Mindful Classrooms

Building attentional skills and focusing abilities at school

Posted Sep 19, 2019

Mindfulness is a powerful tool which supports children in calming themselves, focusing their attention, and interacting effectively with others, all critical skills for functioning well in school and life 
- Amy Saltzman, MD

Imagine a classroom full of kindergartners coming back from recess. Instead of being rowdy they listen as they are directed to sit and have today’s “mindful leader” come to the front of the room. This leader than leads the whole class in an exercise where each child says, “I am calm now” and then touches one of their finger’s. They do this five times, completing a whole hand and becoming quiet instead of louder. The feeling of calmness descends upon the room. Magic? Not really, but practice and effort? Absolutely. This was a real scenario, which happened in Liz Slade’s class in Larchmont, New York at Chatsworth Elementary School, according to mindful.org.

Bringing mindfulness into the classroom has the power to help children regulate their emotions better and find the calmness that is needed to make smarter choices, choices that have consequences, like whether to cheat on an exam or speak up about the bullying happening on the playground. Of course, mindfulness cannot solve every problem, but it does help children become more self-aware and often more compassionate too.

While mindfulness in the classroom is a big win from my perspective, not everyone sees it the same way. One group of parents was so opposed to mindfulness in their Ohio school they had the program shut down basically because mindfulness—originally—was rooted in eastern wisdom or religions from the East. But today’s mindfulness in the classroom has nothing to do with religion; it’s merely giving children the tools to self-regulate.

Complementing mindfulness in the classroom is the formal study of social and emotional learning (SEL). Many schools have to pick either a mindfulness or SEL program, but honestly one comes before the other. Said simply: Mindfulness teaches children how to pay attention, which is necessary for SEL ideas, tools and practices to work. An SEL program without an element of mindfulness is like tea without water; it just doesn’t work.

While they both have similar goals to help children self-regulate and increase their attentional capabilities, they also have different approaches in doing so. I perceive SEL to be more intellectual and from a cognitive angle (outside in) while mindfulness is more experiential (inside out). Again, they’re both helpful and complementary approaches, but mindfulness comes first and SEL comes second in an ideal educational world.