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Mindful Education

  1. What Is Mindful Education?
  2. Mindfulness in the Classroom
  3. Practice for Teachers & Teaching
  4. Recipes for a Calmer Classroom
  5. Book Suggestions
  6. Relevant and Related Searches

What Is Mindful Education?

To find balance, you must understand your feelings. To understand your feelings, you must see them clearly, without running from them.

These encouraging words are spoken by the magical mentor-figure Garnet in an episode of the popular Cartoon Network series for children, Steven Universe. An intergalactic teacher to the show’s child protagonists Steven and Connie, Garnet introduces them to mindfulness over the course of the episode, which is called “A Mindful Education.”

Being mindful simply means engaging with the present moment rather than becoming overwhelmed by one’s internal concerns. As Steven and Connie master techniques like breathing deeply and processing their troubling thoughts, the pair increasingly demonstrate the benefits of practicing mindfulness: they become able to respond to one another, work effectively together as a team. It is only by learning not to become engulfed by their respective internal turmoils that they can devote themselves wholly to accomplishing their shared mission of performing a fusion and morphing into the combat character Stevonnie.

Like Stephen and Connie, kids and adults can profit from learning to master their responses to the stresses and strains of daily life. However, there’s more to mindfulness than keeping a cool head. “Many studies have shown that practicing mindfulness can increase the activity and mass of the region of the brain associated with emotional intelligence,” says the celebrated Zen Buddhist teacher Takafumi Kawakami.[1] Mindfulness has also been found to facilitate stress relief, improve one’s ability to sleep and to be helpful in managing mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety.

Mindfulness Can Stop the Classroom Becoming a Pressure Cooker

According to a recent survey by the Gallup’s State of America Schools Report, 46 percent of U.S teachers experience high levels of stress on a daily basis: a higher percentage of teachers have this experience than the nation’s doctors.[2] It’s no wonder that teachers are so frequently rendered helpless or anxious by the pressures of the job, which entails juggling many different responsibilities simultaneously.

Mindful education expert Dr. Tish Jennings is an internationally recognised leader in the field of emotional and social learning. She concentrates her expertise on bringing calmness to classrooms worldwide.

Jennings explains that the working day can easily become stressful for teachers because both they and the children they are teaching are “captives” who must spend a certain period of time together. When many of the individuals in the space are affected by stress, this makes them more likely to react to their surroundings with irritation and the classroom can easily become a “pressure cooker.”[3]

Furthermore, outside the classroom, teachers must fulfil additional obligations, such as demonstrating to the establishment’s administration and external examiners that their students are meeting their learning objectives, and factoring in additional teaching time for those who are struggling. Pressures like these can easily weigh on a teacher’s mind throughout the day, diverting their focus from teaching and thereby worsening the learning experience that they deliver.

A primary or secondary education teaching role entails:

Due to the complex nature of the profession, the fact that every teacher will experience a certain amount of stress is inevitable. However, according to a 2016 research brief by Pennsylvania State University, experiencing high levels of stress regularly can have a deleterious impact on teachers and their schools, with outcomes including poor health and wellbeing, lack of engagement, job dissatisfaction.

Worst of all, being over-stressed can eventually lead to burnout: becoming exhausted, listless and completely unable to cope with the demands of the job.[4] It is not only important for the teacher’s well-being that they find means such as mindfulness to reduce their stress, but for the children or young adults in their care, as stressed teachers are likely to pass this mindstate on to their pupils.

Stress Is Contagious: A Panic Pandemic

A recent study on stress contagion (when stress is passed on from one person to another, or spreads through a group) shows a direct link between teachers experiencing burnout, and the stress response of their students. Higher levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) were detected among the elementary school students in classes lead by burned out teachers.[5]

According to a 2014 survey of the power of stress-related coping strategies, burnout is most likely to occur when the methods workers use in their attempts to protect themselves from work-related stress prove ineffective.[6] Disengagement, cynicism and denial are all common psychological responses to being in a stressful or otherwise unsatisfactory employment situation,[6] but, unlike mindfulness exercises, they do not have the potential to improve the way one reacts to the situation or to reduce the levels of stress derived from it.

