It’s 7:50 a.m. on a Friday in a fourth-grade classroom at Crockett Elementary School in Phoenix, Arizona. The students are quiet and focused, working on their “Zen Tangles,” a mindfulness-based art activity. The teacher encourages them to settle in, take time for themselves, and enjoy the quiet before learning begins. Then, to transition into their science lesson, she has them close their eyes and count backward with her from 10.

Together, the students open their textbooks, taking turns reading aloud while others diligently follow with their finger underneath each word. Next, the class transitions to working in pairs, applying the technical knowledge they’ve learned. The lesson is challenging, and the teacher senses this and offers encouragement, but a collective frustration and restlessness arises.

Three students raise their fists in the air, which signals that they need to take a “mindful moment.” The teacher calls on one of the students and asks: “Is this for you or for the class?” The student replies, “It’s for the class.” The teacher nods her head in agreement and stops the class. Together, everyone takes several deep breaths before returning to work, feeling refocused.

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The students in this classroom are strong performers in science on state-wide tests, in a Title One school that ranks highly, despite multiple systemic challenges and stressors in the community. Here, students are supported through an ongoing school-wide mindfulness program, which recently evolved into a district-wide initiative.

One of the biggest challenges for educators is keeping children on task learning—helping them self-regulate emotions and manage struggles that affect classroom dynamics. This is particularly true in the aftermath of pandemic lockdowns, which caused many children to miss critical opportunities offered in schools, like learning what it means to be in a classroom environment in preschool or kindergarten.

Moreover, a (pre-pandemic) survey revealed that almost half of the children in the U.S. had experienced at least one or more kinds of serious childhood trauma. About one-third of young people aged 12–17 had experienced two or more types—and these problems worsened in recent years.

As more youth experience mental health issues, schools become an important place for developing coping skills and emotion regulation. Emotion regulation, an important aspect of mental health, is the ability to understand, monitor, and manage your emotional states (for example, to calm yourself when you’re agitated, or handle other difficult emotions like sadness or anger). While there are many productive ways to address these kinds of emotion regulation and coping needs, mindfulness is one effective approach that can be woven into classroom rituals and routines to empower students. This has a powerful effect on settling students’ nervous systems—and thus promoting social connection and learning in school.

The nervous system and mindfulness

The human nervous system is wired for survival, which requires physical safety, and social connection, which requires physical and emotional safety. Our nervous system is constantly engaging in a process called neuroception, our bodies’ built-in safety detection system, telling us if we are safe or not inside and outside our bodies and in interactions with others.

Having healthy connections with others helps us feel comfortable, more able to cope and manage stress, and more prepared for activities like learning. When we feel safety and comfort through connection with others, we’re regulating the nervous system through a process called “co-regulation.” Repeated experiences of calm through co-regulation with adults can help children build ongoing trust in themselves and the world around them. To co-regulate with children, though, adults need to be well-regulated within themselves first.

Practicing mindfulness is a powerful way for adults and children to achieve this sense of safety and improve their emotion regulation, because of its effects on the nervous system. Research finds that regularly practicing mindfulness for just 12 minutes a day for eight weeks is enough to promote a state of integration in the brain.

Neuropsychiatrist Dan Siegel coined the term “integration” to describe the optimal functioning of systems. The brain, as a system, becomes better integrated when individual structures get stronger and their functions become increasingly coordinated. This leads to meaningful changes in emotions, communication, and behavior from the inside out, including better self-regulation and resilience. And since the brain is connected to other systems within the body, strengthening integration in the brain has benefits for those other systems, including cardiovascular and immune functioning.

When teachers (and parents) are in a more integrated state, they can act with both their own feelings and those of the child in mind and avoid getting lost in the child’s struggles, moving toward their suffering with care. This sense of remaining separate in our own experience, while being deeply connected to others through care, is integration. Movement toward another’s suffering to alleviate it is integration in action. As Siegel teaches, “integration made visible is kindness and compassion.”

A case study of mindfulness at school

The Balsz School District, where Crockett Elementary is located, is the fifth-most economically segregated school district in the U.S. Facing problems like economic insecurity and children’s exposure to trauma (including domestic and community violence), many children have struggled with emotional, behavioral, relational, and academic difficulties. The support needs are substantial there—with as many as 17 languages spoken, many homeless families residing at a major shelter, and a large refugee population.

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These challenges led the Crockett Elementary School principal, Sean Hannafin, to bring mindfulness in as part of the school culture to promote self-regulation for struggling children, as opposed to punishment. Later, the district began to incorporate the mindfulness program.

Crockett Elementary collaborated with and was supported by Mindfulness First (an Arizona nonprofit). Over the three years the school spent infusing mindfulness into their culture, they saw outstanding results, including a reduction in annual suspensions—from an average of 45 to three. The school also rose in state-wide school ratings (from a C to a recent A+ from the Arizona Education Foundation).

