Mindfulness and Its Benefits to Help Students Focus
Do you ever feel like there’s a constant chatter going on in your mind, that your thoughts constantly flit back and forth between past, present, and future or get stuck in unproductive ruts? Meditation teachers call that “monkey mind.”
For students, the ability to quiet the monkey mind can help them learn more easily and live less stressfully.
The key to this ability? Mindfulness!
What Is Mindfulness? What Are the Benefits?
Mindfulness entails paying purposeful attention to the present moment and observing your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations without judging them. In this state of quiet observation, you begin to recognize the patterns of your thoughts and emotions and, eventually, to quiet them by focusing on the present. Recognizing that your thoughts are just thoughts, you also learn how to calm yourself in stressful situations.
What does this mean specifically for students? Recent studies show that regular mindfulness practice does the following things:
- Improves attention
- Decreases stress by changing how the body responds to stress
- Boosts information retention
- Improves impulse control
- Increases self-compassion
Simple Mindfulness Practices and Resources
So now that you know the benefits of mindfulness, how do you get started?
Here are a few practices suitable for different age groups, along with some tips and resources for parents and Learning Coaches.
For Students in K–5
For this age group, you’ll want to make mindfulness short, simple, and fun. Since mindfulness is a pretty abstract concept, the key is showing—not telling or explaining. Better yet, model the behavior. Tell your student when you’re harried or upset and then demonstrate using one of the following practices below to feel better. Once your young student has experienced mindfulness a few times, you can explain how to use it when he or she is feeling distracted, angry, or sad.
Breathing Buddy: Have your student lie flat on the floor, placing a favorite stuffed animal (the breathing buddy) on his or her belly. Ask your student to simply breathe in and out while watching the buddy rise and fall with each breath. At the end of 3–5 minutes, sound a chime to bring the practice to a quiet end. You can also set the timer on your smartphone to sound the chime.
See below to view the Edutopia video in which Daniel Goleman,
author of Emotional Intelligence, describes this practice and its impact on children.
Mindful Walking: There are quite a few variations on this practice, but here are two that work well for children and their parents:
- Breathing 1-2-3 walk: Take your student for a short walk around the neighborhood without speaking. Tell your student to silently count as you each breathe in for three steps and then breathe out for three steps until you circle back home. (Counting the breaths and steps quells distracting thoughts and makes the student aware of his or her breathing—the foundation for later, more advanced mindfulness practices.)
- Sensing walk: On this silent walk, you’ll ask your student to focus on what he or she observes through one of the four senses—seeing, hearing, smelling, or touching. For example, on a “hearing walk,” you might hear distant traffic, birds singing, or the wind in the trees.
For Middle School and High School Students
For older students, it’s empowering to understand that their thoughts are just thoughts and that they can seize control through mindfulness. One way to bring that message home is to explain that mindfulness practice actually changes the physical structure of the brain. For example, studies show that practices such as meditation do the following things:
- Decrease brain cell volume in the amygdala, which is responsible for fear, anxiety, and stress
- Reduce activity in the default mode network that’s responsible for wandering thoughts and the aforementioned “monkey mind”
- Increase the cortical thickness in the hippocampus, a region associated with memory, learning, and emotions
In other words, mindfulness can mold the brain just as exercise molds muscles.
If your student is more interested in practical results, you can also explain that mindfulness practices have been shown to boost test scores!
Once you’ve piqued your student’s self-interest, there are plenty of free, reputable resources that can help him or her choose and establish his or her own mindfulness practice:
- UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center offers excellent guided meditations for download on their website. Ranging from 3 to 19 minutes, these guided practices are an easy introduction to the world of meditation. The Loving-Kindness meditation is especially good for teens who tend to judge themselves too harshly. (The Body Scan meditation is also appropriate for use with younger children.)
- StopThinkBreathe is a customized app—for Android devices, iPhones, or PCs—that actually recommends specific mindfulness practices based on how you’re feeling physically and emotionally at the moment. You simply respond to the prompts and the app provides guided practices tailored to your needs and available time.
Take the Connections Mindfulness Challenge!
To maximize the benefits of any mindfulness practice, you need to, well, practice! So choose one of the practices from the above resources and try it daily for two weeks. Then report back in the comments below!