Mindfulness can help a stressed teacher avoid eventually burning out. Furthermore, if one practices regularly, it can reduce their potential to conduct the stress they feel to the class at large. Mindfulness techniques can help everyone to find a sense of balance, think more clearly, relate to others with more compassion, derive greater enjoyment from their activities and focus on the task at hand.

The mental clarity that can be achieved with mindfulness exercises can make it possible to accomplish ostensibly difficult endeavours and navigate impossible-seeming high-pressure situations, such as taking a difficult exam or preparing a classroom full of stressed-out kids to sit one. A mindful education can nurture teachers as individuals, and classes as a whole.

How Can Mindfulness Make a Great Teacher?

The mindfulness-based stress-reduction pioneer (MBSR) Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn demonstrates acute awareness of the fact that teaching comes with inextricable pressures: “It’s an intrinsically stressful profession for which there’s never enough support. Tests are stressful for kids, but imagine being in charge of a class of stressed kids!”

The school day doesn’t ostensibly have time for self-reflection built into it, but according to Kabat-Zinn, finding the time to perform mindfulness exercises the key to surmounting teaching’s pressures and excelling in one’s role. When one spends so much of one’s working day taking action, he explains, it can be very easy to forget “who’s doing all the doing.”

To excel throughout their incredibly action-packed day, a teacher must look after their interior mind. Mindfulness practice can help make one more resilient to the highly-pressurised situations one encounters.

With mindfulness practice integrated into their routine, teachers will be better able to ensure that they are:

To demonstrate how mindfulness functions to help a teacher improve in their role, Kabat-Zinn likens the activity of practicing mindfulness techniques to that of tuning an instrument: “you have to tune the instrument of learning before you actually carry out the learning.”[7] In this analogy, the teacher “tunes” their persona with mindfulness practices before entering the classroom (or, in Kabat-Zinn’s phraseology, the orchestral performance) and becomes ready to shine.

Mindfulness Practice for Teachers (and for Teaching)

It is easy for teachers to underestimate the importance of self-care, but it is necessary for them to find moments to integrate mindfulness practices into their routine if they wish to pass on their ability to embrace the present moment to their students.

Mindfulness practices that are suitable for carrying out at school can be geared towards:

Practices with aims like these can all be performed in a short space of time. They can help a stressed teacher to find their balance even on the most challenging of school days.

Take Time Out

As mindfulness-mentor Garnet sings in the episode of the Cartoon Network show Steven Universe called “Mindful Education”: ”Take a moment to remind yourself,/ To take a moment and find yourself.” Taking time out to practice mindfulness is “self-centering,” rather than self-centered, explains Jennifer Howd, author of Sit, Walk, Don’t Talk: How I Survived a Mindfulness Meditation Retreat (2017).

Although it will not always be possible to take a significant amount of time “out” during the school day, taking a thirty minute break where possible to practice mindfulness can give a frazzled teacher a clearer head and enable them to carry on. It’s always better to take the time to explore and diffuse the sensations of pressure one feels rather than allowing them to build up unaddressed.

Be at One With the Body

The Zen master and mindful education specialist Thich Nhat Hanh, author of Body and Mind are One (2013) is an advocate of syncing one’s mind with his body. He says, “when body and mind work together as one, you are fully and naturally in the present moment.” Achieving a headspace where one is fully able to be engage with the present moment is key to creating a truly interactive and memorable learning experience which is rewarding for both teachers and their pupils.

Mindfulness exercises which allow one to connect with one’s body and physical surroundings can involve:

Labelling Is Enabling

One often experiences confluences of several emotions and thoughts. This is especially the case during the working day in a profession such as teaching, as one is exposed to many different stimuli at once. On a given day, a teacher might simultaneously be anxious in the long term about a particular year group’s performance in an upcoming test, acutely concerned about a social issue affecting a particular student and startled by the sudden need to cover for an absent colleague at the last minute.

The cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) technique of labelling one’s thoughts and feelings as they occur, (for example, taking a second to step back and think: “that’s the anxiety again!”) can create a sense of distance between oneself and one’s thoughts and feelings, making them easier to process and less likely to seem like a threatening, tangled mess of ungovernable impulses.

