Throughout every waking moment we face in-the-moment choices like whether to eat a doughnut or oatmeal for breakfast, retaliate against the person who cut us off or keep our eyes on the road, or check Instagram or grade the next paper on the stack. Although it’s usually obvious which alternative will be ultimately more beneficial, we have a tendency to act on the one that provides only short-term satisfaction, especially when we’re tired, stressed, or distracted. While some in-the-moment choices have the potential to change our lives immediately, others can gradually compound to define who we are. The collective impact of our in-the-moment choices prompted the Alliance for Decision Education in 2014 to develop Mindful Choices, a K-12 curriculum program that includes breathing and attention exercises to help students improve their ability to remain calm and focused whenever they’re likely to give in to instant gratification.
Training hundreds of teachers and out-of-school-time providers to implement Mindful Choices taught us that it’s essential to foster contexts that make mindfulness a welcome part of the day for students and teachers. If you’ve been thinking about incorporating mindfulness activities into your classroom routine, read our tips before you try that first breathing exercise.
Tip #1: Keep your mindfulness instruction focused on school-appropriate objectives.
Identify ways your students have disrupted their own and their classmates’ learning and wellbeing. (Maybe examples of students talking over directions, making rude retorts to classmates, or panicking during tests come to mind.) Would those behaviors improve if you taught your students how to pay attention to what they’re doing in the present moment and to notice when their attention drifts? If so, then maybe it’s the right time to introduce mindfulness practices. On the contrary, it doesn’t make sense to introduce mindfulness practices just to keep pace with education trends and it’s not appropriate to use them to intervene with students’ mental health concerns. We found that teachers and students were more likely to stick with mindful breathing exercises when we introduced them with reasonable expectations instead of presenting them as a panacea for every classroom and personal issue.
Don’t worry if you can only spend about five minutes on mindful awareness practices each day. That’s still enough time to lead students in a mindful breathing exercise as they’re getting settled after lunch or about to take a test. It’s enough time to talk about what it means to single task as they’re working on a big project. The teachers we’ve trained have realized that a little bit of reinforcement each day can go a long way in supporting a calm classroom culture.
However, we’ve also worked with teachers who had full class periods devoted to Social Emotional Learning, character education, or health, which allowed them to extend their students’ mindfulness practice beyond breathing exercises to include the whole class activities and journal prompts from Mindful Choices. Those activities worked well because they felt appropriate for the context and didn’t need to be rushed.