Update: Mindfulness Exercises in the Classroom : Brain Bites

Update: Mindfulness Exercises in the Classroom

by Janet Zadina on 03/22/23

If you have followed my work or looked at my blogs, you know that I am a big supporter of using mindfulness in the classroom. Schools from pre-K through medical school all over the country have found success with using this practice. I would like to give you an update and go over a couple of pointers in case you are thinking of trying it or having some questions about your current practice with it.

There are two reasons why meditation might be used in the classroom. One is to calm down the fight/flight/freeze reaction because we know there is a mental health crisis among everyone and that includes our students. We want to reduce the anxiety from that and also perhaps test anxiety or other forms. Another reason that you can read more about in my blogs is that it helps rest and strengthen the frontal lobes which are important for higher order thinking. Those executive functions are critical to success.

In this article, let’s focus on the anxiety that students are experiencing. A new study shows that breathing and body exercises were just as helpful in reducing anxiety as medication. That’s powerful! This study published in a major journal (JAMA Psychiatry) followed people for 8 weeks. Half of the participants participated in a mindfulness based intervention. These volunteers were matched with a group that was prescribed a common anti-anxiety medication called Lexapro. in both groups the average anxiety score after the intervention dropped from moderate to mild. This means that the mindfulness was as effective as the medication period That's powerful!

Now we are not going to tell people to get off their medication. That is between them and their medical practitioner. This is just to say that what you can do and what you can teach your students can greatly help them to reduce their anxiety.

However, let's make a caveat here. Mindfulness does not work for everyone. There are some people for whom this can increase their anxiety because it causes them to think about it or to pay attention to their body and they may stress about their anxiety reactions. This is why we tell students that obviously during the one-minute meditation they can think about whatever they want if it makes them feel uncomfortable in any way. They can let their mind to think about something else and don't worry about it. For those people meditation that involves the body and calms the brain down via the body is where they can start. That is for another blog and is the basis for a new talk I will be giving in the UK this summer and then it will be available. I will let you know that through the next newsletter through a future newsletter.

Most mindful practices, especially those we use in the classroom, are breath awareness. We do not even need to use the word meditation. We can talk about reducing our stress, focusing our attention, or getting our frontal lobes online by focusing on our breathing for one minute.

I teach the easy exercise called “breathe in, breathe out. “As they breathe in, they think the words “breathe in”. As they breathe out ,they think the words breathe out and they just try to stay focused on those words as they are breathing. However, we tell them do not worry when your mind wanders. Every time you bring your mind back to the words, it is like lifting hand weights in the gym for your frontal lobes. You are strengthening them and you are strengthening your attention mechanism in the brain.

Another exercise used in the study was a body scan which involves paying attention to what parts of your body are feeling stressed. You may be familiar with the relaxation response activity that has been around for many years and it was not called meditation. It is like that.

The third activity they used was mindful movement, in which they moved parts of their body and noticed how the movement feels. I don't think this is easily suitable for the classroom. But this does touch on what I mentioned about using the body. If you go to the Coping with Covid  on this site, you will see some movement videos at the bottom of the page. Some of these you can do in the classroom and some of these you can do for yourself. These movement activities use the body to send a message back to the brain to relax. These interventions, such as yoga and Tai Chi, are also well documented in the literature for reducing stress.

You have heard me talk about rewiring the brain in my recent presentations. A researcher at Harvard Medical School, Sara Lazar, says that practicing mindfulness can rewire the brain. Anxiety can be a habit and where our brain goes when it is in the default mode, so by consciously taking control and being mindful of something else it can help to break that habit and to rewire the brain.

Mindfulness practices also work for long term stress reduction because they reduce activity in the amygdala where fear and anger and stress are processed so we are less likely to react with a fight/flight/freeze reaction. If you do a one-minute meditation every day in your classroom, don't expect to see immediate results right away. 

I think one thing you will see right away is that students really appreciate that quiet moment, if for no other reason than to just calm down and get control and prepare for the class. It is a little oasis. Be sure to check in with your students after a couple of weeks of this and again at midterm and toward the end of the semester and ask them if it has had any effect. Then they will notice and you will discover that it has made a difference after it has been done for a period of time.

Try it and see if it works for you. Fire and wire pathways of stress reduction!

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