Mindfulness Mnemonics

Integrating mindfulness practices into one’s lifestyle can be difficult at first, especially during the school day. These mnemonics are tools that teachers can memorise easily, and contain tools for remembering the cornerstones of mindfulness:

Thoughts and Feelings Come and Go, Just Like R.a.I.N

Taking a moment to recognise, explore and move on from one’s thoughts and feelings as they occur can be a useful tactic for not letting yourself get taken on an emotional roller-coaster. That’s where R.A.I.N comes in:[9]

There’s Always Time to S.T.O.P

This simple mnemonic is a brilliant tool for teachers and pupils alike to dismantle a tangle of thoughts and emotions, and take a step back from a situation which feels challenging. After going through the four stages of S.T.O.P,[10] everyone be able to continue their day with a clearer head.

It will often be the case during the school day that one cannot “Proceed” with an activity that is a total alternative to teaching the lesson, such as going for a walk. However, it is always possible to chose an alternative to the exact lesson plan. Performing a group mindfulness practice with the students or setting them a timed text-book exercise are alternative activities which a teacher might suggest after performing S.T.O.P, rather than taking up the situation which led to the outbreak of stress.

Embrace the Here and Now With O.N.E M.I.N.D

Dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) practitioner Thomas Marra PhD says that one of the most helpful tactics one can use to move past a thorny emotional headspace is to focus on the here and now.

He developed this useful mnemonic O.N.E M.I.N.D[11] to as a reminder of the mindfulness techniques one can use to return to the present moment:

Recipes for a Calmer Classroom

There’s no reason to make a secret of practicing mindfulness. The mindful education expert Dr. Tish Jennings makes a point of reassuring teachers that, even during a lesson itself, one should not feel shy about pausing the lesson, announcing to the class that one is feeling stressed and performing a breathing exercise.[12] Demonstrably practicing mindfulness can provide students with a positive example which they can then choose to emulate.

Demonstrating that one uses mindfulness exercises to become better at processing stressful situations is an excellent prelude to introducing students to the idea of using these techniques themselves. Here are some examples of mindfulness exercises which lend themselves to being performed in large groups and are ideal for introducing one’s pupils to mindfulness.

4-4-6-2 Breathe!

The average person takes between 17,280 and 23,040 breaths a day.[13] However, many people don’t ensure that they get the best out of breathing. Performed correctly, breathing can maximise the amount of oxygen one delivers to one’s body, which helps us to feel more energised and reduces stress.

Headspace recommends this simple exercise that can introduce a teaching group of any age to the concept of improving one’s breathing technique:[14]

Periodically reminding one’s class to breathe well by performing this exercise at the beginning or end of lessons is an easy and rapid way to engender a calmer classroom.

Make a Mindful Jar

Recommended by the Positive Psychology Program, making a mindful jar is a particularly useful activity for introducing primary-school aged kids to mindfulness.[15] However, making and using a mindful jar can help people of any age to be more mindful, because both creating and using the jar require one to focus one’s intention on the here and now.

To make a mindfulness jar, the following items are needed:


Put the glitter in the jar, fill it almost to the top with water, and the dry glitter and glue or glitter-glue, and screw the lid on tightly.

For the mindfulness practice:

Shake the jar, and imagine that the whirl of glitter represents the inner chaos you feel when you are overwhelmed by thoughts and/or feelings. Put the jar down on a flat surface and watch as the glitter begins to fall to the bottom. This is a visual representation of how you can stabilise the turbulence within yourself when you take a moment to stay still and re-enter the present moment.

Visualisations That Revitalise

Children are naturally imaginative and guided imagery can therefore be an effective tool for encouraging them to explore the connections between their bodies, selves and minds. Guided imagery involves using a narrative to turn thoughts, feelings and difficult concepts into characters, inanimate objects or elements of a story, so that they become easier to cope with. Employed effectively, guided imagery meditation can even reduce physical pain.[16]

The the Steven Universe episode, “Mindful Education,” contains an excellent example of guided imagery and its positive effects. The troubling thoughts and emotions which flit into the protagonists Connie and Steven’s minds are visually represented as butterflies. As they learn to notice and accept what their thoughts and emotions rather than trying to suppress them, the butterflies become less bothersome: they appear momentarily and glide on by, rather than swarming around the characters in such a way as to prevent them from continuing with their activities.

