- Various Articles - General considerations
- Mindfulness Practice to Enhance Well-Being and Learning
Mindfulness Practice to Enhance Well-Being and Learning
Dr. Monica Mulholland is a teacher educator specialized in the field of language teaching through creativity and educational mindfulness. She has been in the classroom for more than thirty years. Born in Argentina and located in the United States since 2002, she teaches both English and Spanish mostly in post-secondary settings, and she is also a curriculum development specialist. Dr. Mulholland holds a Ph.D. in Spanish Literature, a Master’s degree in Foreign Languages, and a Graduate Certificate in TESOL. Website: https://transformations.today/ Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Can you carve 5 minutes out of your class time to invite your students to sit still as they focus on their breath? Most educators in today’s hectic world would most likely say they can’t, but giving this practice a chance often results in a transformative classroom experience worth trying. The information gathered from hundreds of schools in the United States shows that this approach known as educational mindfulness has a positive impact on all the members of the school community (Mindful Schools). According to Siegel (2007), attending to the richness of our here-and-now experiences creates scientifically recognized enhancements in our physiology, our mental functions, and our interpersonal relationships. Within this framework, the purpose of this essay is to provide an overview of the field of mindfulness by focusing on its definition and origin, and by describing an example of its application in a college-level Intensive English Program in the United States.
What mindfulness means
Mindfulness can be defined as a state, a trait or a practice. We can have a moment of mindfulness (state), and we can also have a general ‘set-point’ of mindfulness (trait). Additionally, we can do intentional formal practice of mindfulness using different postures and activities such as relaxation/meditation, mindful walking, and mindful eating. During formal practice, mindfulness is said to be simple but not easy. It is simple in that the only thing it requires from us is to be attentive. In relaxation/meditation, for instance, we are encouraged to set aside some time of our day to intentionally focus awareness on the present moment. This can become complex because, as soon as we set out on this endeavor, we realize that our mind starts to wander into the past and into the future. This is completely natural and, therefore, to be expected as our brain is wired to do exactly that. However, by gently bringing our thoughts back to the here and now over and over again, we give our mind a much-needed break that frequently results in feeling vibrant, alive, and at peace. The cultivation of this practice enhances reflection and compassion towards ourselves and others because mindfulness means being aware, being conscientious, with kindness and love.
The origins of mindfulness
Mindfulness has attracted a lot of buzz worldwide in the last several years. Nevertheless, it is not a new fad. Although it is usually associated with Buddhism, Siegel (2007) wisely points out that direct experience in the present moment is a fundamental part of Christian, Hindu, Islamic, Jewish, and Taoist teaching. Therefore, mindful awareness has a long tradition in the history of religion and contemplative practices. However, educational mindfulness is a completely secular endeavor.
In the 1970’s, Jon Kabat-Zinn, a molecular biologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, developed a mindfulness-based stress reduction program (MBSR) for adults with certain clinical conditions. The program consists of an eight-week course that teaches participants how to regulate pain, anxiety, and other health conditions. Almost five decades of research have led Kabat-Zinn (2012) to conclude that the practice of mindfulness holds the possibility of not just a fleeting sense of contentment, but a true embracing of a deeper awareness that envelops and permeates our lives and that helps us to cope with stress whenever we need it.
English language learners experience mindfulness
Like in many other countries, English language learners in the United States often face multiple challenges that compromise their ability to build resilience (the capacity to overcome difficulties). Fortunately, mindfulness practice can be instrumental in this scenario.
In order to test this assumption, the author offered a college-level mindfulness-based English course at an Intensive English Program in the Washington D.C. area in the fall of 2017. This experimentation took place during eight weeks, and it complemented regular language instruction. The focus was on mindfulness and brain-friendly strategies for well-being and improved learning. Each lesson, better described as a self-contained workshop, started with a 5 to 10-minute guided relaxation activity followed by different exercises that helped the students raise awareness of their states of mind. Several strategies were used to guide the participants to develop resilience and focus and to regulate stress and frustration whenever needed. Some examples include:
- Deep breathing
- The mindful pause: take a moment between the stimulus and the response
- The glitter jar: look at a jar full of water and glitter to allow your thoughts to settle
- Mindful movements: use your body in Tai Chi-type (slow and fluid) movements to center yourself and relax
- Mindful walking: as you walk, be aware of yourself and the environment around you
- Mindful eating: as you eat, be aware of yourself, the food, and the environment around you
- Journal writing: reflect on the experiences and on your own development throughout the course
Upon the completion of the course, the participating students shared reflections like these:
At the end of the journey, I feel reenergized and with positive thoughts. In fact, my childhood dreams have come back to my busy mind. The young kid who spent all his early life dreaming is now playing in front of my eyes. As a result, I am thinking about taking a sabbatical to embrace my dreams. This mindfulness journey is the break I should have taken long before (Wael).
