Five ways to start using mindfulness in the classroom

Graham Doke

Graham Doke is founder of leading wellness centre Anamaya and the first and only mobile full-curriculum mindfulness course for young people - Anamaya for School. He has practised mindfulness meditation for over 17 years and is passionate about its ability to enhance learning and develop key social and emotional skills.

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Originally published on 3rd December 2015 Originally published on 3rd December 2015

When I talk to people about mindfulness, and mindfulness in schools, I find a lot of people know of the idea, but that they don’t really know much about what it means. There’s a vague idea of it meaning you pay more attention to what's going on around you, which seems a fine idea for a teacher, but not much real detail. So, what does it really mean? Is it really beneficial? And if it is, what can be done to get it into the classroom when the school doesn't have a proper mindfulness programme?

"Learners develop a high awareness of their own behaviour and its consequences."

Well, first of all, mindfulness is more than simply learning to pay attention to the detail of what is going on around you. Sure, some of the exercises do look just like that. But mindfulness is really about training the mind so you are aware of its processes - and how those processes can be harnessed helpfully.

The theory is not all that complex: what we experience, and how we feel and think about it, will produce behaviour, this much is obvious. If we develop a high, even extreme, awareness of each of these, together with a high awareness of the importance of the moment, we will develop a high awareness of our own behaviour, and its consequences. If we add the tools to ‘mould’ thoughts and behaviour, we start being able to make that behaviour deliberate, not just reactive.
And the benefits? Well, in the classroom it leads to improvement in both learning and behaviour. It's not just a teacher's dream - studies have shown it works.
It is simple to set out in broad theory, but quite complex to implement properly. However, there are exercises that are quite easy to introduce into the classroom that can promote mindfulness values, and start this awareness ball rolling.
Here are a few ideas that you might like to try. Take their themes and vary them, for something you can do regularly in the classroom.
1. Gratitude
Invite the students to write 'I am grateful to have _____________ in my life', filling in the blank any person, pet, element of nature, just about anything. Then invite them to sit quietly with their eyes shut, and to bring to mind an image of what they have written, and to hold that image, concentrating on it.
And, as they hold that image, to explore their feelings about what they have written - really explore them, both the emotions and how they feel physically. And, as they explore the feelings, they should try to allow them to get bigger and bigger, until they are felt everywhere in the body.
Allow this process for a while, and then invite them to listen to a few things you are going to say. As they listen, they should apply the statements to how they feel.
Then, waiting around 15 seconds between the statements, say:
"I feel grateful for the good things in my life."
"I am pleased to have wonderful people and things in my life."
"Being grateful and pleased makes me strong.”
Invite the students to comment on how they feel.
2. Recognising Emotions
This exercise is a bit harder to organise, as you need to clear space for the students to move around.
Invite the students to choose an emotion they have felt in the last day or so. Give them a moment to choose an emotion, and then invite them to move around the room, trying to express that emotion in their bodies, using facial expressions and gestures and such. Invite teenagers to mope around the room, if they like, but also to try to express how they are feeling under the moping.
Once the students have spent a few moments expressing their emotions, invite them to move towards others in the room who they think are showing the same emotions.
When the students are all in groups, invite them all to share the emotions they were trying to express, and see who 'read' whose correctly.
3. Self-compassion
Divide the class up into small groups of two or three, each student with their own piece of paper. Then invite the groups to workshop producing two lists for each individual:
How I am good to myself:

  • 'Thoughts' - Things like thinking truthfully about yourself, thinking about your strengths, thinking about the good things in your life.
  • 'Feelings' - Gratitude, affection for others, affection for self, allowing happiness.
  • 'Behaviour' - Things like eating properly, being kind to others to make friends, being kind to yourself to be happy, paying attention to schoolwork and other tasks, developing hobbies.


How I am mean to myself:

  • 'Thoughts' - Thinking how I cannot achieve anything, that I am stupid or ugly or unkind or nasty.
  • 'Feelings' - Feeling impatient or intolerant of self; feeling embarrassed about self; feeling superior.
  • 'Behaviours' - These will of course vary with age, and can include not eating properly, not sleeping, and drinking alcohol.

When they are finished - or, when time is up - invite them to consider whether they are generally more actively mean to themselves than to others.
4. Share a Wish
Invite each student to write on a small piece of paper something good they would like to happen to another student in the class - not a specific person, just a random good wish for a classmate.
Collect the papers in a box, folded over. At the end of the class, each student takes one piece of paper out of the box and takes it away with them.
5. Reflection
"Give them a moment to choose an emotion, and then invite them to move around the room." 
At the end of a class, invite all the students to sit upright with their eyes closed, and their hands lightly in their lap. Invite them to feel the movement of air in their nostrils: it’s a very light, soft touch, invite them to feel it. Give it a few moments, then invite them to feel the air in the sinuses and their throats.
Again, after a few moments, invite them to follow their breath down into their chests, and feel the air going into and out of their chests. Encourage them to think only of the rhythm of their breath.
Give it a while, as long as you can before they become restless, and invite them to feel a whole sense of themselves. Their breath, their bodies, their minds. Again, hold this for as long as is possible or sensible.
The last exercise can be used daily without any variation - you will be surprised at how quickly the students will start to enjoy the ‘peaceful time.’ How much you enjoy the peaceful time is unlikely to surprise you.

Do you teach mindfulness? Share your ideas below.

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