What is mindfulness?
Perhaps the best-known definition of “mindfulness” is from Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School:
Mindfulness “means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”
When we practice mindfulness, we intentionally focus our attention on our sensory experience as it unfolds moment by moment. This is done with an attitude of openness and acceptance of what is arising in the present, whether pleasant or unpleasant.
How can mindfulness benefit teachers?
The Mindful Teacher Foundation is first and foremost an organization about teachers and for teachers. While there are still many questions about how mindfulness works and how best to measure its effects, current research suggests that practicing mindfulness on a regular basis could benefit teachers in the following areas:
- Stress reduction
- Health and immune function
- Focus and attention
- Handling difficult emotions
- Care for self and others
Teaching can be stressful, and as members of a service profession, teachers often put the needs of others before their own. As a result, they might find it difficult to take proper care of themselves, both physically and emotionally. Over time this can lead to burnout and depression. Taking time to practice and develop the qualities of mindfulness can help teachers renew their energy, motivation, and sense of well-being.
How can mindfulness benefit students?
Teachers who practice mindfulness may find that they are less stressed and more attentive, and as a result, their students may have more positive learning experience. And if a teacher decides to share these skills with their students, they can develop these qualities for themselves.
Scientists now understand that stress has a significant impact on academic performance. The human brain is a powerful learning machine, and the parts of the brain most involved in acquiring new cognitive skills also demand the most energy. As stress levels increase, the brain begins to shut down these learning regions to save energy for a “fight or flight” response.
While mindfulness practice doesn’t eliminate stress completely, it gives both teachers students a powerful tool to help them regulate their response to stress and other emotional challenges. Given these benefits, we believe that mindfulness training could significantly enhance learning and behavior in the classroom.
Of course, stress reduction is not the only benefit. Mindfulness can help students pay attention in class and improve their ability to concentrate and focus. It can also help students develop more empathy and compassion for their peers, enabling them to resolve conflicts more constructively.
How is mindfulness applied in the classroom?
Mindfulness practices are relatively simple. A typical mindfulness exercise involves directing one’s attention to an “object,” i.e., a specific sensory experience, such as the breath, a sound, or a physical sensation. Eventually, the mind becomes distracted and attention wanders away from the object. When the student realizes this has happened, he or she simply reestablishes focus on the object again.
The challenge of mindfulness is the discipline of setting aside time each day to practice, and then remembering to apply this practice throughout the day, particularly in times of difficulty and stress.
Mindfulness is a skill that benefits from ongoing, repeated use and encouragement. While mindfulness can be applied to any and all contexts throughout the school day, it doesn’t require large blocks of time to be taught and practiced effectively.
Mindfulness can be practiced in very short time increments, such as the first minute of a class period, or while students are lining up for lunch, or at a moment when the class has been disrupted and lost focus. If students and teachers both understand the practice, they can find the moments during the school day when applying these skills can have the greatest impact.
Mindfulness is an experiential skill. The directions are very simple and basic, but the real challenge (and where expertise is required) is in the actual practice and application, which can be very subtle and nuanced. For this reason, it’s not enough to know how to teach a class on mindfulness. It’s necessary for the instructor to be an actual practitioner so they can see for themselves how it works.
Is mindfulness a religious practice?
No. Many religious traditions encourage the practice of mindful attention, and people often do learn about mindfulness in a religious context. However, since the 1970s, mindfulness has been successfully applied as a secular practice in a wide range of fields, including healthcare, psychology, athletics, military training, business, and education. The Mindful Teacher Foundation is interested primarily in evidence-based approaches that have been studied and validated through scientific research. We also hope to find ways to make our own contributions to this growing field of knowledge.