We as researchers have been studying the mindfulness training program within the Balsz School District, and we found that students commonly demonstrate compassion for one another. Whether it is helping another student find a textbook or asking for the class to take a mindful moment together, integration is visible in both teachers and students. Over time, the use of repeated mindfulness practices throughout the school day has helped Crockett students strengthen their individual and collective emotion regulation. These effects, in reducing stress, also result in benefits to their learning and attention, as evidenced in a Harvard study.

Interviews with teachers and staff at Crockett Elementary show how mindfulness culture has made the school a more enjoyable, comfortable, and learning-oriented place, where students feel and act more confident, empowered, and at ease.

Crockett began by training teachers, who learned to better self-regulate through mindfulness and then received training and resources to use mindfulness in the classroom. As teachers started practicing mindfulness, students immediately started responding differently. As one teacher put it, “It’s all about the teacher. When we’re upset, the student gets upset, then the rest get upset. If we’re calm, they’re calm.” With greater awareness, teachers learned to monitor their own emotions and behaviors, recognizing their feeling states and how they are transmitted via verbal and nonverbal signals, saying:

When I started getting upset or frustrated, I’d see myself from outside and say, “I’m getting frustrated, my voice is rising.” So, I stop myself and take 30 seconds, walk around the room, return, and then talk to the student in a calm tone. It’s made me a better teacher.

Better self-regulated teachers have an easier time co-regulating with individual students and their classroom as a whole. As one teacher explains:

When the anxiety strikes or something gets overwhelming, I’m like, “Okay, I think we all need a few mindful moments. Everybody, stop what you’re doing. Feet on the floor, hands on your knees, let’s do some deep breathing.” We’ll take some deep breaths and re-center to come back to whatever we’re doing. It helps us. . . . We all get along.

Teachers describe starting the school day with positive affirmations and deep breathing, saying it “helps get the kids to get centered and ready for learning.” Research suggests that these simple, powerful techniques can give students and teachers a sense of control, especially in a high-stress environment.

Takeaways: Making it work in schools

There’s no single way to implement mindfulness in classrooms, so schools can explore the approaches that best fit their context. But there are some broad points to consider.

Mindfulness works best in schools when it is supported systemically by school leadership and threaded across multiple levels of school practices, culture, and curricula. At Crockett, the principal ensured that mindfulness was infused school-wide and invested time getting teacher buy-in, reinforcing mindfulness in school communications, discussing and practicing mindfulness in meetings, and building it into each school day. Here’s how:

  • Mindfulness is practiced during every morning announcement. For example, the teacher-leader of student council may bring in a student leader to lead the whole school in a mindfulness practice. Practices range from two to five minutes.
  • Mindful walking practices happen on the school grounds. For example, students can request permission to step outside of their classroom to do some mindful walking when they need to calm and recenter themselves. Teachers can also suggest that a student do this and reflect upon how they will be “safe, respectful, and responsible.” Mindful walking lasts three to four minutes.
  • Mindful eating is practiced in school, including in classrooms. Three days a week, a snack is offered in class, and teachers lead a mindful eating practice. For example, in a recent week, kiwiberries were the snack. With this new food, students were encouraged to reflect on taste, texture, and sensation (which also helps to develop language and vocabulary). Even lunchtime in the cafeteria has a relaxed atmosphere. But if things get too noisy, any adult or child can put up their hand to ask the whole cafeteria to take a mindful moment to reset and bring the noise level back down.
  • Teachers are trained and supported in leading mindfulness practices in classrooms and teaching practices, through regular professional development. For example, every teacher at Crockett is trained in mindfulness, both for themselves and how to use it with their students. New teachers to the school are also trained over eight to 12 weeks—which allows uniform understanding and expectations about implementating mindfulness at school in classrooms.
  • Staff meetings include discussion about self-regulation/co-regulation in the classroom. For example, the principal consistently communicates the mindfulness culture in meetings. At least once per quarter, the teachers engage in sharing strategies that incorporate mindfulness and help students to remain engaged.

Mindfulness is a long-term prevention approach to problems, rather than a quick response or reaction measure. Interested teachers can find lots of mindfulness tools, activities, books, media, and apps online, many of which are geared toward children or educational settings. Simple meditation practices can be done at the start of class or throughout the day, guiding students through a few moments of heightened awareness and attention to a specific focus (such as their breathing, a phrase, a feeling, or an image).

Whatever the tools, a consistent and thoughtful mindfulness approach can build a sense of security, mental and physical health, whole mind-body wellness, and connection with others. As one Crockett teacher put it, “How do we cope with all this craziness in this world? It’s about teaching students how to cope with things that they can’t control.”

These practices give students a measure of control over themselves and their emotional regulation, giving them a foundation to enjoy learning. As another teacher said, “I now have kids saying, as we’re walking to the library or to lunch, ‘I love school!’” It’s sentiments like this that are among the best possible arguments for bringing mindfulness into schools.

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