Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Welcoming the School Year with Mindfulness

Last week we began the new school year. There is something wonderful about starting new and opening our minds to growth, knowledge, and learning!

There's nothing I enjoy more than learning something new (whether it's new research related to social-emotional learning or a skill, a tool, a resource) and having the opportunity to share it with colleagues, families, and the students I work with.

Over the summer, I decided to learn more about mindfulness and begin a mindfulness practice in my own life. Self-care is such an important part of daily life for counselors (and everyone!) but can easily be neglected and pushed aside when obligations to work, school, community, and family take priority.

What is Mindfulness?
 Mindfulness is intentionally bringing awareness to one's experience or present state of being with gentle observation and without judgement.

Mindfulness can be described as a state, a trait, or a practice (Mindful Schools, 2015). We can have a moment of mindfulness, we can carry out mindful practices, or we can engage in mindfulness on a regular basis. Formal mindful practice utilizes different activities to practice awareness: mindful walking, mindful actions/interactions, mindful eating, or seated mindfulness (Mindful Schools, 2015).

When you’re being mindful, you pay attention to what is going on inside of you, noticing:
  • thoughts
  • feelings
  • sensations
  • impulses
You also pay attention to what’s going on outside of you, noticing what you:
  • see
  • hear
  • smell
  • feel 
Adapted from: Marielle Berg, MFT
How Does Mindfulness Work?
Mindfulness changes the brain! Studies show that regular mindfulness practice is associated with shrinking in the brain's stress response center (the amygdala). As this area decreases in volume, the frontal cortex which is responsible for higher order brain functions such as awareness, concentration, and decision-making actually becomes thicker! (Scientific American, 2014).

In addition, the connectivity between these regions of the brain undergoes changes. The connections between areas of the brain associated with attention and concentration get stronger, while the connections between the "stress response" center and the rest of the brain get weaker. What this means for the individual practicing mindfulness is that they are less likely to respond in a reactive, emotional manner and more likely respond with empathy and thoughtfulness.

Why is Mindfulness Important?
The scientific research behind mindfulness is growing each day. Studies show that mindfulness can be a powerful tool for dealing with anxiety, increasing focus, and improving mood (Mindful Schools, 2015). Studies with K-12 grade students demonstrate improvements in working memory, academic skills, social skills, emotional regulation, and self-esteem, as well as self-reported decreases in stress and fatigue (Srinivasan, 2014).

Mindfulness training can also benefit students by increasing sense of well-being in teachers and contributing positively to classroom management and relationships with students (Srinivasan, 2014). Teachers trained in mindfulness techniques also showed lower blood pressure, less symptoms of depression and negative emotions, as well as greater compassion and empathy (Greater Good UC Berekeley, 2015).

Mindfulness practices are also good for parents! Studies show mindfulness may reduce anxiety, stress, and depression in expectant parents. In addition, parents who practiced mindfulness reported being happier with their relationship with their children, felt more satisfaction with their parenting, and in turn, their children demonstrated more advanced social skills (Greater Good UC Berekeley, 2015).

How Does Mindfulness Benefit Children?
Mindfulness benefits children in that it provides them the tools they need to regulate their emotions, focus better, and be more successful in their relationships with others. However, research also shows that mindfulness can help children perform better in school and make academic gains (TIME, 2015).

Researchers provided four months of mindfulness training to one group of 4th and 5th grade students in British Columbia, while a second group of 4th and 5th grade students received standard "social responsibility" education.

During those four months, students in the mindfulness group participated in sensory exercises like mindful smelling and mindful eating, as well as exercises which asked them to view an issue from another's perspective. In addition, students did a three-minute mindfulness exercise three times a day that focused on breathing.

After a number of in-depth measures, researchers found that students in the mindfulness group had 15% better math scores, showed 24% more social behaviors, were 24% less aggressive and perceived themselves as 20% more prosocial. The mindfulness group also performed better in areas of cognitive control, stress levels, emotional control, levels of optimism, empathy, and aggression (TIME, 2015).

In the clip below, Susan Kaiser Greenland (author of "The Mindful Child") demonstrates using mindfulness awareness with young children in a classroom.  Even the youngest children can learn mindfulness: learning to be aware of their bodies, their thoughts and feelings, understanding the feelings of those around them, and techniques like breathing to handle those big feelings in a safe and healthy way.


In this other video, children from a school in Ireland share their experience practicing mindfulness and what it means to them. What I really appreciate about mindfulness is that there is a huge emphasis on kindness (to self and others) and gratitude. Practicing acts of kindness and taking time each day to reflect on things you are grateful for are examples of ways to practice mindfulness!

Older children and teens can utilize mindfulness as a tool to help them handle stress, navigate relationships and social situations, relieve test anxiety, and experience more happiness in their lives. In this video clip from Mindfulness for Teens, adolescents share how practicing mindfulness helped them to slow down and enjoy the present moment. 

Mindfulness Resources
There are many great mindfulness resources out there for children and adults. Some of my favorite books, videos, and websites are listed below. 

Be kind to yourself and others. Stay Mindful! 

Greater Good
University of California, Berkeley
Information, articles, and videos about mindfulness, as well as the latest scientific research. 

Susan Kaiser Greenland
Author of "The Mindful Child"


Mindfulness for Teens 
11 free guided mindfulness exercises, mindful breathing, blog and videos

Dr. Daniel Siegel
Author of "The Mindful Brain"


Mindful Schools
Offers mindfulness courses and certification, resources and videos for parents and educators, and free mindfulness exercises.


Healthy Habits of Mind Documentary (Free) 42 minutes


Still Like a Frog by Eline Snel
Mindfulness Exercises for Kids and their Parents
Interview with the Author


Anneka Harris
Author of "I Wonder"
Free Mindfulness Exercises for Children