Guided imagery exercises can help children to explore and overcome problems including:

Mindful Education Books

In 2017, there is a wealth of reading material available to educators who wish to incorporate mindfulness into their teaching practice. Here is a selection of top-rated, recent publications on mindful education which are suitable for educators wishing to embark on a more mindful approach to teaching.

Mindfulness for Teachers: Simple Skills for Peace and Productivity in the Classroom by Dr. Tish Jennings

The pioneering Dr. Tish Jennings is a leading light in the field of mindful education. With Mindfulness for Teachers (W.W. Norton & Company, 2015), Jennings brings together insights from her own long and illustrious teaching career with cutting-edge discoveries concerning the benefits of mindfulness from neuroscientific and psychological studies. This accessible, witty and practical handbook offers teachers the chance to explore and harness transformative mindfulness techniques which are revitalising the teaching profession.

Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness With Children by Thich Nhat Hanh

The mindfulness meditation guru Thich Nhat Hanh has over thirty years of experience in teaching parents, teachers and kids alike to use mindfulness meditation as a means of increasing compassion, concentration, communication and connection – with one another and with the natural world. With this book Planting Seeds (Parallax Press, 2011) and its accompanying CD, Hanh offers insights into the principles of mindfulness, catchy songs which can help kids to understand them and practical activities which parents and educators can perform in any setting in order to plant the seeds of a mindful education.

Even More Books

  1. How mindfulness can help you to live in the present.” Rev. Takafumi Kawakami. TEDx Kyoto. YouTube. 20 December 2015. Accessed: 14 October 2017. 

  2. American Teachers Feel Really Stressed, And It’s Probably Affecting Students.” Huffington Post. 09 April 2017. Accessed: 14 October 2017. 

  3. How Mindfulness Can Help Teachers & Educators with Stress.” Live Sonima. YouTube. 06 July 2016. Accessed: 14 October 2017. 

  4. Depression: What is burnout?.” Informed Health Online. 12 January 2017. Accessed: 14 October 2017. 

  5. Stress contagion in the classroom? The link between classroom teacher burnout and morning cortisol in elementary school students.” Social Science & Medicine. June 2016. Accessed: 14 October 2017. 

  6. Coping with Stress and Types of Burnout: Explanatory Power of Different Coping Strategies.” PLOS One: Tenth Anniversary. 13 February 2014. Accessed: 14 October 2017.  2

  7. From the Source: Children Talk About Handling Difficult Emotions with Mindfulness.” Mindful Schools. 2017. Accessed: 14 October 2017. 

  8. Well-being at workplace through mindfulness: Influence of Yoga practice on positive affect and aggression.” AYU: An International Quarterly Journal of Research in Ayurveda. December 2015. Accessed: 14 October 2017. 

  9. Managing Emotions With Mindfulness: The R.A.I.N. Practice.” ImpactADHD.com. 24 March 2014. Accessed: 14 October 2017. 

  10. Stressing out? S.T.O.P.” Mindful. August 2013. Date Accessed: 16 September 2017. 

  11. 127 More Amazing Tips and Tools for the Therapeutic Toolbox: DBT, CBT and Beyond. Judith A. Belmont. Pesi Publishing and Media 2013. p. 77. 

  12. Transforming the Heart of Teaching: CARE for Teachers.” Tish Jennings. TEDx Washington Square. YouTube. 17 March 2017. Accessed: 14 October 2017. 

  13. How Many Breaths Do You Take Each Day?.” United States Environmental Protection Agency Blog. 28 April 2014. Accessed: 14 October 2017. 

  14. How to beat school stress from the top down.” Headspace. Accessed: 14 October 2017. 

  15. Mindfulness Activities for Children And Teens: 25 Fun Exercises For Kids.” Positive Psychology Program. 03 February 2017. Accessed: 14 October 2017. 

  16. Using Guided Imagery to Reduce Pain and Anxiety.” Home Healthcare Nurse. September 2000. Accessed: 14 October 2017.