I'm going to be honest. Today's post was going to be about my struggles with anxiety. I've written the post. It's sitting in my drafts section, staring at me, waiting to go live. But for some reason, I'm not. I don't feel ready. Every time I hover over the publish button, I feel a familiar pressure in my chest, the tiny faint ones that I use to feel right before a full blown anxiety attack. I will try again tomorrow.
Tonight, I've decided to go ahead and publish the post I originally had planned for tomorrow. This one is all about mental health in the classrooms and the small things we can do as teachers to cultivate a positive classroom climate through the authentic practice of mindfulness. This post isn't just for teachers. If you work or interact with children under any capacity, you might find some of these tips helpful.
For those of you who don't know, I'm a primary/junior certified teacher here in Ontario. While putting together a rough agenda of what topics I wanted to write about, I knew that I had to talk about mental health in the classroom. During my last year of teachers college, I took a mental health course, taught by one of the most knowledgable professors I've ever had. I did a BA in psychology, so it wasn't as if I didn't learn about all this stuff beforehand. But, it wasn't until this course that I learned about the multitude of mental illnesses that exist and how it could affect students at such a young age. During my undergrad days, I felt like I was constantly memorizing facts and didn't get much time to learn from outside of a textbook. While writing this post, I really wanted to use the things I learned from my faculty of ed professor to reinforce the importance of recognizing mental health challenges amongst children, and why it is so important to get them the help they need.
Did you know that 50% of adult mental heath disorders begin before the age of 14 (Kessler et al., 2005)? Mental health difficulties are also one of the main factors contributing to school absenteeism and drop out amongst students. If you're someone who works with kids, you'll know there is a huge amount of responsibility on our shoulders. We need to be well equipped to recognize when a child is struggling so we can get them the help they need.
There are a number of professional development opportunities out there in regards to mental health. It's never too late to learn. During my last semester of teachers college, I had the opportunity of taking Mental Health First Aid through the Mental Health Commission of Canada. It was definitely an eye opener for me, so if you've been thinking about taking it, I would definitely recommend it. As a teacher, our jobs aren't to be therapists. That isn't our job nor the point of this post. As teachers we need to be aware of changes in a student's behaviour and recognize distress signals that can allow us to be proactive in providing early intervention. By recognizing students who are struggling we can connect them to the appropriate professionals who can help.
Some of you may be wondering, isn't that what school psychologists are for? Well, when you think about it, teachers are sort of the first point of contact for our students. We are the ones who interact with them on a day to day basis. According to the Ontario Centre of Excellence for Child and Youth Mental Health, many children would rather ask a teacher than a parent about mental health issues. It is clear that teachers need to be stigma free and encourage other teachers to follow. It is also important that teachers are approachable so students are comfortable enough to have these difficult conversations.
This is where the idea of mindfulness comes into place. Mindfulness isn't the magic anecdote that we've all been waiting for . It will not eradicate mental illnesses. Absolutely not! However, by implementing mindfulness and teaching it to kids from a very young age, we can help change the overall climate of a classroom and change the way students and teachers interact with one another. There is an abundance of research out there that shows the benefits of mindfulness such as strengthening areas of the brain that is responsible for attention, emotional control, and problem solving.
Ok Nero, you keep talking about mindfulness, but what does it actually mean?
Well Mindfulness is being completely aware of our thoughts, emotions, and experiences at a specific moment in time. For some, this can be achieved through meditation, mindful breathing practices, or journaling. However, mindfulness is so much more than doing a specific activity. Mindfulness is completely letting go of everything else that is going on and being aware and in tune with our mind and body. It can be as simple as sitting on the grass and noticing how the grass feels, how the wind blows, and how we feel at that very moment we are sitting on the grass. It’s about connecting with the world around us. There are strategies and techniques we can practice to improve our ability to be mindful. After all, we are always thinking about something. Even as I write this, I’m thinking about what my mom has made for dinner and how behind schedule I am with these posts. In theory it seems quite simple to practice mindfulness, yet most of us don’t fully attend to what’s happening around us. Most of us don't accept our feelings or are fully conscious when we do things. We are always preoccupied - worrying and stressing about things that have and haven't happened.
How you might go about introducing mindfulness will definitely depend on what works for you and your students, and the age group you’re working with. The important thing is that it’s being introduced to students one way or another, in an age appropriate manner. Kids spend more time at school than anywhere else. It makes sense that mindfulness be made a priority. Below, I have shared some different ways I have witnessed mindfulness being practiced in schools.
