A group of young children walk single file into a classroom and sit on mats on the floor. Some quickly settle in and close their eyes. Others fidget and look around. Noises from the hallway and street spill into the room.
“Please put your hand mindfully on your anchor spot — your heart or your belly,” the teacher says in a calming voice. “Breathing in. Breathing out.”
This scene from a video called Aliza and the Mind Jar shows children at an elementary school in New York City learning mindfulness. More than ever before, similar scenes play out each week in classrooms across the country.
Trying to convince students to sit still and pay attention is nothing new. Teachers have been doing that for decades. But as simple as it seems, simply asking doesn’t usually get students all the way there.
“Most students are constantly asked to pay attention and sustain their attention, but no one really specifically, strategically, teaches them how to pay attention,” Kelli Love, a children’s yoga and mindfulness teacher at Girls Prep Bronx Elementary School, told Healthline. “And we do that.”
Love, the teacher in the video, is at the heart of an educational movement that is bringing yoga, mindfulness and other contemplative practices to the classroom, alongside traditional subjects like reading and mathematics.
There are many approaches to mindfulness. Some involve sitting and noticing one’s breath, heartbeat, or ambient noise. Others, like yoga, use body movements to focus the mind.
The common purpose of all of these practices is to help people become more aware of and in control of their own often wandering thoughts.
Better Focus and Less Stress
For students, the promise of mindfulness is clear. Better attention means being able to stay focused on the task at hand, whether that is sitting through a lecture on U.S. history or solving a math problem.
Mindfulness practices have also been shown to reduce stress. This approach was popularized by Jon Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness-based stress reduction program.
With even just a few minutes a day of mindfulness exercises, many students see results. Although some age groups may resist at first.
Claire Darby learned to meditate as a student teacher at Visitacion Valley Middle School in San Francisco, where students and teachers do 12 minutes of Transcendental Meditation at the start and end of each school day.
Now a high school teacher at the Academy of Arts and Sciences High School in San Francisco, Darby asks her 10th grade students to sit mindfully for one to two minutes at the start of each class. At first, her students reacted as you might expect teenagers to do.
“A few are kind of thinking it is silly, or they start laughing or get distracted,” Darby told Healthline.
One week into the new practice, though, some of the students began to come around, saying, “I feel calm,” or “I’m really glad we’re learning this,” she said.
Younger students like the ones that Love teaches in her school, may be more open to mindfulness practices.
“The sweet spot for me personally is fourth grade,” Christine de Guzman, a mindfulness instructor from Sacramento, California, told Healthline. “They’re not quite too cool, but they have a capacity to sit still a little bit longer.”
Mindfulness Research Shows Benefits
Focus and stress reduction may be reason enough for students to sit quietly or work through a series of asanas, or yoga postures. But many schools have set their sights higher.
“The primary goal is to work on the social and emotional learning for the students,” Catherine Cook-Cottone, PhD, an associate professor of counseling, school, and educational psychology at the University of Buffalo, told Healthline. “And to help them really be better citizens, and happier and more content with themselves.”
This includes focusing on thematic work like integrity, honesty, kindness, and compassion.
Although the study of school-based mindfulness programs is fairly new, research is starting to show tangible benefits for students.
These practices can benefit all students, but some researchers are focusing on children who have experienced trauma or poverty.
In a 2016 study in the journal Pediatrics, researchers implemented a mindfulness-based stress reduction program for low-income, minority, public middle school students in Baltimore.
At the end of the program, students who had learned mindfulness techniques showed lower levels of depression, hostility, and other effects of stress, compared to students in a general health program.
Teachers Keep Mindfulness Accessible
When describing how mindfulness helps students manage their emotions and change how they react to everyday frustrations, Cook-Cottone quoted Victor Frankl, a noted neurologist and psychiatrist, and Holocaust survivor from Austria whose practice emphasized a purposeful life.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space,” she quoted Frankl as saying. “In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
By helping students slow down and become more aware of their thoughts and emotions, mindfulness gives students the ability to access that space.
“When you are not even aware enough to know that there’s a space there, you’re just reacting to whatever the influences are,” said Cook-Cottone. “You don’t have a sense that you could create a different way of being altogether.”
Describing it this way gives mindfulness a spiritual flavor, but many teachers are careful to introduce these practices in a secular way. This can head off problems like those faced by the Encinitas Union School District in California.
A few years ago, the parents of two students sued the school district, saying that teaching yoga to their elementary school children twice a week amounted to unconstitutional religious indoctrination.
Last year, a California court of appeals upheld a district court’s decision that the school’s yoga program was “devoid of any religious, mystical, or spiritual trappings,” which would violate the separation of church and state in a public school system.
Like students at Encinitas public schools, students at Girls Prep Bronx Elementary School can opt out of the yoga classes. However, Love said that in seven years of the mindfulness program, only two students have decided not to participate.
By focusing on yoga and mindfulness as life skills, teachers can make these practices accessible to more students, and relevant to every aspect of students’ lives.
“The way that you confront a challenging yoga pose is maybe the way you do the rest of your life,” said Love. “The way you read a book, or the way you solve a math problem, or the way you talk to your brother or sister.”