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Mindfulness: a buzzword; a philosophy; a way of life. Whether you have read about mindfulness in the news, caught the gist of it from colleagues, or practice a daily mindfulness and meditation routine, it’s a concept that has found its way into our lives in recent years and furthermore, into the realm of education. In 2015, a survey was conducted of thirty-six programs that offered yoga in more than 940 PreK-12 schools across the United States, finding that the implementation of contemplative practices such as yoga and meditation in education may “induce changes in brain structure and function, which can enhance skills, such as self-regulation and prosocial behavior, and lead to improvements in students’ performance.”
There’s a reason that mindfulness--and consequently, practices of yoga and meditation--are becoming more prevalent in our society. Mindfulness allows us to be fully present, observing our emotions, thoughts, and surroundings in a non-judgemental way. It can teach us not to be overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us, encouraging us to pay attention to the here and now.
By teaching, practicing, and modeling mindfulness for and with students, educators can support students in making sound decisions that are not ruled by emotions. Instead, research has shown that consistent opportunities to practice mindfulness with students show “significant increases in student emotion regulation, positive thinking, and cognitive restructuring in response to stress.”
Often, when students are faced with an exam or a deadline for which they feel unprepared, they react with emotion instead of logic. In a heated moment, they may set aside a more reasonable approach and instead turn to an option that, in the short run, quells their stress but in the long run, may ultimately harm their grades, reputation, or relationships. Essay mills prey on students in the throes of final exams who are overwhelmed, emotional, and ready to say yes to what feels like an easy answer.
Moreover, research has shown that teenagers are biologically predisposed to be risk-takers, unable to see the consequences of immediate actions. “What distinguishe[s] adolescents [compared to their older peers is] their willingness to accept ambiguous conditions— situations in which the likelihood of winning and losing is unknown.”
Dr. Jason M. Stephens, a researcher in academic motivation and moral development in adolescents at the University of Auckland’s School of Learning, Development, and Professional Practice, says it well: Even moral students need help acting morally. In this remote learning environment, stepping up explicit academic integrity instruction and guidelines for students working from home is essential. And if instructors are going to work to uphold academic integrity remotely, whether by updating honor codes or adjusting online assessment design, it may be worth integrating moments mindfulness into the curriculum. By giving students the chance to hone their mindfulness skills in your course, there is a chance they will bring that level-headedness and focus to academic decision-making when it counts the most.
Metacognition, or rather, the process of thinking about thinking, encourages students to observe their own thought processes. Additionally, it gives students the chance to reflect on how their perspectives have changed and how they’ve grown when reviewing past entries. With daily journal prompts or written reflections after a discussion, students can utilize writing as a way to recenter and reflect. Edutopia recommends posing thoughtful questions that drive students deeper in their thinking: “How has your opinion on this topic changed after reading and discussing this text?” or “What did you think/feel after hearing the news that surfaced today?” Reflections like these don’t necessarily need to be graded and often don’t need to be fully formed, so students should be welcome to jot down a simple bulleted list or a stream-of-consciousness entry. Like meditation, consistent, mindful writing can help students to develop a higher sense of metacognition and self-awareness that will benefit them across the board.
Imagine this: at the start of every lesson or lecture, be it in person or online, you ask students to take a moment and take a breath. Perhaps you encourage them to silently observe their surroundings or maybe you have them set an intention for the upcoming class. No matter how you frame the mindful moment, communicate that it is meant to bring students back to themselves. The chaos of their morning or afternoon can fade away for just a few seconds if you give your students the opportunity to be clear-headed and present. And you’ll be surprised: just a few seconds of deep breathing can bring even the rowdiest of classes back to attention.
Simply talking about mindfulness goes a long way. Begin by explaining the science behind it, how our physiological responses to stress are related to our amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex. And while it’s not a student’s fault that they are inclined to fight, flight, or freeze in a stressful situation, emphasize that they can learn to control their emotional responses through mindfulness practices.
Headspace is a great app and online resource for students interested in starting out with a structured meditation or mindful practice. The Mindful Life Project offers “sits and songs” for students in primary and secondary education, including guided meditation and hip-hop. Taking a virtual yoga class or spending time outdoors are also effective ways to not only destress and disconnect from technology but also to become fully present. Finally, suggest that students brainstorm a list of mindful ways to stay grounded, from creating a routine in the mornings with a cup of coffee or tea to taking deep, balloon breaths when feelings of anxiety arrive.
Integrity and mindfulness are inextricably linked, each supporting the other in meaningful and significant ways. By prioritizing both in your classroom, you can create an environment for students where they feel calm and ready to face challenges confidently and authentically.
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