Ideally, childhood would be a carefree time of being surrounded by love, contentment, and opportunities to learn and grow. Unfortunately, we live in a world characterized by constant change and challenges, often making that ideal state difficult if not impossible. Many experts assert that levels of student mental illness have reached crisis level. As a result, the need for mindfulness in schools has never been greater.
Student mental health crisis
According to Mental Health America, nearly a fifth of all youth in the U.S. between the ages of 12 and 17 reported suffering from at least one major depressive episode in the past year; many more suffer from anxiety and other mental health hardships. A CDC survey of COVID impacts found that “67% of U.S. high school students reported that schoolwork was more difficult, 55% experienced some emotional abuse in the home, 11% experienced physical abuse, and 24% reported they did not have enough food to eat during the COVID-19 pandemic, all of which can have a detrimental effect on mental health.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention further found that 37 percent of high school students surveyed said their mental health was not good most or all of the time during the pandemic. In addition, almost half of those students said they had felt sad or hopeless almost every day for two or more weeks in a row the previous year.
Nearly half of parents surveyed believed that the pandemic had a negative effect on their children’s emotional health during the first year and 61 percent said it had a negative effect on their children’s education.
Finding ways to incorporate mindfulness in our schools and classrooms may be one small step teachers can take to help today’s students develop greater resilience and well-being - as well as to improve learning outcomes.
What is mindfulness?
The Oxford Dictionary defines mindfulness as “the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something” or “a mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.”
According to Mindful.org, a public benefit corporation, “mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.” This organization asserts that every person naturally possesses mindfulness and simply needs help learning how to access it.
Benefits of mindfulness in schools
Incorporating mindfulness in our classrooms can lead to many benefits in our schools and in the lives of students. According to the Harvard Graduate School of Education, “a new study suggests that mindfulness education — lessons on techniques to calm the mind and body — can reduce the negative effects of stress and increase students’ ability to stay engaged, helping them stay on track academically and avoid behavior problems.” Specific benefits of honing mindfulness skills include:
• Improved Mental Health: Mindfulness helps students develop emotional regulation skills, reducing symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress. It provides them with tools to manage their emotions more effectively.
• Enhanced Focus and Attention: Mindfulness exercises strengthen attention spans, enabling students to concentrate better in class, leading to improved academic performance. The Harvard study found that students who self-reported mindful habits performed better on tests and had higher grades.
• Increased Self-Awareness: Students gain a deeper understanding of their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, fostering better self-control and decision-making.
• Stress Reduction: Mindfulness can mitigate the negative effects of stress, helping students feel more relaxed and centered, which can contribute to a more positive school experience. In fact, the Harvard study included a group of six-graders who reported they were less stressed out after an 8-week mindfulness program compared to classmates.
• Better Interpersonal Skills: Mindfulness promotes empathy, compassion, and active listening, which are essential for building positive relationships among students and with teachers.
• Emotional Recovery: Mindfulness practices can help students process and heal from the emotional toll of the pandemic and other challenges, offering them tools to manage anxiety, fear, and grief.
• Enhanced Resilience: By teaching students how to cope with difficult situations and setbacks, mindfulness helps them build resilience, an invaluable life skill.
How to incorporate mindfulness by grade level
Implementing mindfulness practices in schools should be tailored to the developmental stages of students. Different schools have varied approaches, ranging from supporting teachers in pursuing their own mindfulness goals that can then trickle down into the classroom, to incorporating mindfulness into the curriculum.
Elementary School (Grades K-5):
• Mindful Breathing: Simple breathing exercises and short guided meditations can help young children learn to focus their attention.
• Mindful Movement: Incorporate stretching activities into physical education classes to introduce mindfulness in a playful manner.
• Gratitude Games: Play games that help children identify things they appreciate in their lives.
Middle School (Grades 6-8):
• Mindfulness Clubs: Establish after-school mindfulness clubs where students can practice and share their experiences.
• Mindful Eating: Teach students to eat mindfully, promoting healthy relationships with food and body image.
• Gratitude Journals: Encourage students to keep gratitude journals, helping them develop a positive outlook on life.
High School (Grades 9-12):
• Mindfulness Electives: Offer mindfulness electives as part of the curriculum, allowing students to explore deeper practices and their applications.
• Stress Reduction Workshops: Provide workshops on stress management and coping strategies, emphasizing mindfulness techniques.
• Connect with Nature: Incorporate outdoor time so students can notice wind, sun, and the many noises, sights, and smells of the outdoors.
Incorporating mindfulness in schools is not a luxury. More and more, it is being seen as a necessity part of the curriculum, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Mindfulness equips students with the tools they need to thrive academically and emotionally, fostering resilience, well-being, and social skills that will serve them throughout their lives. By tailoring mindfulness practices to different age or grade levels, educators can empower students to navigate the challenges of the modern world with grace and presence.