Bringing Mindfulness to the Mainstream

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Hello Fellow Parents & Educators,

It feels like the month of September just disappears every school year. As an educator (and parent), September is chock full of getting to know students, orientations, the creation of new teaching tools and strategies, and the list goes on. All exciting activities, but these times can be overwhelming not only for teachers but for the most important people; our students (and kids). This is why it is at this time of year that I like to turn to Dr. Patricia Broderick’s Learning to Breathe classroom resource. This mindfulness curriculum, aimed at cultivating emotional regulation, attention, and performance, is an amazing and powerful tool to help students negotiate stress in a more positive and productive way.

Recently, educators and researchers have become concerned about the stress that students feel about trying not to be stressed and the negative implications these thought processes can have on the developing brain. Is there anything more stressful than actively trying not to be stressed? Yeesh, the sentence alone stresses me out! Dr. Lisa Damour recently published an article in The New York Times entitled How to Help Teenagers Embrace Stress, the operative word here being ‘embrace.’ Testing limits and navigating outside of one’s comfort zone can feel very uncomfortable for a young person, but this is paramount to growing and learning about oneself; it truly cannot happen any other way.

I often tell my students this, but I like to preface that at Lakefield College School, we give them many opportunities to ‘fail well’ and push outside of their comfort zones in a low-stakes (and fun) environment. In other words, feel this discomfort now and learn how to ‘ride the waves’ so that when you go into the world these feelings (formerly referred to as stress) become known as excitement, joie de vivre, and seizing one’s day. With this perspective, stress is no longer the enemy, but rather, an emotion we are welcome to embrace and cultivate to achieve great things.

I don’t believe we can just tell young people to ‘suck it up’ and learn how to have a positive view of stress all on their own. It requires a shift in thinking and perception that isn’t aligned with current socially ingrained ideas about stress. This requires practice and a refocus of the thought processes of our students (and ourselves). Enter Dr. Broderick’s mindfulness program. This book takes students through the BREATHE program that focuses on body, reflections, emotions, attention, tenderness, and habits. I like to focus on two exercises with my students for this particular purpose, the first being the ‘Great Cover Up.’ This lesson illustrates how people tend to avoid unpleasant or uncomfortable feelings and then asks them to consider behaviors they might use to block out or avoid stress.

I like to follow up with the ‘Surfing the Waves’ lesson that engages students in a mindfulness practice that pushes them into one of these uncomfortable moments (ie. they get bored). They are then asked to pay attention to the feelings that rise and fall, and ultimately guide them to understanding that they can observe the energy of these feelings without acting on them. This is so powerful and it is my hope that they use this practice when the real moments of discomfort arise, say during exam time, a big volleyball game, or a solo performance in front of the school.

This book is easy to use with detailed instructions. Include a mindfulness chime at the beginning and end of activities and you have yourself a class that students will love and appreciate (and the chime makes you look like a real mindfulness guru, even if you’re not that … like me). I divulge this latter point because you do not need to be an expert to deliver mindfulness in your classroom and I truly think it is something that all of our students need to be happy and prosperous during busy (not stressful) times. For me, it is a moment where I can actualize my goal of helping students locate embodied experiences while also disconnecting from technology. I love it.

Dr. Damour reminds us that the human stress response, in and of itself, can actually “put the brain and body in an optimal position to perform” (New York Times, September 2018). We often forget this point and give stress a bad rep for causing lifelong long health problems, when, in fact, the daily stressor of one’s life, if approached properly, can actually help us perform better. I will use my own experience as an example.

I have to admit; after 11 years of teaching at the high school and university level, I STILL get nervous when I teach my classes and give academic talks. Yep, my heart rate increases slightly when I greet my students at the door and I know that they are in my care for the next 75 minutes and that I have the special privilege to teach them something. In the past, this stress has been something I have wanted to change, as the negative societal views on stress would tell me to get it together and relax, for the sake of my health. But, the thing is, this nervousness actually makes me a better educator, and it also tells me that I am doing work that is important to me. I care, and because I care I put myself in situations that make me uncomfortable (ie. teaching new classes, revamping old ones, speaking to other academics) and I am more resilient for it. I want these same experiences for my students. The first step to actualizing this goal is convincing them that they can ride the waves of everyday stress, become resilient and achieve things they never could have imagined.

Thanks for reading and below is the bibliographic information for Learning to Breathe. 

Broderick, P. (2013). Learning to Breathe: A Mindfulness Curriculum for Adolescents to Cultivate Emotion Regulation, Attention and Performance. New Harbinger Publications. Oakland, CA.

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