Would you like to deepen your students’ concentration, awareness, and insights? These are the top benefits of bringing mindfulness to your classroom. Also known as contemplative pedagogy, mindfulness in the classroom is designed to quiet and shift the habitual chatter of the mind. And research shows that these contemplative practices can counteract the unrelenting interruptions and distractions of today’s multitasking, social media-focused society.
Contemplative pedagogy is focused around the idea that teaching and learning should be mindful, that your curriculum can include contemplation to facilitate learning, and that being mindful results in better outcomes for students. A contemplative curriculum isn't as difficult to create as you think, and this pedagogy can do wonders in helping increase mindful behavior in your classroom. Teaching in a contemplative way will transform your classroom more than you think.
Whether you’re currently working towards a teaching degree to advance your career, or you’re doing research on how to improve your teaching skills and outcomes, learning about mindfulness and contemplative practices can help improve both your and your students’ lives.
According to Mindful.org, mindfulness is “the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.” This is a contemplation tool that everyone can develop and one that you can easily employ in your classroom to combat the general lack of focus and rise in anxiety today’s youth often exhibit.
Simply defined, contemplative pedagogy is the purposeful inclusion of mindful practices and contemplative meditation theories, principles, and practices in education. These contemplative mind techniques can be directly taught to students or to educators, administrative staff, and even parents. There are many proven contemplative methods to choose from and most have excellent results.
Mindful Schools reports that mindfulness and contemplative practices can positively impact teaching and pedagogy in the following ways:
Elevated attention and focus
Better grades and cognitive performance
More effective emotion regulation
Improved behavior in school
Greater empathy and perspective-taking
Enhanced social skills
Reduced test anxiety
Decreased frequency and severity of post-traumatic symptoms
Lower rates and severity of depression
Mindfulness has become a popular topic for researchers and academics alike because of its simplicity—it’s easy to employ, has little to no cost, and can be successfully practiced by anyone at any time. Here are eight highly effective contemplative activities you can use in your classroom today.
1. Guided meditation.
Guided meditation helps students focus on their moment-by-moment life experiences. These contemplative exercises help them slow things down and focus on one activity at a time, which is proven to improve their power of attention and heighten their sense of awareness.
While many contemplative meditation practices have students lie down, shut their eyes, slow their breathing, and notice how they’re feeling second-by-second, a great option for classrooms with limited space or classes with active children is to do a guided meditation with a small object, such as a raisin. Here’s an outline you can follow:
- Give each child a raisin and set a timer for 10 minutes.
- Have them use each of their senses, one at a time, to examine the raisin.
- Guide them through looking at the raisin, smelling it, touching it, and lastly tasting, chewing, and swallowing it.
- Discuss their experiences for each step.
Your students will discover that slowing down to eat one single raisin can be a very exciting and complex activity—which teaches a greater lesson of continually exploring the many facets of the world around them, even if they’re familiar or mundane.
It also teaches students to be more mindful and pay attention to and enjoy what’s in front of them or what’s happening to them in the moment (e.g., enjoying one raisin at a time versus swallowing an entire handful). This increased attention and awareness will make your students’ daily lives, including their time in school, much more rewarding.
2. Breathing exercises.
Both in children and adults alike, deep breathing is a great contemplative practice that has been shown to reduce stress, enhance focus, steady emotion, allow the body to relax, and improve general health. In your classroom, this translates to:
- Better focus by calming distracting emotions and related outbursts.
- Easier transitions to education readiness by slowing down the thoughts and excitement from recess, lunch, and PE.
- Improved well-being by lowering stress levels and anxiety.
- Breathing techniques also help students cultivate self-control. While they can’t always control their environment and activities, children can control their bodies. So learning to control their breathing will help them take control of their other actions and behaviors as well. Here are a few breathing exercises you can use:
- Balloon breaths—Have your kids form a large circle facing one another and imagine a giant balloon in their favorite color. Guide them to slowly and deeply breathe through their noses to fill their balloons (their bellies). As they fill these balloons, have them slowly raise their arms and hold their breath once overhead. Then tell them to “pop” their balloons, twisting, turning, and falling down like a deflating balloon.
- Breathe and move—Have your students synch their breathing with a unique movement in a follow-the-leader or Simon Says format. For example, have them raise their arms up as they inhale deeply and then lower as they exhale.
- Breathe and release—Have your children breathe in slowly while clenching their toes, eyes, palms, etc., then release the body sections as they exhale. Another variation is to imagine breathing in color; inhaling in red breath and then exhaling out in blue.
One more tip: try leading a quick breathing exercise right before a test. It will help calm down your class and refocus their attention.
Listening is a critical life skill that you can teach without using recordings or videos—which sometimes, ironically, kids will tune out. In addition to having your students quietly listen during your lessons or while their classmates are speaking, get them actively engaged by trying these fun listening activities:
- Blindfold walk—Demonstrate for your class “forward,” “backward,” “left,” and “right,” then guide a blindfolded volunteer to retrieve an object by directing them “five steps forward, two steps left,” and so on. Next, divide your class into groups of two where participants alternate between being the leader and listener.
- Listening with flashcards—Scatter flashcards around your room. Have each child find and hold one. Then make up a story using the items on the flashcards, having students raise theirs when you say it in your story.
- Guessing game—Divide your students into groups of three or four and then give out five consecutive clues for a person, place, or thing. For each clue, have groups discuss and write out what they think it is. Use more challenging words for each round and speak faster and quieter as they progress so students will learn to listen more intently.
