“Can we take a mindfulness break?”
I had just outlined for my junior AP English language and composition students the remaining weeks of the school year, which included two essays, a final exam, an AP exam, and a short transitional unit into AP literature concepts. A few were visibly daunted by the ideas of dwindling time and high-pressure assessments, so I wasn’t too surprised when one girl sitting near the front of the classroom made this request.
“Can we take a mindfulness break?”
It’s a question that I encourage the kids in all three of my courses – English 2, AP English, and IB literature HL – to ask when they are feeling stressed, anxious, overwhelmed, or tense.
According to research cited by Challenge Success, a project associated with the Stanford University Graduate School of Education whose mission includes the promotion of “student well-being and engagement with learning,” our students across the U.S. often experience these feelings in school. Challenge Success reports that studies indicate that 20-25 percent of teenagers “are experiencing symptoms of emotional distress” and 73 percent of high school students report being “often or always stressed” by their schoolwork.
While the solutions are certainly many and multifaceted, one important part of my response to this mental health epidemic has been meditation and mindfulness breaks during class.
In Overloaded and Underprepared, a book of research and strategies by Challenge Success, the authors explain that “meditation is the practice of sitting comfortably, often with the eyes closed, focusing on breathing” while “mindfulness is the practice of purposefully bringing our attention and tuning your senses to your present experience.” While I’m not a pedant when it comes to the distinction, the explanation was helpful for my orientation to both practices.
The Challenge Success authors go on to cite research that suggests both meditation and mindfulness may “reduce stress,” “increase coping skills,” and even increase test scores for teenaged students. But I don’t need the research to tell me that mindfulness and meditation work; I’ve seen the payoff in my own classroom.
After a new acquaintance from a teaching conference convinced me to give meditation a try, I did some research online and found a script from a professor in a YouTube video that I decided to try with all of my classes on the first day back from winter break this school year. The five-minute session consisted of my leading the class in adjusting their posture, being mindful of their physical presence and feelings, and focusing on their breathing.
It was a hit.
Since then, I’ve experimented with visualization exercises and different kinds of background sounds and music, and I’ve offered my students the right to request a “mindfulness break” whenever they feel they need one. I’ve found that my AP and IB students appreciate these opportunities the most. They tend to request a break every two or three weeks, and I’ve considered making it a weekly exercise. In one week filled with IB testing this winter, I even gave my seniors a 15-minute meditation break, spontaneously scrapping part of my lesson in favor of my students’ emotional and mental health (which, of course, impacts their physical health and academics, too). The change in the room afterward was palpable. They – and I – were more calm and ready to learn.
I have to admit that I was a skeptic of mindfulness and meditation, but since implementing them successfully in my classroom, I’m a convert, and I’ve begun to meditate on my own – not regularly, but when I feel the need for my own mental health break from whatever I’m doing.
I want to learn more about social-emotional learning including mindfulness and meditation in the classroom. What experiences or recommendations do you have? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below!