Over the course of my over forty years as an educator and researcher, I’ve learned that teachers are often incredibly altruistic and devoted to making a positive difference in children’s lives. But too many of them are not well prepared for the social and emotional demands of today’s classroom. Stressful conditions—like high-stakes testing or students with severe psychological problems—can lead us to feel discouraged, burnt-out, and ready to quit.
Most teacher training focuses primarily on content and pedagogy, overlooking the very real social, emotional, and cognitive demands of teaching itself. Luckily, learning and cultivating skills of mindfulness—the ability to stay focused on one’s present experience with nonjudgmental awareness—can help us to promote the calm, relaxed, but enlivened classroom environment that children need to learn. Mindfulness can also help us to be more effective at reducing conflict and developing more positive ways of relating in the classroom, which can help us feel more job satisfaction.
How does mindfulness do this? By training our minds consciously to become more aware of our inner and outer experience, and learning how to manage our emotions.
In my new book, Mindfulness for Teachers, I outline several mindfulness practices—including focused breathing, open awareness, loving-kindness, and others—that teachers can use in the classroom, whether they want to invoke a sense of mindfulness in the classroom or to become a more mindful person, in general. These practices can help a teacher to slip into a mindful presence when it’s most needed, allowing us to pay better attention to the learning environment and our students’ needs within the classroom.
Here are some of the many ways that developing mindfulness can help us be better teachers.
1. Mindfulness helps teachers understand our own emotions better
When I teach, I sometimes notice that my mind is so focused on thinking about what I need to do and how to do it that I’m not paying attention to the present moment. I have expectations about how things ought to be and I become attached to them, rather than noticing and accepting how things actually are.
This causes distress, making me emotionally volatile, which in turn affects my perceptions and makes me more sensitive to threat. I may imagine a student’s disruptive behavior is intentionally designed to interfere with my teaching when in fact it is the normal behavior of a child who needs help with his self-regulation. If I take his behavior personally, I may lose my temper and say something that makes matters worse.
Practicing mindfulness can help teachers to recognize our emotional patterns and proactively regulate how we behave, responding in the way we want to rather than reacting automatically. It can also help us to savor the positive moments in our job—when we feel the joy of true connection with our students or resonate with the joy and excitement our students feel when learning clicks for them.
2. Mindfulness helps us communicate more effectively with students
During my first year of teaching I had no idea how to get my students to pay attention to my lessons, respond to directions, or behave appropriately. I thought that if I was nice to my students, they would like me, want to please me, and do what I wanted them to do.
However, I was wrong. My students didn’t respond or behave that way at all, and, day by day, my frustration grew to the point where I was impatient and snapping at them.
One day a supervisor came to observe my teaching and gave me some important feedback: She told me that I was saying “okay?” at the end of many of my instructions to students, giving them the message that whatever I asked of them was optional. No wonder they were so unresponsive!
After that feedback, I began to monitor myself to break this bad habit, and this helped me see how mindful self-awareness could help me succeed as a teacher.
3. Mindfulness helps us manage students we find difficult
All teachers have problems with particular students who misbehave in the classroom. Mindful awareness helps us attend to what’s happening with a child to cause them to misbehave.
Sometimes students misbehave because the environment is inappropriate for their developmental stage—for example, we can’t expect kindergarteners to sit quietly listening to an adult talk for long periods of time. Children exposed to trauma in their lives tend to be hyper vigilant—which consumes a lot of cognitive resources, and can lead them to learn more slowly than other students or to be overly sensitive to changes in environment.
Nonjudgmental awareness is an important aspect of mindfulness, too—one that involves accepting things as they are in the present moment. When we first practice mindful awareness, we often notice how hard it is not to judge. But, as we observe ourselves engaging in judgment, we become more aware of it in the moment, our mind begins to settle, and eventually our tendency to judge subsides.
Judgment often induces feelings of guilt and shame. Sometimes teachers judge their students harshly and unconsciously use guilt and shame as management techniques with their students—probably because they’ve learned these techniques as a child from their own parents. But there’s plenty of evidence that this approach doesn’t work. Rather than encouraging children to behave, it promotes resentment, distrust, and retaliation.