StartING Small + BuildING Slowly
During my kindergarten placement, I had the privilege of witnessing one of the other kindie teachers introduce mindfulness to a bunch of 3 and 4 year olds. Obviously, they’re a bit too young to fully grasp what mindfulness means. But, that didn't stop them from participating in the activity. The teacher started with something very simple. When the students came back from recess (all full of energy from running around), she would put on a Cosmic Kid video with a guided candle concentration video. At the start, when the students were first introduced to the video, it was a bit hard for them to stay focused. They were use to more high-energy videos like Just Dance Kids. As weeks went on, the kids starting realizing that the candle concentration video meant that it was time for them to get relaxed. I started really noticing how into it the kids started getting, and how focused they really were. I always found that kindergarten kids have more difficulty in the afternoons cause they're so tired and irritated by the time home time rolls around. Implementing a quick mindfulness activity into their afternoon routine can change the entire vibe of the class! GoNoodle is another resource I have seen teachers use for mindfulness.
IMPLEMENTING MINDFULNESS INTO ACTIVITIES THEY ALREADY ENJOY
During my environmental ed class, my professor took my class outside for an art activity. Instead of doing the activity indoor, she facilitated it outside by asking us to use our senses to draw a tree. By tapping into our senses, the activity wasn’t just about drawing a tree. It became less about drawing a tree, and more about how we felt in that moment while noticing our place in the environment. Since this class was a night class that ran until 8pm, it was nice to spend a few minutes outdoors before the sun went down. It was an easy way to implement mindfulness and made it a lot easier for us to focus when we came back inside. My own grade 6 teacher use to do this with us. Before taking us outdoors to play a game of soccer baseball, we would all lay on the grass while she facilitated a meditation activity. Physical education class was a stressful time for me growing up, so it really helped doing activities like this right before.
BEING SPONTANEOUS + CHANGING IT UP
I remember as a kid, that we only went outdoors if there was a specific program planned. Only some of my teachers were spontaneous enough to take us outdoors on a whim. I love and appreciate the teachers who can recognize when a lesson is not going well, and are able to scratch the lesson altogether instead of powering through for the sake of powering through it. I've taught lessons where I realize half way through it that the way I was trying to explain something wasn't effective. Instead of forcing my students to endure the confusion, it made more sense to move onto something else and come back to that concept/lesson at a later time. Times when lessons fall apart or get disrupted, are perfect times to integrate a little bit of mindfulness. It'll help you, it'll help your students, and you don't have to sit and worry about why and how the lesson went wrong.
One of my practicum mentors would always take his class outdoors whenever the weather was really nice. When their phys ed was disrupted due to a school assembly, he would find another way to make sure they still had the same amount of time to do something active. It's okay if you feel like you haven't made enough time for mindfulness in your classrooms. It's never too late to start.
USING mindfulness activities during transition times
For some students/classes transitions can be a very challenging time. Quiet activities like allowing students to sit and focus on something as simple as their heartbeat can help them before a transition. Finding a way to get your students to be in the moment might take some trial and error. There are a number of mindfulness activities I have seen on Pinterest specifically for transitions. Somethings I've seen teachers try with their students are: sitting quietly and colouring at their desk, talking about their feelings and what feelings they like best, mindful breathing, and the list can literally go on!
USING MINDFULNESS WITHIN A CURRICULUM EXPECTATION
During my grade 1 practicum, my first graders were learning about descriptive writing. To help explain what descriptive writing was, my teacher bought kernels and made oven popcorn with them. Before doing so, she told the students to use their senses to listen to how the popcorn sounded while being popped, what the room smelt like, and how they felt while the popcorn was being made. When they got back to class, the students sat in a circle and were given a handful of popcorn to taste. They were told to sit quietly and notice how the popcorn felt in their hands. They were told to describe how it felt to eat the popcorn. Was it crunchy? How did their teeth feel? I will never forget a student yell out "The smell is making me so happy, I feel like crying!".
The students then took turns sharing how they felt. Together as a class, we wrote down a list of descriptive words they used to describe their experience. Even though the lesson was about descriptive writing, they were learning how to be present in the moment and notice how they felt while eating. They were fully attending to the popcorn and overall experience of it all. There are so many curriculum expectations you'll be teaching. I'm sure you will be able to find a way to implement mindfulness into your lessons! It really is the best way to teach something, because it's an experience they won't easily forget. At the end of my practicum, the students were asked what lesson they liked best. Almost every student said eating popcorn with Ms.K!
There are so many wonderful ways I have seen teachers explore mindfulness. I hope this inspires you to get started if you haven't already. If you do and want to share, please message me. I'm always curious to know how other professionals are integrating mindfulness into their classrooms.
Till next time,
A 24 year old Canadian living (& teaching) in Shenzhen, China.