Mindfulness in the Classroom: It’s Not What You Think

Dr. Rachel Crowder, PhD

June 22, 2018


Read Part 1 of this article

Mindfulness is a way of tapping into our students’ strengths, building resilience, and fostering human connection in the classroom.

Paying attention, on purpose …

Mindfulness is about paying attention in a particular way – it is on purpose. It is intentional.  “As a species, we call ourselves Homo sapiens sapiens, a double dose of knowing, from the Latin ‘sapere,’ interestingly, to taste, to know, to be wise. We only know through sensing and, of course, through the activity of mind” (Kabat-Zinn, 2004). That says something about our capacity for seeing our own mind and thought processes, or metacognition. In the Scholarship of Teaching and Learningmetacognition has a certain flavor to it in regards to how students organize their learning and academic goals (Chick, n.d.). But more than that, metacognition holds within it the potential for reflection and self-knowledge, and with the ability to see how we get caught in our conditioning and reactivity. Shapiro et al. (2006) specifically link mindfulness to metacognition, positing that the process of mindful, nonjudgmental attending leads to what is referred to as reperceiving. Reperceiving involves a shift in perspective, where thoughts, feelings, and sensations that were previously subject now become object, in the sense that they are experienced more independently of one’s expectations, experience, attitudes, and self. This allows for a more flexible attitude to one’s experiences – and the ability to respond wisely in difficult situations. When we can create a little mindful space around our tightly held beliefs, they are not so – um – tightly held.

This can be especially helpful when we are having discussions in the classroom that raise the level of emotion to an uncomfortable pitch – I remember one day when teaching an Introduction to Social Work class (where we often talked about the week’s social and political events), students started talking about the political situation between Palestine and Israel. Soon faces turned red, voices got louder, hand gestures flew – I intervened and asked the students to just pause and silently notice what was happening, how they were feeling, and to acknowledge the suffering that was present in the room. I invited them to attend to the discomfort, hold themselves and the “other” as best as they could with compassion, in recognition of their common humanity, and with the understanding that these kinds of “wicked problems” (Crowley & Head, 2017), while worthy of our discussion, would not find a conclusion during our class. I invited them, if they cared to, to send their intentions for wellbeing to those involved, overseas and in the current classroom.  It seemed to work as a noticeable quiet and calm enveloped us. Students came up to me after class to let me know how much they appreciated how that difficult moment was handled with equanimity, and I have continued to use this way of attending to difficulty and intending compassion and kindness to such moments in classrooms when appropriate.

… in the present moment …

If you spend any time looking at what is on your mind, you will quickly realize that you are usually thinking about the past (in an effort to fix it) or projecting into the future (in an effort to control it). You can see your own suffering in the regret and striving that is the unconscious expression of the more primitive areas (in an evolutionary sense) of our human brain. Our unexamined behaviours of avoidance and craving – or in the extreme, fight, flight, and freeze ­– are driven by the brain stem or lizard brain that seeks safety and/or the mid-brain limbic system or mouse brain that seeks reward (Hanson, 2009). If we live an unexamined life, we spend most of our time on autopilot, completely fused with our negative-biased thoughts of not wanting or avoiding what we don’t like, or addictively pursuing or clinging desperately to what we like. These stimulus-independent and task-unrelated thoughts (SITUTs) are suggested to be one of the causes rather than the consequence of psychological distress, negative emotion, and unhappiness (Stawarczyk, Majerus, Van der Linden & D’Argembeau, 2012). Their frequency is higher in individuals less aware of their present-moment experience, and “consume cognitive resources … (and) reduce processing of ongoing perceptual information” (p. 10). In this trance-like state, not only are our students feeling increasingly unhappy and unwell, there is not much cognitive room left for learning and reflecting either. So what to do? Come back to the state of presencethe felt sense of wakefulness, openness, and tenderness that arises when we are fully here and now with our experience” which Tara Brach (2012, p. 12) says does not need to be manufactured but is our true human nature and is therefore, as I said earlier, extra-normal or our true normal.

To help myself and my students come back to presence and orient to this true normal, I use a very simple three-part breathing space exercise (Segal, Williams & Teasdale, 2006) at the beginning of most of the classes I teach. It is an opportunity to arrive and land in the present moment, to check in with oneself and be open and kind to whatever is present in the body, as well as feelings, thoughts, and emotions, without needing to fix or change anything. We spend the first part of the meditation in a spacious open awareness, welcoming everything that is present with kindness and self-compassion. We then narrow the focus of our awareness on just breathing sensations for about a minute, which helps to down-regulate the stress response and calm the body and mind. The last part of the breathing space is a broadening of the awareness, back to the body as a whole and to whatever else is present – feelings, thoughts, emotions. We end by finally coming back to the shared space of the classroom with an appreciation of this updated self-knowledge as we go into the next moments of our day. I use the image of an hour-glass to help the students remember the broad-narrow-broad shape of this practice. If you are interested in trying it out, a guided audio for this practice is available here. (Keep in mind that in order to create a safe enough space for students to meditate, it is advised to give an invitation to keep the eyes open, or to opt out by sitting quietly or to leave the room during the practice. This also models and validates good self-care. Trauma exposure in the general population is about 75%, so it makes sense to be careful. If you are interested in more on this topic, check out my webinar on Trauma-Informed Teaching in the TI Workshop offerings.)

