Mindfulness in the High School Trenches: Lessons Learned from a Beginner

Mindfulness in the High School Trenches: Lessons Learned from a Beginner

By Jeanine Brew

I had heard about Mindfulness.  I had read about Mindfulness.  I had taken an online class on Mindfulness.  Yet I hadn’t found the impetus to do anything with Mindfulness where it could mean the most:  in my own classroom.  

I designed a small action research project in which I surveyed all of my students through Google forms on their knowledge of and willingness to learn about Mindfulness.  I asked them about stress in their lives and whether my class was a stressful place for them.  My six classes are on the block schedule with 94-minute classes, and each class completed three activities.  Everything was done voluntarily, and students gave permission to collect their email addresses to track changes in behaviors and perceptions.  Before each activity, students completed a brief survey asking them to rate how they were feeling and describing how they currently felt using three to five adjectives.  After each activity, they took a mirrored survey to track changes.  At the end of the study, students completed a "post-test" to determine if they felt they had learned about Mindfulness,  were more willing to participate in Mindfulness, and thought the Mindfulness experiences were helpful.   The three activities we completed were a body scan using the Calm app, a mindful eating experience, and a shorter meditation relating to gratitude, which I found on YouTube.  I wanted them to understand that Mindfulness is not just meditation, and therefore varied up the activities.  In the end, I explained that the daily pre- and post-tests with three to five adjectives were secretly another Mindfulness method, name it to tame it. 

In the interest of brevity, I will limit the results to a few highlights.  Of the 85 students that fully participated:

  • 93% were open to learning more about Mindfulness at the end of the week (as opposed to 71% on the pre-test).
  • 90% believe that that Mindfulness is useful in schools (as opposed to only 50% on the pre-test).
  • 91% said the activities were helpful and 93% said the activities calmed them down.
  • In the end, 100% said they know more of what Mindfulness is.
  • On the daily pre-tests, students most commonly listed their moods as "tired, anxious, nervous, stressed, frustrated and overwhelmed" as well as "happy, content and calm."
  • On the daily post-tests, students most commonly listed their moods as “calm, relaxed, focused, sleepy, content, better, and peaceful.” 

The anecdotal evidence was equally compelling.  I overheard a few of my students in the hall telling friends that they had done Mindfulness in class and that it was amazing.  I had a few students email me asking for information on how they could do it on their own.  I saw a few students enter my classroom in tears, but tell me later how much the Mindfulness activity helped them to feel better.  I read detailed comments on the surveys explaining how they were amazed at how their mood changed after the activity.

In each class, I had students begging to continue the Mindfulness activities even though my mini-study was over.  I know that I will continue and that I will grow in my ability to effectively lead my students in Mindfulness.  I’d like to share some valuable lessons that I have learned in my short time on the Mindfulness journey in the hopes that it may inspire anyone reading to give it a try. 

Channel your inner Brené Brown and get vulnerable.  Doing this takes courage.  I know my students well, and I am not a timid teacher, but talking about feelings in front of teenagers can be terrifying.  I did each activity six times, and it got easier each time.   I tried to participate in the activity when possible, and it was a challenge to close my eyes and get into the moment because that meant losing control of the class and trusting my students.  It was worth it, though, since the shared experience helped me feel connected to the students and helped me to enjoy the calm feeling that many of my students reported.  It also led to some valuable conversations that came from a place of vulnerability and authenticity. 

Get outside of your comfort zone, but stay authentic.  I hesitated to do anything related to Mindfulness, despite knowing the potential advantages.  My mindfulness muse is who you would want leading you.  He regularly practices meditation, has both a soothing voice and calming persona, and knows his way around a meditation bowl.  I’m not there yet, and I needed to find a way to start that fit my personality and forgave my inexperience.  I had visions of students throwing things at my head when I failed to sound the charms or lead the meditation. Outsourcing my first activity to the Calm app really helped me. 

Don’t over-rely on technology.  Nothing kills the spirit of meditation quite like technical difficulties.  If you would prefer to start with a professionally-produced program like Calm, have a script downloaded just in case.  I wished I had done that when the Calm site went down after my students all assumed positions on the floor.

Prioritize how you spend class time.  Another reason I hesitated to do anything related to Mindfulness in class is the idea of taking away from the curriculum.  But here’s the thing:  you might be teaching from bell to bell, but are your students actually learning for that entire time?  If you dedicate 10 minutes to Mindfulness, can you possibly gain more productive classroom time?  

Think about the timing.  If you’re planning a high energy activity right afterward, you might be disappointed.  Watch out for bells ringing and other predictable interruptions.  Plan the type of activity with the classroom time required:  a body scan is probably long; expressing gratitude can be short.  Consider the most stressful times of the year for students:  final exams, college application deadlines, upcoming holidays, etc. 

Don’t force it.  Some kids just won’t do it, and you’re better off letting that go and focusing on the ones who want to participate.  In any one of my classes, 10-20% refused to participate.  As long as they stayed quiet and did not disrupt the others, I let them have that time.  In retrospect, I would have provided an alternative activity since those kids just played on iPads.  It was interesting to find out why they wouldn’t participate.  I assumed they just thought it was a waste of time, but was surprised that it was because some of them regularly meditate on their own and didn’t want to repeat it in class.  In fact, one of my non-participants shared that he works on various strategies with his therapist and led his entire class in diaphragm breathing.  It’s just a reminder that we have to be careful about the assumptions we make. 

Provide the experience to all of your students.  Chances are likely that the class that makes you earn your salary is the class that needs Mindfulness the most.

Take the time to take the pulse.  In all of my years of teaching, I never stopped to take the pulse of my students as they entered the room.  I was utterly shocked at the honesty of the responses, especially since the students knew their answers were not anonymous.   I had been operating under many assumptions:

  • I know my students well.
  • They are happy to be in my class.
  • Sure, there is trauma in my school, but it doesn’t affect my students
  • If my students were suffering, I’d know.
  • If my students were suffering, they’d tell me.
  • High school students are too angst-ridden to take Mindfulness seriously in school.

The thing about assumptions is that they’re not always wrong, but they need to be challenged regularly.  I do think that I know my students reasonably well and that they enjoy my class for the most part.  I realize, however, that I don’t really know what's going on behind the scenes and that many students are crying out for ways to deal with their problems.   

Forgive yourself and be flexible.   Nothing about this is easy at first, but it’s worthwhile.  We can be masters at delivering our content, but it’s meaningless if we can’t reach the students. 

As I conclude this research project and look forward to ways to continue the positive momentum, I have a few lingering questions:

  • Will my students get tired of Mindfulness? At what point is it too repetitive? 
  • Is it best to do a variety of activities or stick to what works, sweet and simple?
  • What should non-participants be doing?
  • What should I do if a student lists something really troubling when naming emotions?

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