Mindfulness Matters: Mindfulness Practice Improves Academic Performance and Behavior

Because the emotional centers of the brain are very connected to the thinking and learning centers of the brain, we know that people who are better able to control their emotions and moods are effective learners.
— Leslie S. Greenberg

“Sit down, Johnny. Focus. It’s time to pay attention.” How many times have you heard a teacher (maybe even yourself) utter these words? It’s true that in order for students to be successful in school and in life they need to be able to pay attention. But just as simply telling a student “one plus one equals two” doesn’t allow him to truly understand the math problem, a command like “pay attention” doesn’t help a student learn how to focus. We would never teach a student the joy of reading by handing her a book and saying – “OK, now go read.” But very often we do just that with attention and focus. “Attention is like a muscle that needs to be trained. If the muscle is untrained, the mind wanders all over the place all day long. The same thing applies to any skill — it takes practice” (Barseghian, 2011). One way to offer our students structured practice with attention is through mindfulness training. 

Mindfulness is the practice of being present and aware of things happening in the current moment. “[It] is a way of paying attention that originated in Eastern meditation practices. It has been described as ‘bringing one’s complete attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis’ (Marlatt & Kristeller, 1999, p. 68) and as ‘paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally’” (Kabat-Zinn, 1994, p4, as cited in Baer, 2003).

The research on the benefits of using mindfulness in the classroom is overwhelmingly positive. “Studies of mindfulness programs in schools have found that regular practice — even just a few minutes per day —improves students’ self-control and increases their classroom participation, respect for others, happiness, optimism, and self-acceptance levels. It can help reduce absenteeism and suspensions, too. A mindfulness practice helps reduce activity in the amygdala, the brain’s emotional center responsible for fear and stress reactions” (Schwartz, 2014).

We know that instructional time is precious. Mindfulness training is a wonderful use of that time. Experience has shown that spending a few minutes on mindfulness training with students greatly reduces the time spent on interruptions from misbehavior (Schwartz, 2014). Wouldn’t it be marvelous to repurpose that interrupted time to give students a skill that will help them throughout their lives? Mindfulness teaches students what to do when they feel angry or stressed or overwhelmed. The deleterious effect of stress on the brain not only causes students to act inappropriately, but it can actually prevent them from learning. "Stress physically changes children's brains – shrinking the hippocampus, a part of the brain that stores and retrieves memories" (Van der Kolk, Bessel, et. al., 2007). Mindfulness training helps students gain control of their emotions so that they can reflect and respond appropriately to difficult situations. The calmer mind also allows information to travel past the fight or flight part of the brain (amygdala) to the prefrontal cortex for processing and then the hippocampus for memory storage thus helping students learn better.

Recently I had the privilege of attending the Learning and the Brain conference, where I was surprised to see numerous lectures and break-out groups dedicated to discussing the positive effects of mindfulness training on the learning mind. The February National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) conference also has several sessions on the benefits of mindfulness in education. As always, we at Infinite Horizons are joyfully curious and excited to bring you the most current and relevant research in the education world so that you can put it into practice and create a better learning life with your students.

So here are some simple strategies to help you get started implementing mindfulness  practices in your classroom. You'll find a list of ideas and some free resources to help you integrate Mindful Moments into your classroom routines.

If you want more, you will find programs and resources available as instructional guides for teaching mindfulness in schools. One of the best we have seen  is Scholastic's partnership with the Hawn Foundation. They offer an entire curriculum entitled MindUp.  There are 3 sets of curricula for grades K-2, 3-5, and 6-8.

Teaching mindfulness in your classroom is a lifetime gift you can give your students, AND it gives back. Every time you practice mindfulness with your students, you also get to stop and breathe and take care of yourself. This important practice is definitely a Win-Win for us all, so take a deep breath, and Be Present!

Namaste from ALL of us at Infinite Horizons 

(We honor the divine in you, that is the same as the divine in us.)  

Article Credits: Michelle Leip, with Kathleen Kryza