Mindfulness is all the rage these days. Schools across the world are embracing mindfulness as an antidote for rising stress, emotional regulation, and attention deficit. Moreover, evidence is mounting for the positive impact of mindfulness-based interventions on each of the major Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) Core Competencies.

For example, mindfulness practices have been found to benefit executive functioning in students (Flook et al, 2010), increasing their ability to return from a distraction to a sustained point of focus. Moreover, long-term mindfulness practitioners not only pay better attention but are also less distracted by external stimuli (Brefczynski-Lewis et al., 2007). Research has found that high school students receiving mindfulness training also improve their emotion regulation capacity, self-reporting greater emotional awareness, access to regulation strategies, and emotional clarity (Metz el al., 2013). Another key finding across schools and youth programs is that mindfulness increases student’s resilience towards stress (Zenner et al., 2014), bringing students back into a physiological homeostasis from which they can better learn and socialize. Finally, studies show that adolescents practicing mindfulness demonstrate a greater self-acceptance and sense of well-being (Neff and McGhee, 2010). This increase in compassion is also extended to others, as students become more empathetic, less aggressive, and more accepting of their peers (Schonert-Reichl et al,. 2015).

When teaching mindfulness to teenagers, there are several important principles to remember. First, the teacher themselves must show up mindfully, centering his or her own attention, balance and open heart before any practice. They must welcome the students into the practice with attention and a sense of care, leaving all assumptions at the door. Second, it’s important to treat the students as equals in the practice of mindfulness. Teachers are used to assuming the role of the educator with all the answers, but mindfulness is a path of inquiry and insight in which teachers must give students the keys to understanding themselves. It is critical to step into the role of a learning companion, respecting and acknowledging whatever is happening inside our students. Further to this notion, teachers should demarcate the mindfulness time as one in which there are no tests or grades, and a space in which all experiences are accepted and acknowledged. Even if students express an irritation with mindfulness practice, it is important to welcome these opinions, probing further into why being quite and still is causing irritation for the student. Lastly, like any new habit, mindfulness is best nurtured in students through routine and consistency. Therefore, scheduling mindfulness lessons at the same time every day, particularly at times where students may need to relax, can be very beneficial. Moreover, it important to also weave short mindful moments through the day in order to help reinforce the lessons and deepen the practice.

There are hundreds of mindfulness activities that teachers and administrators can use with teenagers, depending on needs and readiness of their students. For those just starting with mindfulness practice, one particularly powerful practice that helps students cultivate impulse control, emotional regulation and attention in the classroom is based on Daniel Rechtshaffen’s “Language of Sensations.” For one minute, invite students to look at one of their hands, exploring the lines, colors, and shapes as if they have never seen their hand before. Then, tell students to close their eyes, and ask “how do you know your hand is there?” Prompt them to make a list of the different sensations their hands are feeling (cold, hot, heavy, light, itchy, soft, damp, dry, etc. Now, ask students to wiggle their fingers and observe the sensations as a result. They can then experiment with other experiences, such as blowing on their hands, scratching themselves with their fingernails, rubbing their hand on their leg, touching the metal on the desk, etc. After several minutes, ask the students to reflect on the sensations they listed across their experiences, noting which ones they enjoyed and which ones they liked the least. Engage them in a group discussion about their relationship to these sensations, encouraging dialogue about why some sensations are pleasant or unpleasant. Finally, ask students to draw a picture of their body. On every part of the body where they feel a sensation, they must mark it with a color that fits that sensation.

Learning the language of sensations in the body is the foundation for mindfulness. By introducing students to examine their raw physical experience, we are helping them to feel at home in their own skin, focus their attention, and let go of outside stressors in the moment. This can be the beginning of a much deeper exploration into their physical, mental, and emotional experiences, supporting self-awareness and a mindful learning journey. 

If you're interested in learning more about mindfulness programs for teachers and students on Long Island and in Manhattan, please contact me at hello@caitlin.margaret.com.

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