Mindfulness in Schools: Empowering Students For Success

Students and teachers who are more mindful in the classroom have reduced anxiety, stress.

Students and teachers who are more mindful in the classroom have reduced anxiety, stress.

As we get ready to head back to school for the new academic year, I am aware of a movement that is sweeping across the country to make students and educators more mindful of their learning and their teaching. It is flying right in the face of high-stakes testing and assessment, but is it really setting the stage for the ultimate battle of Man vs. Machine?

Studies throughout the world are demonstrating that mindful students are taking control of their learning, their emotions, and their general state of wellness, improving their communities and strengthening their independence as a result.

In a paper just published in the British Journal of Psychiatry (20 June 2013), “Effectiveness of the Mindfulness in Schools Programme: Non-Randomised Controlled Feasibility Study,” researchers concluded that “the degree to which students … practiced the mindfulness skills was associated with better well-being and less stress.”

Programs like Mindfulness in Schools are changing the culture of our classrooms and are empowering our students to be mindful learners, aware of their own learning styles and practices.

What is School Mindfulness?

Being mindful in school (a strategy for both teachers and students) is simple to practice, yet it is often neglected because of the pressures of assessment, placement, and evaluation. Because of the overwhelming pressure placed on schools to produce positive and high-ranking data, it is easy to lose the focus on the individuals comprising the data.

The principles of being mindful are easy to learn and to put into practice, even before the first day of school arrives. The definition of awareness, as given in “The Awareness Principle” by Peter Wilberg, can be easily applied to any education setting. As you read this summary of Wilberg’s findings, be mindful of the classroom setting you are familiar with and how mindfulness can empower teachers and students.

We have the power to be aware of our thoughts and feelings, of the way we express them, of the way they affect our bodies and our behavior. We have the power to be mindful of the way they lead us to act and react to others, of the way they color our view of the world, and of the way they affect our sense of ourselves. Awareness of our feelings and thoughts is not itself a feeling or thought, nor is it by itself anything bodily or mental; like space, it embraces and transcends each and every thing we are aware of. It creates space for clearer thoughts to arise, along with a new sense of ourselves.

When teachers and students enhance their self-awareness in the classroom, they make a decision to bring greater focus and meaning to their work, thus becoming more accountable for the purpose and intent of their actions.

Can Mindfulness and High-Stakes Testing Co-Exist?

It is easy to place mindfulness and high-stakes testing as polar opposites, making it seem like there is some difficult choice to make: either be mindful and aware of your experience in the classroom, or succumb to the machination of uniformity in a curriculum that continues to limit individuality.

I argue that practicing mindfulness in the classroom is a win-win scenario, both for you and for the school system. As more studies continue to demonstrate a correlation between mindfulness and wellness, students and teachers with reduced anxiety and greater focus can engage in the rigorous curricular activities while maintaining a “What’s In It For Me” (WIIFM) attitude.

At the very least, this awareness makes classroom content more relevant and applicable to individuals, giving greater reason for them to be engaged more meaningfully.

Over time, practicing mindfulness in the classroom will lead to an application of the WIIFM experiences to long-term goals that align with authentic career choices. Individuals will be devoting their time in their teens and well into adulthood engaged in meaningful work and charitable acts.

It seems like a no-brainer to students, teachers, and administrators: mindfulness is an empowering strategy for success, and integrating opportunities for students to be aware of their learning in the classroom makes perfect sense for now and our future, where our communities are filled with individuals who are actually living an inspired life, aligned with who they really are.


Give Education Reform Projects A Chance

I am one of the lucky teachers who gets the chance to work with students for four straight years while they are in high school. When young journalism or graphics/design students enter my classroom as freshmen, I know that I can establish a 4-year plan toward independence, autonomy, and confidence in the work they produce, and the effort they put into it. By the time they leave my class, I want them to feel empowered to achieve any goal they wish to pursue.

That’s why I am one of the lucky ones. Some of my colleagues at other schools don’t get the support that I receive from my administration and school community. For them, their programs are filled with one-hit wonders in their junior or senior years, and most of these kids are already doing great things in other areas of their lives — sports, academics, and clubs and other organizations. To them, working on the newspaper or yearbook is a “fun” and challenging activity. For many, it is a high school bucket-list item to be crossed off before graduating and moving on to college.

My editors, writers, photographers, and designers are a little different. They live and breathe the work they do. For many, it is their varsity sport. When they graduate, many of them are being accepted into prestigious programs and interning at national publications, simply because they have the confidence and the skills to succeed, right out of high school.

Any initiative that is put in place to improve our schools — whether that is regarding safety, academics, overall performance, or wellness, must be given the same kind of chance to shift the thinking in the culture of the school and create an environment of success, leadership, and mentorship. Short-sighted programs, or 1-2-year initiatives, simply don’t have the time to be effective and change the culture of the school from one of defeat to one of independence and self-confidence.

Unfortunately, many of our programs are data-driven, where year-end statistics are published in local and regional papers, pinning school systems against others in some kind of race to the top.

Who can get there first, in the shortest amount of time possible?

We then celebrate our results, pat ourselves on the backs, and marvel in our accomplishments.

It reminds me of our professional sports teams who “buy” the best players for a year or two to win a championship. Although a typical sports team, such as baseball, has 25 players on its squad, a mere handful are the ones who get the highest scores. Then, after the goal is accomplished and the trophy is hoisted in to the air, the team disintegrates in the seasons that follow. The big-name players move on (or graduate, in the sense of education), and the team is left with players (students) where little investment was ever made.

If education reform is really going to work, we need programs and projects that create a total shift in the school’s culture, where empowerment, self-confidence, and success are the main focus from the very beginning. We cannot be so data-driven that we “give the ball” to the few individuals who are really going to make us look great and get us to the top faster than any other school system.

If you invest in all children and empower each and every one of them with the opportunity to understand and experience independence and self-confidence, you will get your rewards in good time.

And the great news? Those rewards will be available year after year to all children in that system.

Take the time and find the projects that are the “best fit” for your school and your children, then take the time to implement them fully and allow them to work beyond the 3-, 4-, or 5-year cycle of your school. Put trust in them, and in your children.

It will be a great day when, honestly, all of your children are hoisting that trophy high in the air.