After this course, I feel thankful for the opportunity to learn, and I feel passionate about learning more. This course has inspired me to try new, relaxing ways of learning and experiencing new knowledge (Sultan).
I really liked this class because it taught me how to be alert and focused. My classmates were very friendly; we shared our feelings, opened our hearts to each other, and released anxiety by letting off the steam. The relaxation part was the most exciting part to me because we learned how to calm our mind and keep a clear head. Mindfulness is a very interesting subject that everyone should be aware of in order to be content and focused (Majed).
A 5-minute guided meditation
Guided meditation exercises can vary in terms of allotted time and the specific task the participants are invited to do. The following description prompts the posture that most likely enables the student to focus on their breath for 5 minutes. The script reads like this:
Let your chair support you; allow your eyes to close; take a deep breath through your nose and gradually let the air out through your nose; make sure your feet press firmly on the ground and your back is straight but comfortable; your arms can relax alongside the body or with hands resting easily in your lap. In this position, you are going to spend five minutes paying attention to your breath as it goes in and out of your body. When your mind wanders, gently bring it back to your breath. Finally, when you hear three chimes, allow your eyes to open slowly.
For more detailed guided meditation exercises, see Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness for Beginners (2012), and Snel’s Sitting Still Like a Frog (2013).
In today’s classrooms, it is not uncommon to encounter students who struggle with emotional challenges such as apathy, anxiety, and depression, which often result in school drop-outs or in even more serious outcomes. By introducing tools that promote well-being, teachers can make an enormous contribution that reaches far beyond the subject matter they teach. In a nutshell, mindfulness is a practice that develops self-awareness and awareness of those around us through the power of observation. Just like physical exercise, mindfulness builds strength, flexibility and endurance, all of which are necessary to face life’s challenges, whether they are academic or otherwise. Mindfulness can be a gift we humbly offer our students and it has the potential to touch their lives in powerful ways forever.
References and Additional Resources
Compassionate Schools Project (CPS): Jefferson County Public Schools (Louisville, KY) and UVA: 50 schools and 20,000 children over the project’s six years.
Fredrickson, B. L. (2000). Cultivating Positive Emotions to Optimize Health and Well-Being. Prevention and Treatment, 3.
Harrison, Paul. The Mindfulness Movie: How You See Can Change Your Life. Fargo, ND: Media Productions, 2013. DVD.
Jennings, P. (2015). Mindfulness for Teachers. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.
Jensen, E. (2005). Teaching with the Brain in Mind. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990, 2013) Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. NY, NY: Batam Books.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2012). Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the Present Moment, and Your Life. Boulder, Colorado: Sounds True.
Lee, I. Power Brain Kids (2007). Sedona, Arizona: Healing Society.
Mindful Schools: https://www.mindfulschools.org/
Pavitt, N. (2016). Brainhack: Tips and Tricks to Unleash Your Brain's Full Potential. West Sussex, UK: Wiley.
Pete Docter, and Ronnie Del Carmen (2015). Inside Out (motion picture). USA: Pixar.
Siegel, D. (2007). The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being. New York, New York: W.W. Norton.
Snel, E. (2013). Sitting Still Like a Frog: Mindfulness Exercises for Kids (and Their Parents). Boulder, Colorado: Shambhala.
Stewart, W. (2016). Mindful Kids: 50 Mindfulness Activities for Kindness, Focus and Calm. Germantown, Maryland: Barefoot Books.
Please check the Wellbeing for Teachers course at Pilgrims website.
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