What Is It?

Mindfulness is both a practice and a way of relating to life.

Researchers define it as the awareness that arises when we intentionally pay attention in a kind, open, and discerning way. When we are mindful, we focus on the present moment non-judgmentally.

A student practicing mindfulness in the middle of a school day might, pause, take a conscious breath, check in with himself, and observe how he is feeling before he takes a test. “My heart is racing, and I feel anxious—and maybe I also feel ready to go? It’s okay to feel nervous right now; I can meet this challenge … but what if I don’t do well? I bet some of my friends are much more prepared. [Pause]. There goes my busy mind again. These questions pop up at times like these. I’m just going to re-focus on my breath, and the paper in front of me right now. One step at a time. I can do this.”

Mindfulness, as a practice, features two different types of attention: focused attention and open awareness.

When we focus our attention, we concentrate on a specific target.

When leading students in a specific mindfulness practice, choose a place for them to “anchor” their attention like the sound of a chime, or the feel of the air entering their nostrils as they breathe. They can also quietly focus their attention on the shape, texture, and color of an object like a small stone.

During open awareness (also called “open monitoring”), we simply notice things—like thoughts, feelings, or sounds—as they come and go.

To help students become more observant and aware of their surroundings, invite them to note all of the sounds they can hear inside and outside the classroom (after silently listening for one minute). Or ask them to practice noticing and naming their own feelings during a quick check-in at the start of class.

The practice of mindfulness also helps us to become more mindful in our daily lives by cultivating these three key life skills.

Equanimity is the ability to allow sensory experiences to come and go without suppressing or avoiding them. Equanimity also helps us not to over-identify with an event, thought, or feeling (or make it too personal).

A student who is criticized by another student in the middle of class might learn say to herself, ”I’m really hurt and embarrassed right now; I’m feeling this intensely. I’m not going to fight it, but I’m not going to be swept up in it either. I’m going to take go to the ‘peace corner’ (or another quiet space) and give myself a minute to let this pass.”

Concentration is the ability to focus on what we consider to be relevant at a given time.

If students regularly practices mindfulness, they may start to find themselves more capable of focusing on a math problem in a given moment —rather than being distracted by other classroom conversations, the sounds of kids playing outside, and/or the multitude of other things competing for their attention. (One thing at a time!)

Sensory clarity is the ability to keep track of what we’re actually experiencing in the moment.

Students can learn to become more aware of the bodily sensations they feel when they experience challenging emotions like anger or fear—like the pace of their heartbeat as it intensifies and then dissipates and eventually returns to normal. When they experience these sensations as signals of distress that begin and end, they may be more likely to “ride the waves” of their emotions, rather than being swept up in them.

 

Why Is It Important?

School-based mindfulness research is steadily growing, yet researchers acknowledge some of its limitations. For example, there is a lack of consistency in the research methods and instructional practices used across mindfulness studies and a need for more randomized controlled trials. Although many mindfulness studies with K-12 students are preliminary, they also hold promise. Study results suggest the following:

Mindfulness helps students learn.

 

Mindfulness makes students feel better about themselves.

 

Mindfulness bolsters social-emotional learning at school.

  • A review of 40 school-based studies linked mindfulness-based interventions to CASEL’s five SEL competencies: including self-management (referenced in all studies), self-awareness, social awareness, relationships skills, and responsible decision-making.

 

Mindfulness helps students learn self-management skills.

 

Mindfulness fosters greater self-awareness.

 

Mindfulness enhances students’ social awareness and relationships skills.

 

Students practicing mindfulness learn to become more responsible decision-makers.

Special Note: If you, your colleagues, and/or administrators would like to read more about mindfulness research with children and teens, here are some of the most recent research reviews.

Young children (Erwin & Robinson, 2016)
Early adolescents (McKeering & Hwang, 2019)
Adolescents (Carsley et al., 2018)
Children & adolescents, combined (Dunning et al., 2018; Feuerborn & Gueldner, 2019; Mak et al., 2018; Zenner et al. 2014)

Practices

Level
Duration
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Students draw and write about ways they have acted with kindness towards others.
PreK/Lower Elementary
≤ 30 minutes
Take a few minutes to relax your body and calm your mind.
College, Adult
≤ 15 minutes
Students read a text slowly and reflect on its personal meaning for them.
Middle School, High School, College
≤ 30 minutes
Students explore their thoughts, emotions, or ideas by freewriting on a topic of their choosing, an academic-related question, or an ethical dilemma.
Upper Elementary, Middle School, High School, College, Adult
≤ 15 minutes
Students grow their self-understanding through a contemplative art process that uses their own “scrapbook” of meaningful images.
Middle School, High School, College
Multiple Sessions
In this circle activity, students practice mindful speaking and mindful listening.
PreK/Lower Elementary, Upper Elementary, Middle School, High School
≤ 15 minutes
Students take a mindful walk in nature, noting what they are grateful for, and create a collaborative art piece of their experience.
Upper Elementary
≤ 1 hour
Students express gratitude towards the many people whose efforts have brought them food.
Upper Elementary
Multiple Sessions
Acknowledge the faces of everyone in your classroom or meeting to deepen a sense of group connection.
High School, College, Adult
≤ 15 minutes
Students listen to a song or piece of music and observe their responses.
Upper Elementary, Middle School, High School
≤ 15 minutes
Students learn to notice sounds, their beginnings and endings, and the silent spaces between each sound.
PreK/Lower Elementary, Upper Elementary, Middle School
≤ 15 minutes
A daily mindfulness and music appreciation practice for the whole school or a single classroom
PreK/Lower Elementary, Upper Elementary, Middle School, High School, College, Adult
≤ 15 minutes
A daily mindfulness and poetry appreciation practice for the whole school or a single classroom
Upper Elementary, Middle School, High School, Adult
≤ 15 minutes
Build trust and understanding among students by exploring questions of wonder.
Middle School, High School
Multiple Sessions
Students discuss the SEL skills touched upon during the activity in which they have just participated.
PreK/Lower Elementary, Upper Elementary, Middle School
≤ 15 minutes
Students observe their breath while relaxing and tensing their bodies, and then practice shaking and freezing their bodies.
PreK/Lower Elementary, Upper Elementary, Middle School, High School
≤ 15 minutes
“Mindfulness is a way of befriending ourselves and our experience.”
–Jon Kabat-Zinn