In addition to making your life easier as an educator, improving your students’ listening abilities will help them become better communicators and more empathetic. Refined listening skills will also lower their levels of frustration, depression, and anxiety and help them forge stronger relationships. Of course, listening will help them accomplish more in your class, too!
If you’re a middle or high school English educator, you may have already encouraged your students to journal. However, many elementary school teachers—and teachers within other disciplines—are using journaling as a contemplative practice to help their students calm their minds and center their thoughts for better academic performance.
Effective journaling can be as simple as having your students:
- Write down a few thoughts of what they’d like to say at the beginning of class before a presentation, demonstration, or subject review.
- Reflect on their thoughts or feelings in the middle of class during a challenging discussion.
- Record their conclusions and questions at the end of class for review and to prep for the next session.
- Some questions you can use to get students journaling are:
- “What matters here?”—which helps students focus on important content.
- “Where are you now?”—to map out and work through any of their questions, emotions, stresses, or frustrations.
- ”What do you know now?”—to force students to think deeper and apply their own experiences to learning.
5. Gratitude practice.
Gratitude can be a powerful tool for elevating your classroom and teaching practices. It can create a contemplative mind for your students. By helping your students exercise their “gratitude muscles,” they can harness positive thinking that leads to better grades, goal attainment, and life outcomes.
One tool to accomplish this mindfulness activity is to start a gratitude list. Jot down five things you’re grateful for each day (applicable to the class you’re teaching) and then go back at the end of the week to reflect on how these lists impacted your life. Write your lists first to share as an example and get your classes engaged, then give students a few minutes each day to complete their own lists. They can record them in a dedicated journal or on their computers or iPads. Also, a great starter for these gratitude lists is, “Thanks for…”
If you have time, you can set up a dedicated session at the end of each week to have everyone share their favorite personal gratitude. Not only will it help your students become more positive about themselves, your class, and learning in general, but it will help them discover more about their classmates and develop deeper relationships across the group.
6. Intention setting.
You’ve probably heard the expression, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” There is a lot of truth in these words. Intention setting, whether in the classroom or in everyday life, is key to our success.
Asking your students to focus on their guiding mindfulness principles can lead to more productive individual and group work. For example, when a student sets the intention to be more generous, empathetic, diligent, or aligned with their classmates’ needs, they’re establishing an environment for more productive collaboration.
Intention setting is something that’s relatively new to many K–12 educators and schools, so the exact protocols are still in flux. Here are some guidelines that other educators have found successful:
- Build a framework—Students may not understand the difference between setting goals and intentions. So, establish a framework that clearly defines what intentions are, then let your students fill in the blanks. For example, “I will complete my science lab before the end of class.” That’s a goal. Whereas, “I will stay present during my lab, not get distracted, and listen to and collaborate with my lab partners.” That’s an intention. The key difference here is that goals are specific to a task, while intentions are specific to the individual.
- Check in regularly—During your classes or activities where your students have set intentions, make sure to check in to see what their intentions are and how they’re achieving them. As with goals, intentions are easy to set but need dedicated action for achievement. Your ongoing encouragement will help students stay focused on their intentions and put planning into action, which can deliver incredible results!
- Make time for reflection—Powerful learning can result when students set contemplative intentions, practice these intentions, and then reflect on how well they lived their intentions. So try to create an iterative cycle where students have time for intention reflection at the end of class. This will go far in improving their self-awareness and overall growth.
Safari is a mindfulness practice for kids that asks them to focus on their surroundings while taking a walk—like going on safari. By asking students to find and identify birds, bugs, and other animals or plant life, they’ll use and hone all of their senses. They’ll also learn to be more present in the moment.
To make this mindfulness activity more engaging, you can create a worksheet listing some of the wildlife they’re likely to see and give them points for every animal they document. Or you can incorporate their safari activities into your teaching curriculum with lessons on the wildlife, ecosystem, and climate that surround your school.
Teaching your students to be more observant of and curious about the world around them will go far in strengthening their desire to continue learning well after their traditional schooling years are over.
8. Five senses: The 54321 check.
Similar to the guided meditations discussed earlier, the “54321 Check” focuses on using the five senses to help ground students. It’s a simple yet effective tool for regaining control of the mind when anxiety threatens to take over.
- First, have your student(s) identify five things that they can see in the classroom.
- Next, have them touch four things they can feel.
- Then, have them listen to three things they can hear.
- Next, move on to two things they can smell.
- And lastly, if available, have them focus on one thing they can taste.
These five steps can be done quickly and quietly with little disruption to your lesson, which is why the 54321 Check is such an effective and widely-backed mindfulness practice for the classroom. Research from the Mayo Clinic cites that “by shifting your focus to your surroundings or senses in the present moment and away from what is causing you to feel anxious, it can help interrupt unhealthy thought patterns.”
All teachers can integrate mindfulness activities into their curriculum and busy schedule; it just takes a little planning. Whether you teach science, math, English, or another discipline you can start by establishing a routine for practicing mindfulness in your classroom.
This can mean setting aside five minutes at the beginning of every class or creating “Mindfulness Monday,” when you let students pick a new technique to try out. Or it can even be as simple as guiding students on a breathing activity as they walk to and from the playground or lunch.
There’s a reason why mindfulness in the classroom is becoming widely accepted and applied in schools around the world. Contemplative pedagogy is an easy and effective method for helping your students find the peace and focus they need to do great things!