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December 1, 2017
Vol. 75
No. 4

Getting the Buffalo Off Their Chests

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Social-emotional learning
School Culture
During a recent mindfulness project our research team conducted, one high school student we worked with said, "When I have too much homework, I feel like I have a buffalo on my chest."
This student is not alone. It is not unusual for adolescents to be stressed by some combination of demanding schoolwork, overwhelming social change, or parental pressures to excel, all in addition to the very real troubles that can come with today's complex family lives (Broderick & Metz, 2009).
The ability to manage stress and pay attention to whatever tasks are at hand are important determiners of well-being and successful learning. Issues that have been linked mostly to adults, such as anxiety and depression, are becoming serious concerns for young people. With adolescent suicide rates increasing every year (AFSP, 2016), the mental health of adolescents—especially black and LGBT youth—has become a major concern of educators.
Mindfulness practice, generally comprising breathing or focusing exercises that enhance attention and awareness, has increasingly been shown to be a powerful method of addressing the mental health needs of young people. A large portion of the growing mindfulness research in schools focuses on the social-emotional development of students. Evidence supports the fact that students who practice mindfulness have increased feelings of calmness, relaxation, and self-acceptance (Broderick & Metz, 2009) as well as decreased negative affect (Mendelson et al., 2010), and stress (Mendelson et al., 2010; White, 2012).
In our own research, we've found that self-acceptance and self-compassion nurtured through mindfulness education can help students release negative thoughts that distract them from academic learning and from maintaining healthy social connections throughout the school day. We have also found that students who feel calm during school are more creative, more responsive (rather than reactive), and retain their learning long after the lesson.
That student with the buffalo on her chest? After practicing mindfulness in school, she was able to lift it off, saying she found the tools "very helpful to calm down and focus."

Mindfulness in the Classroom

The original idea for our research project came three years ago when one of us, erin feldman, a high school language arts teacher-researcher, attended Omega Institute's Mindfulness in Education conference. Daniel Rechtschaffen was one of the organizers of the conference and a central presenter. His book, The Way of Mindful Education (2014), prompted our team's interest on the topic of mindfulness in the high school classroom and helped to shape our specific research questions and details of the interventions. Connie Titone and Marie DeRosato (researchers at Villanova University) and several colleagues designed the surveys, conducted interviews, and analyzed the data for these interventions.
After obtaining approval from her school's administration, erin began implementing the mindfulness intervention in her English language arts classroom. On the first day, she described the protocol to the students as a "voluntary mind experiment" and told them that the practice would be similar to the process they used to study texts in class, "but the text we are studying is our mind." She also told the students that their responses to the practices would be kept confidential and that if at any time they decided they did not want to participate, they could "simply sit quietly and not distract anyone."
Thirty-nine 10th grade students from diverse backgrounds and experiences participated in that first eight-week intervention in 2015 (Titone, Zymet, & Alves de Sa, 2017). Once per week, erin led classroom activities; the eight exercises were sequential. In the first three weeks, she introduced the central techniques of anchor breath, paying attention to physical sensations, and then of becoming aware of when one is lost in thought. The five subsequent exercises built upon these techniques with increasing complexity.
The students completed a pre- and post-test Likert-scale survey to measure mindfulness using Greco, Baer, and Smith's (2011) Child and Adolescent Mindfulness Measure, as well as three open-ended, post-test reflection questions. We used that data to see if there was a change in the students' mindfulness and focus and to understand their self-perceptions of their emotional experience. After the eight weeks, students' scores for both mindfulness and focus increased, and they gained in self-awareness and self-understanding. Erin also benefitted personally from participating. "Pairing teaching and mindfulness brings me peace and comfort. It offers a time to disentangle from the busy mind, to be still, to recuperate," she noted.

