Mindfulness: An Antidote to Classroom Anxiety - ASCD
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April 1, 2017

Mindfulness: An Antidote to Classroom Anxiety

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Social-emotional learning
Classroom Management

Lately, it feels as if a state of overwhelm has become the norm for the majority of my students and colleagues. Current economic and political realities have heightened the sense of distress my students are already contending with. Those exposed to trauma, especially intergenerational trauma, can appear stuck in the "fight, flight, or freeze" response, which hinders problem solving and the development of healthy relationships. Being in a constant state of anxiety limits learners' ability to think critically. While no panacea, mindfulness has proven to be the most effective tool I have used in 25 years of teaching to bring both myself and my students out of an anxious state into a space that is much more conducive to learning. Here are three strategies I've used to create a mindful classroom.

1. Demystify it. Mindfulness is not a magical solution to poor classroom management or schoolwide discipline issues. It is also not an esoteric, chant-inducing practice. In fact, mindfulness can happen whether or not you formally "practice" it. Mindfulness is really just paying close attention to the present moment. Whether it is taking in a beautiful view or noting a student's body language, we have all been mindful. When my students set academic goals, they often cite "paying attention" as an action step they can take. But when do we ever teach students how to pay attention? If we want our students to be metacognitive learners who are aware of their thinking processes, mindfulness can offer a solid foundation.

Noticing our thoughts and emotions can affect our classrooms profoundly. We can start by sharing or pointing out moments of mindfulness with our students. "I am mindful that I am feeling especially impatient today with how long it is taking us to get quiet between activities, so I've decided to use the stopwatch to time us." When a student shares that they are stuck on a problem, or catches a mistake they've made, we can recognize this as mindful learning: "Great! Knowing you're stuck tells me you're paying attention to your learning!"

2. DIY it. Our students will know if we are trying to teach them something we aren't really familiar with. If we want student buy-in, we have to first try mindfulness on our own. The greatest benefit of mindfulness to my classroom is my increased equanimity, a result of my own personal practice. Just sitting quietly by myself, without distractions, for five minutes before or after school has helped me get centered.

To shorten the learning curve, seek instruction. Mindful Schools, a nonprofit that trains educators to bring mindfulness to the classroom, has been an invaluable resource for me personally. But there are several other programs including MindUP and CARE for Teachers, as well as apps that colleagues have found helpful, like "Calm" and "Stop, Breathe, and Think." You can also find a detailed list of teaching resources here.

3. Do a body scan. Begin this short exercise by asking students to sit up, feet flat on the ground, with nothing in their hands. Invite them to close their eyes (or lower their gaze if that's more comfortable) and take three slow, deep breaths. Then guide them to pay attention to different parts of their body, noticing how they are feeling physically. Start with their eyes and pause for 3–5 seconds before moving on. Then transition to areas that often hold tension such as the jaw, neck, and shoulders. I usually end with the heart and ask students to be still enough to see if they can feel their hearts beating. Conclude by asking them to bring their attention back to the room. (To avoid the guesswork, Mindful Schools offers a guided body scan that students can follow along to.)

Mindfulness can be an antidote to an anxious environment, but only if we don't get anxious about implementing it. Like all new strategies, it probably won't go as planned the first time. Some students might not like it. Yet even those who complain at first may eventually change their tune. One of my students who openly protested having to do mindfulness wrote on her course evaluation that it helped her "stay focused and calm down."

Now, if I let more than a couple of days pass without leading a mindfulness exercise, my students will remind me about it. Or, they'll bring it up during times when it's desperately needed. One day after I helped break up a fight during lunch, I began my next class clearly rattled. A student remarked, "Ms. B., I think we should do some mindfulness." 

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