The notion of slowing down and stepping back to reflect in the moment runs anathema to current emphasis on competition, accountability and testing. In the words of Susan Smalley, co-author of Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness, "The dominant American culture validates virtually mindless productivity, busyness, speed, and efficiency. The last thing we want to do is just be present."
Smalley, a professor and behavioral geneticist at UCLA, defines mindfulness as a way to observe "your physical, emotional, and mental experiences with deliberate, open, and curious attention." She cites research that shows, through the use of advanced brain imaging techniques, how meditation brings about neurobiological change alongside increases in happiness, empathy, metacognitive awareness, self-efficacy, emotional regulation and self-worth. As science begins to quantify what Buddhists have known and practiced for centuries, mindfulness is being adopted the world over by institutions from schools to businesses. How can teachers incorporate mindfulness into already stretched schedules? Like any practice, bit by bit.
The end of the year is stressful. Anticipation of summer, requisite school-wide, end-of-the-year activities, and what I call "P.T.T.D." (post-traumatic test disorder), strip away any sense of normalcy. A walk down the hall often includes an encounter with an administrator escorting a poor soul in the throes of a breakdown.
In an effort to assuage year-end stress, last year I decided to introduce some mindfulness exercises into our morning routine. The first is called the "Raisin Meditation." The children hold a raisin between their thumb and index fingers, focusing their attention on the texture while sharing the experience with the group. Once the tactile adjectives have been exhausted, they close their eyes and place it in their mouths to chew for one minute. While everyone shares his or her sensations once more, the dialogue brings a present awareness to an act generally taken for granted three times a day.
The second exercise is called "Mindful Listening." The students close their eyes and simply listen. After a minute, they list every sound they experienced. The first boy to finish writing says all he heard was "air coming out of the vent." As others read their lists and shared sounds like whispered secrets, a heightened collective awareness takes over. Susan Smalley says, "Perhaps the more mindful you are, the more mindful your friends are too, as mindfulness, like happiness, may spread through social networks." Repeat the exercise, and everyone's sound collection becomes dramatically larger (and naturally a few students make subtle sounds of their own to pad their lists).
Next year the plan is to incorporate mindfulness beginning the first week of school. This summer I'm collecting and creating mindfulness and sensory-specific exercises to boost well-being, and incorporate into content such as narrative writing and poetry. Smalley and a few other authors championing mindfulness were kind enough to respond to email requests with advice, books, and resources. Dr. Ellen Langer, a professor in the Psychology Department at Harvard advised me to engage students in exercises that teach them "respect for uncertainty." The following books are ideal for K-5 classrooms.
Thich Nhat Hanh is a renowned Buddhist monk who has written extensively about mindfulness. In Mindful Movements: Ten Exercises for Well-Being, he succinctly presents his ethos, then offers ten moving meditations similar to traditional Qigong and Tai Chi. Each simple movement is suitable for people of all ages, and can be practiced anywhere. For teachers, these movements are the perfect way to engage students' mind-body connection any time of day.
The introduction of Susan Kaiser Greenland's book, The Mindful Child, begins with "The New ABCs: Attention, Balance, and Compassion." Although written with parents in mind, the classroom applications for Greenland's techniques are uncomplicated and intuitive. Take the "Hello Game" for instance. Each student turns to the next and says something like, "Good morning, your eyes look blue." Some children have trouble looking people in the eye, so the exercise allows them to observe -- instead of analyze -- how that person is feeling, while becoming more interpersonally comfortable.
The methods described in these books raise social emotional learning to new heights. The start of the school year is the ideal time to proactively bring attention to, and nurture qualities that promote a classroom culture of respect, openness, introspection, and empathy.