Mindfully recognizing our emotional responses toward students may help us understand why they are behaving the way they are. If we feel annoyed, the behavior is likely attention seeking. If we feel threatened, the behavior is likely a bid for power. If we feel hurt, the behavior is likely an attempt at revenge, and if we feel discouraged, the student is likely giving up. These feelings can help us respond more appropriately to the underlying issues of our students, and help us shift from a negative appraisal to a state of compassion.
4. Mindfulness helps us set up a positive learning environment
There is a mistaken belief among many teachers that we can and must control our students’ behavior. This sets us up for power struggles, where our attempts to control are likely to backfire.
It’s far better to create and maintain an effective learning environment by learning to control ourselves. We can control how we communicate, how we behave and where we position our bodies in space. We can set and reinforce expectations and limits. And, we can control the classroom physical space so that it supports learning.
A kindergarten teacher I know couldn’t get his students to stop running in the classroom, even after repeated reminders, and he was getting very frustrated. But, once he became mindful of the fact that his classroom furniture was arranged to create distinct “runways” in the class space and remembered that children have a natural inclination to run in open spaces, he could see what needed to be done: he moved the furniture to block the runways, and the children stopped running.
Knowing what’s going on in your classroom and with your students is critical to your ability to orchestrate the social-emotional dynamics and the physical spaces that are conducive to learning. Practicing mindful awareness helps you develop the skill of paying attention in the present moment and learning to see what’s truly happening in your classroom, allowing you to come up with better solutions to problems you see.
5. Mindfulness helps strengthen our relationship with students
Research on effective classroom management points to the importance of teacher-student relationships. We can set up great management systems involving guidelines and limits, but if our students don’t trust and respect us or think we don’t respect them, we’re in for some challenges.
Giving each student our full mindful attention for even a short period of class time gives them the message “I see you.” By making a connection with our students, we let them know we value them as individuals.
Because the goal of school is learning, we naturally tend to signal to students that we value high academic achievement. However, we need to be mindful when we see students displaying non-academic attributes, such as helpfulness, friendliness, creativity, problem-solving, and conflict resolution, and to communicate that we value these as well. Students feel connection with teachers when they know their teachers truly see them and appreciate them.
6. Mindfulness helps us slow down when we need to
Sometimes as new teachers we can be overly concerned about getting through our lesson plans and can unconsciously start to rush. Slowing down and deliberately pausing for a moment of mindfulness can give us time to ask ourselves how we are feeling, what’s happening in the classroom, and what our students need at that particular moment. It also models mindfulness for our students.
The speed at which students process information varies. Some students process auditory information very quickly, while others tend to have more visual or sensory-motor strengths. Younger children require more time to process than older children, though adults often forget this. No matter their ages, students process information better when there are given a little extra time, and consciously creating pauses throughout a lesson helps support learning.
Too often teachers forget to pause after asking a question or interrupt student pauses and hesitations, not giving students a chance to think through their answers. Pausing is helpful during lecturing (to give students time to absorb the information and consolidate their thinking) and during student work periods (to give students uninterrupted time to figure things out for themselves). It can also generate feelings of suspense and expectation, enlivening the classroom.
If we rush because we are anxious, we may miss these opportunities to deepen learning. Mindfulness can teach us to wait and be patient and to time our pauses appropriately.
7. Mindfulness helps us build community
Students have a basic need to belong to and contribute to a community. We can foster a sense of community by modeling caring and other prosocial behaviors, instituting caring routines, and mindfully listening to our students.
To cultivate a community of learners, we can provide students with opportunities to collaborate with and help one another—for example by having students work together in groups where each student has a specific task that contributes toward the outcome. Collaborative learning gives students the opportunity to help others and to reflect on the experiences and needs of others, which promotes empathy and perspective taking.
Another way to build community among students is through joint service learning projects, where students work together on giving back in some way to their community. Mindfully taking note of different student strengths and challenges can help teachers make these shared work opportunities enrich student learning and can help build a positive classroom climate.
In all of these ways, mindfulness can help teachers to be the best they can be and bring out the best in their students. Being able to approach a classroom with a sense of calm understanding and the skills to intervene appropriately can make learning a pleasure for everyone.