Walking back and forth between the rows of students grouped together, I couldn’t help but notice the looks on their faces. I see those taut muscles against their collar bones, pencils tip tapping on the desk, fingernails and hoodie ties chewed, legs bouncing up and down rhythmically; calling attention to one young man in particular, breath held, as he tried to solve a maths problem.
Often, this is the sight in classrooms across the world. Students days are crammed full of new learning, yet in many ways they cannot learn. Why? Most of them have difficult home lives and lack skills to cope with their feelings and behaviours. How can they learn when there nerves are on edge? Teachers must first conquer the anxiety and feelings of the children.
My own research on mental health in the classroom, as well as studies from the Depression Center of Michigan Medicine, support mindfulness in the classroom. We must teach all students to be mindful and breathe properly, especially those suffering from mental illness. Recognition from the teacher that we all struggle from time to time, as well as providing space and teaching strategies will support students’ comfort levels and allow them to learn.
Students that practise mindful breathing in the classroom tend to replicate this in their own lives, as both a means to cope and calm down. Cognitive behaviour therapy, mindfulness, and community groups are essential to any student in today’s classroom.
In a mindful classroom, students participate in mindful breathing and focus during 5–10 minutes per day, sometimes longer. They listen to nature sounds or waves crashing on a beach, as they are prompted to relax each part of their body and focus on the air coming in and going out of their nose. Students are taught specifically how to focus their attention and noting that when their minds wanders, a gentle acknowledgement of the thought can be done, before they return to their breathing. It’s absolutely fine for the mind to stray and with practice, kids learn how to relax.
This is what I do:
1. Sit with your feet flat on the floor, as comfortable as you can, hands on your thighs. You can sit or lay down on the floor if you choose.
2. Close your eyes or you can watch the images on the screen.
3. Breath in through your nose and blow out through your mouth.
4. Focus on the air entering your nose and filling up your lungs.
5. Feel the coolness of it as it touches the sides of your nose, hold on to it in your lungs, just for a second, then let it flow out through your mouth.
6. As the air flows out through your mouth, relax your shoulders, let all of the tension leave them. You should feel your shoulders drop toward the floor. Breath in again.
7. As you inhale, be aware of your shoulders and your arms, release tension in your arms, let them fall down to your side as you release your breath through your mouth.
8. This time relax your stomach, releasing all tension, as you inhale through your nose. Focus on your breath, releasing the tension and imagine yourself in your favorite place, just sitting there, breathing.
9. Let your mind empty, if a thought enters, acknowledge it, but wave it goodbye, relaxing, breathing. It’s okay if your mind wanders, bring it back to relaxing and breathing.
10. Repeat for legs, feet and whole body and neck.
11. When ready, allow your eyes to open and stretch up with your arms, standing up and stretch to the sky, then bend over and touch your toes.
12. Journal about what you saw or thought about today’s breathing.
Research suggests that there is an overwhelming need to reduce anxiety and stress in classroom, helping to support students with behavioural issues and mindfulness improves health and well-being by: reducing stress, anxiety and depression; enhancing neuroendocrine and immune system function; improving adherence to medical treatments; diminishing need for medication; altering perception of pain; increasing motivation to make lifestyle changes; and fostering social connection and enriched interpersonal relations.
Students are much more relaxed and ready to learn after mindfulness and they even ask for it on days we don’t do it. Are you mindful in your life? In your classroom?
Dawnette Brenner is a public school teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as an author. She lives with her youngest son and advocates to humanise mental illness through her podcast. She wrote a fantasy novel catered to kids, whose main character struggles from bipolar. She enjoys reading and spending time with her grandkids. You can connect with her on Twitter @dawnetteb04