RA Mindfulness

Students use glitter jars to help with focus, and regulate emotions.

Mindfulness. It’s a word that has gained traction across the country as maintaining awareness in the present moment, or the ability to observe what you’re experiencing without judgement.

Mindfulness is becoming more and more popular as a method of assessing one’s state of being and finding a sense of balance in the emotional state of being. And mindfulness is becoming a welcome tool for many teachers to help students find a calming stillness in the hectic rush of a busy school day. That’s true in Rochester area schools where several teachers throughout the district have incorporated mindfulness into classrooms.

Mary Birchenough, a sixth-grade teacher at Oliver Middle School, and Karen Ekeze, who works with early childhood education programs in the district, both began to implement mindful practices with their students. They found that students embracing some of the mindful practices, particularly being aware of their emotions and surroundings, prompted improvements in their lives. The two teachers began to talk about shared mindful practices and then learned there were others around the district implementing similar programs. Now the district has taken notice and is allowing more teachers to participate.

In October 2017 a number of teachers from the district participated in online coursework to learn more about mindful practices. Something they practiced in group sessions was a breathing exercise using a cotton ball to facilitate mindful breathing. This is a technique that helps with stress and anxiety, something most people face each day. Birchenough says she hopes to see teachers gain competent mindful skills and strategies to “grow some roots.”

Mindfulness, for Birchenough and Ekeze, is both complex and simple at the same time.

“It’s not a behavior management system,” Birchenough says. “Mindfulness makes us more aware of how we’re feeling.”

“It’s many things over time, but overall the idea of mindfulness is being able to pay attention to what is happening in the present moment inside and outside ourselves, and being in that experience of noticing with kindness and curiosity,” Ekeze says.

As a middle school teacher, Birchenough says her students have a hectic schedule and sometimes just need to pause. This allows students to make decisions that are more responsive than reactive, meaning a more measured response. When people take time to be aware of the moment, Birchenough says it allows them to do a “check in” and make good decisions.

Mindfulness is a tool that allows students to recognize they have a choice. Birchenough says she uses mindfulness with all of her classes. Most of her 88 students have told her they appreciate the ability to take a pause during the day to clear their heads and focus on that moment.

There are numerous mindful practices that people can perform throughout the day, including mindful awareness and mindful listening. Mindful awareness is the practice of being keenly aware of mundane daily tasks through the use of touch points that are mental or physical. Birchenough and Ekeze both talk about being mindfully aware of thoughts and emotions. If a thought is negative or unhelpful, being aware of it will make it easier to dismiss the negativity. Mindful listening is a method of listening without judgment or prejudice. It’s also a practice that eventually provides the ability for the thought process not to be swayed by past experiences and notions.

Recently Birchenough says a student asked her what it means when even though he had engaged in mindfulness he was still upset emotionally. Birchenough then informed her student he had multiple choices to respond to those emotions, and that the decision was his alone. When the student realized he had different options he felt empowered.

Ekeze says the idea of teaching mindfulness to students will be an effective tool for combating long-term stress in their academic careers. But it’s also good practice for teachers. Teachers are constantly multi-tasking, which is something that can cause “lost feelings” or simply becoming overwhelmed. She says if teachers can make it a practice of being mindfully present, that will also benefit them throughout the day. It will also help when relating to students or their colleagues.

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