Digging Deeper into Mindfulness

After that first study, we were interested in digging deeper into the insights of the student participants. We wanted to understand more about students' perceptions of self-awareness and self-understanding. When planning the second year's intervention, we created a set of qualitative surveys that, in the fall of 2016, 29 10th graders completed in addition to doing the eight in-class mindfulness activities.
"Feeling calm" and gaining "awareness" were common words and phrases the students used to talk about the classroom mindfulness exercises. Erin recruited three students from the group to say more about these student-generated concepts with our research team. The students volunteered to participate in 10–20-minute phone interviews, which were scheduled during their free time and recorded. Students were free to decline to answer any question at any time, and all responses were held in strictest confidence. Our team asked questions such as, "On the survey that you completed during the fall of 2016, a question asked, 'What does mindfulness mean to you?' Many of your classmates responded that they gained awareness of oneself and others. Can you describe what you think it means to be aware of yourself and others?"
These short conversations with three high school students captivated our research team. The students' ability not only to understand their feelings, but also to articulate them eloquently and perceptively was exceptional. The interviews gave us more insight into how these adolescents experienced de-stressing during the mindfulness intervention and the value they believe they gained from the experience.
When discussing the term "awareness," one student expressed having the first, most basic awareness of self as it relates to distraction: "[I] recognize that [I'm] not paying attention—[my] mind has wandered off." The first step in regaining focus for this student was to recognize that focus had indeed been lost. Another student said, "I notice when I get distracted I can bring myself back to the task at hand without getting enveloped in the distraction." This student created a fascinating image of resisting the pull to be "enveloped in the distraction" when it presented itself, finding that mindfulness improved one's capabilities to retain focus.
When asked how being aware affected them in the classroom, another student said, "[Mindfulness] allows me to notice everything without being distracted by it. [It] lets you know that it's not really your fault that you're distracted, it's just that's how life is. Life does not stop around you when you need to carry something out." For this student, awareness was more than a mere recognition of mind wandering. When the students explained their concept of "awareness," they simultaneously acknowledged the presence of all kinds of possible interference in the classroom and refused to give those disturbances the power to sway them from focusing on the lesson.
The students also indicated that their mindfulness practice extended beyond the classroom exercises. After a typically chaotic lunch break, one student said, "We [classmates] are all kind of more mellow and cohesive with each other, and [when we return to the classroom] it's not some crazy, post-lunch, apocalyptic vibe. …" When asked what the word "mellow" meant, the participant responded that "we're all [usually] either hopped out or hyped up and not able to cohesively interact or … we're all dead. … Mindfulness helps us kind of find a middle ground between those two very polar opposite feelings." This student realized that the power of mindfulness went far beyond bringing back the focus after a momentary distraction; it allowed students to slip back into unity after they experienced the complete disorder of the lunchtime ritual.
As the students approached the first of three rounds of state-required standardized testing, they spoke about how they might engage their newfound attention muscles to stay focused, not just on the test, but also on their bodies as they took the test. After completion of the exams, many students informally reported their success with using breathing and other mindfulness techniques as they worked.
"If taking three breaths while focusing on the soles of their feet helped one kid feel less distracted by worry or second-guessing during the state-required standardized testing, then this experiment has been a success," erin noted at the time. "Even more significantly, I am hopeful that these 68-odd students who participated in the interventions will have new skills to fuel their growth toward becoming self-aware, self-possessed individuals who are more relaxed and at peace."
We believe this protocol would be a beneficial activity for any teacher in any class or grade level. There are endless resources that teachers can access on the internet, at their local yoga studios, or at national conferences and retreat centers to prepare themselves to practice and lead mindfulness activities. In fact, harried teachers need a motive to practice self-care activities, and there is no better motivator than preparing for class. In addition to it being advantageous for teachers themselves, a mindfulness intervention provides impressionable adolescents with one free and simple method to manage their stress and self-regulate.
Reflecting back, erin believes that she improved her classroom environment and reduced her own stress. She plans to continue these exercises in her 10th grade classes. In her field notes, she reported:
The feeling in the room while the exercises happened was one of peace and lightheartedness. I realize this is anecdotal and still it was the most rewarding part for me. The activities in the intervention helped my classes and me develop a rich and beloved classroom culture. After we meditated, the classes were calm and palpably more focused than any other day of the week. Even now, the students continue to ask for mindfulness when they are tired, disjointed, stressed, or distracted. I am, as you can imagine, delighted to lead the special request meditations.
References

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. (2016, August). Understanding suicide. Retrieved from http://afsp.org

Broderick, P. C., & Metz, S. (2009). Learning to BREATHE: A pilot trial of a mindfulness curriculum for adolescents. Advances in School Mental Health Promotion, 2(1), 35–46.

Greco, L., Baer, R. A., & Smith, G. T. (2011). Assessing mindfulness in children and adolescents: Development and validation of the child and adolescent mindfulness measure (CAMM). Psychological Assessment, 23, 606–614.

Mendelson, T., Greenberg, M. T., Dariotis, J. K., Gould, L. F., Rhoades, B. L., & Leaf, P. J. (2010). Feasibility and preliminary outcomes of a school-based mindfulness intervention for urban youth. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 38(7), 985–994.

Titone, C., Zymet, J., & Alves de Sa, V. (2017). Mindfulness as a pathway to classroom focus and self-love. Journal for Peace & Justice Studies, 26(1), 3–36.

White, L. S. (2012). Reducing stress in school-age girls through mindful yoga. Journal of Pediatric Health Care, 26(1), 45–56.

End Notes

1 Editor's note: Lowercase name preferred by author.

2 For examples of exercises, see The Way of Mindful Education by Daniel Rechtschaffen (W. W. Norton, 2014).

Author bio coming soon

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