… non-judgmentally

The invitation to hold our experiences non-judgmentally is perhaps the most beautiful aspect of mindfulness practice, because it is about holding an attitude of kindness and compassion towards ourselves. According to self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff (2003), self-compassion is an adaptive way of relating to the self when considering personal inadequacies or difficult life circumstances by holding one’s feelings of suffering with a sense of warmth, connection, and concern.  The impact of student self-compassion on academic performance is striking: students who are self-compassionate are more confident about their abilities, more likely to have greater intrinsic motivation to grow and understand new material, are less afraid of failure, and less likely to focus on negative academic performance evaluations (Neff, Hsieh & Dejitterat, 2005). In terms of student wellbeing, Neff & McGeehee (2010) found that self-compassion was a significant predictor of mental health, can promote resilience amongst college-age students, and is strongly related to “wellbeing … happiness, optimism, personal initiative, and connectedness, as well as decreased anxiety, depression, neurotic perfectionism, and rumination” (p. 226). Self-compassion can be enhanced with practice, and in another study Smeets, Neff, Alberts and Peters (2014) trialed a three-week self-compassion program with female undergraduate students and found that those taking the intervention had significantly larger gains in self-compassion than the control group that focused only on time management. The program was a relatively simple one that had students begin by paying attention to every time they had harsh critical thoughts or self-talk. In week two, they kept a self-compassion journal with instructions on how to reframe and reprocess difficult experiences with a sense of kindness, common humanity and mindfulness. In the third and final week they practiced lovingkindness meditation by silently repeating phrases of wellbeing towards themselves and others every night before going to bed (e.g. may I/you be happy, may I/you be kind to yourself, may I/you be free from suffering).

Practicing compassion for self and others through sending lovingkindness can be more easily incorporated into classroom activities than you might think. Bring back to mind the difficult discussions scenario in my Introduction to Social Work classroom, and how we were able to hold our own and others’ suffering with compassion. Research has suggested that even brief lovingkindness meditation directed to a member of a racial out-group was sufficient to reduce racial bias towards that out-group (Stell & Farsides, 2016). Whenever there are raised emotions due to conflict because of differences of perspective, values, and views, these are teachable mindful moments about the power of nonjudgmental awareness and compassionate action. We can pause and make a connection with our common human experience of suffering. Mindfulness and lovingkindness can reinforce personal resilience, interconnection with others, a sense of inner peace, and potentially more peace in the world.

Contemplative Approaches to Teaching and Learning

The beauty, depth, and power of mindfulness for supporting students’ happiness and wellbeing may be hinted at in the popular media but has not been given its full justice. As a way of tapping into our students’ strengths, building resilience, and fostering human connection, mindfulness in the classroom is probably more than you thought it was and worth at least a second consideration. If you are interested in learning more about mindfulness and other contemplative-based approaches to teaching and learning, check out the Community of Practice in Contemplative Pedagogy that meets once a month at the Taylor Institute from September to May. You can also find out more about my mindfulness teaching and research, and more downloadable audio meditations from www.presentmoment.ca

Mindfulness in the classroom – paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally – is a transformative path to teaching and learning. Try it! Your students will thank you, and I know from personal experience that you will feel grateful, too.

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Brach, T. (2012). True refuge: Finding peace and freedom in your own awakened heart. NY: Bantam.

Chick, N. (n.d.) Metacognition.  Center for Teaching, Vanderbilt University. Retrieved from https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/metacognition/

Crowder, R. (2018). Two-minute seeing practice [Audio recording]. Retrieved from https://www.dropbox.com/s/ci0yi9entttpy6w/Two%20Minute%20Seeing%20Practice.m4a?dl=0

Crowley, K., & Head, B. W. (2017). The enduring challenge of ‘wicked problems’: Revisiting Rittel and Webber. Policy Sciences, 50(4), 539-547. doi:10.1007/s11077-017-9302-4

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Kabat-Zinn, J. (2004). Coming to our senses. Inquiring Mind. Retrieved from http://www.inquiringmind.com/Articles/JonKabat.html

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Neff, K. D., Hsieh, Y. P., & Dejitterat, K. (2005). Self-compassion, achievement goals, and coping with academic failure. Self and Identity, 4(3), 263-287.

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