Mindfulness Practices in Schools: Webinar to Inspire Teachers and School Leaders

By Shu Jie Ting, CEI Intern

“No zip code is immune to the epidemic of trauma, stress, and anxiety.” Dr. Michele Rivers Murphy

Dr. Michele Rivers Murphy, CEI Associate Director of Heart Centered Learning and Kate Retzel, Principal of Lee Elementary School, recently presented a webinar on how mindfulness practices can help combat against trauma and stress in the classroom. The webinar also addressed specific challenges and strategies to implement effective mindfulness practices at both the elementary and secondary school level.

What is Mindfulness?

In the words of Jon Kabat-Zinn, who first popularized mindfulness in the West in the 1970s, mindfulness is to pay attention in the present moment, without judgment. It is a practical, proactive practice that accelerates social-emotional learning and buffers against stress by encouraging calmness, clarity, and insight (Kabat-Zinn, 2003). Mindfulness involves deep, focused breathing, mindful awareness of self and one’s emotions, mindful awareness of others, and mindful awareness of one’s surroundings.

Mindfulness practices stimulate the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that is associated with reflective awareness, and slow down unconscious reactivity (Siegal, 2010); by placing greater emphasis on feeling one’s bodily sensations, thoughts and ideas are better anchored to the present and can be organized more effectively. In addition, adopting these mindfulness practices early in life allows more effective cultivation of working memory, executive function, and decision-making. 

Teachers can foster mindfulness in the classroom by first developing a keen awareness of factors that influence self, students, and school environment (Mason, Rivers Murphy, Jackson, 2018). Such awareness emerges when teachers intentionally devote non-judgmental attention in the present moment (Kabat-Zinn, 2003), and as a result, teachers learn to be more sensitive to the needs of their students. Dr. Rivers Murphy recommends the book, Mindfulness Practices: Cultivating Heart Centered Communities Where Students Focus and Flourish as an additional resource for those interested in exploring how to implement classroom activities that cultivate compassion and mindfulness. 

At the core of mindfulness, breathwork remains the simplest yet most effective practice. Being aware of your breathing and allowing it to fall into its natural rhythm has a calming effect. Dr. Rivers Murphy stresses that even with as little as 1-2 minutes a day, aided by appropriate music and images, breathwork helps regulate the emotional state of mind, minimizes the impact of one’s uncomfortable thoughts, and decreases stress. Teachers are encouraged to implement breathwork at the start of class and it is heartening to observe, via webinar poll, that most attendees in the webinar were comfortable with practicing routine, deep yogic breathing. 

Mindfulness in Elementary Schools 

In 2016, Dr. Rivers Murphy and Principal Kate Retzel introduced mindfulness practices to transform the educational experience at Lee Elementary School. This initiative was motivated by the desire to improve emotional regulation of students, promote learning of global readiness skills, reduce disruptive incidents in the classroom, and optimize effectiveness of existing models of discipline.

Lee Elementary, with assistance from the Center for Educational Improvement, implemented 5 crucial steps to cultivate mindfulness practices: 

  • Step 1: A Call to Action
    • Identify main objectives, establish why your school needs a change, and have conscious awareness regarding the state of the school culture. 
  • Step 2: Establish a Core Learning Team 
    • Have at least 3 paraprofessionals on your team. They will be most knowledgeable about what works best with students who may have experienced trauma.     
    • Involve about 3 teachers, program directors, and an outside consultant if one is guiding implementation at your school.  
  • Step 3: Guidance to Teachers 
    • Use the S-CCATE (School Compassionate Culture Analytic Tool for Educators) to assess areas of strength and challenge, with emphasis on the domain of consciousness and compassion. 
  • Step 4: Continuity of Training
    • Give staff training at the school-level that explains:
      • The neurobiology of childhood trauma. 
      • Neuroscience and the psychology of emotions, particularly regarding the function of the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex on regulation of emotions, memory, and executive functioning.
      • Healthy child development and understanding emotions and cognition by emphasizing the role of body-mind connections.
  • Step 5: New Vision
    • Use S-CCATE data shared across grade levels to create actionable intentions and a new vision for the school.

Mindfulness at the Secondary Level

There are unique challenges that middle and high school students face. Acceptance and self-compassion should be given greater emphasis when introducing mindfulness practices to teenagers who may be struggling to find their place in the world. Unlike at the primary level (which recommends 30-45 minutes of mindfulness sessions), at the secondary level it is recommended to practice 24-60 minutes of mindfulness with class discussion and active listening, for 4-5 times a week. Ten to twenty minutes of meditation (versus the primary level’s 5-10 minutes) a day is advised. 

Dr. Rivers Murphy provided multiple suggestions for introducing mindfulness to your school:

  • Use metaphors to compare abstract ideas with concrete, real world items.
  • Encourage students to view obstacles as more temporary.
  • Have students imagine thoughts as floating bubbles to slow the pace of events down to better pick up on patterns of negative self-talk.
  • Create ‘Mindfulness Glitter Jars’ to remind students of what happens to their brains when their thoughts get clouded and how stillness can settle those thoughts.
  • Teach breath work practices for anger and anxiety management. 
  • Create “Mindful Moments Rooms”as an alternative to punitive discipline.
  • Use mindfulness apps in the classroom:

For more resources, please check out ‘The Mindful Teen: Powerful Skills to Help You Handle Stress One Moment at a Time.” 

The impact of teachers on the effectiveness of implementation cannot be denied—teachers must buy in to mindfulness as a personal practice to inspire students to do the same. Sharing experiences and effective techniques amongst staff is key. Your role as a teacher can be the deciding factor of a student’s wellbeing. If you’d like to start implementing activities that cultivate compassion and mindfulness in the classroom, Dr. Rivers Murphy recommends the book, Mindfulness Practices: Cultivating Heart Centered Communities Where Students Focus and Flourish as an additional resource.


References

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2003). Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). Constructivism in the Human Sciences8(2), 73.

Mason, C., Rivers Murphy, M., & Jackson, Y. (2018). Mindfulness practices: Cultivating heart centered communities where students focus and flourish.

Murphy, M. R., & Retzel, K. (2019, June 15). Mindfulness practices in schools .

Siegel, D. J. (2010). The mindful therapist: A clinician’s guide to mindsight and neural integration. WW Norton & Company.

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