of Happiness Studies 12, 575-589.