The students in our college and universities classroom right now are more anxious and distracted than ever (Clabaugh et al., 2021). According to organizations such as the American Institute of Stress and American Psychological Association, rising stress and anxiety rates among higher education students are due to increased academic pressures, social media influence, less sleep, and concern over societal threats (e.g., mass violence, climate change); additionally, more students may be reporting mental health challenges because of decreased stigma around the subject. Students also appear more distracted than ever due to technological devices, namely cell phones. For example, McCoy (2016) found that college students check their cell phones on average for non-class related information at least 11 times during a typical school day (a number I suspect might be higher these days).
In light of this “new” generation of stressed-out, distracted students, the reality is professors need to expand their pedagogical toolbox to include strategies to help students to focus so they can learn content and calm the amygdala, the part of the brain associated with the fight-flight-freeze response. While these skills are incredibly important to higher education teaching, it’s not enough to be able to craft engaging lessons, weave technology into instruction and assessment, and hold interesting class discussions. So what tool can faculty use to ease anxiety without taking up too much instructional time?
One strategy is to implement brief meditation at the start of class. There is a growing body of evidence suggesting meditation can reduce stress and anxiety and decrease mental challenges, such as depression (see American Psychological Association, 2019). Colleagues have had positive experiences with introducing short (two- to three-minute) meditation practices with students before starting instruction, as have I (Haberlin, 2022). The following are several tips and a condensed protocol from my forthcoming book that can guide you in bringing meditation into your classroom.
Tip 1: Establish your own meditation practice
To facilitate meditation from a place of authenticity and firsthand experience, begin your own practice. It can be as simple as waking in the morning, sitting quietly and witnessing your breath, or silently repeating a mantra. Seek out a meditation class or meditation teacher or begin by trying a guided YouTube meditation by a respected teacher, such as mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn, Sharon Salzberg, Miles Neale, or Pema Chodron.
Tip 2: Get a meditation bowl
A meditation bowl is a small, metal bowl that makes a pleasant sound when gently struck with a wooden mallet. The bowl works as a good prop to introduce meditation to your students. You can find a relatively inexpensive one on Amazon or other online shopping sites. A cheap alternative could be to use an app such as Insight Timer, which lets you play the sound of a virtual meditation bowl.
Tip 3: Tailor meditation to your students
When introducing meditation, know your students. Do they seem overwhelmed and stressed out? If so, you can discuss the psychological benefits of meditation. If you teach science majors or neuroscience buffs, then share information about studies, such as one by Sara Lazar and colleagues (2005) in which the regular practice of meditation created structural changes in the brain. If you teach student-athletes, mention how professional players have turned to meditation to get in the zone.
Tip 4: Make meditation practice voluntary
Invite students to join you in the meditation and make it clear that the activity is voluntary. Some students might not want to practice due to their beliefs. Preface the meditation activity as a quiet reflection time, inviting students to join you in a brief, guided meditation. Provide other options—such as reflection, journaling, and drawing—that do not make noise but may also help students transition to learning.
Once you have satisfied the above prerequisites, you can use this condensed, field-tested protocol to get started:
- Say: “I’d like to invite you to put away your technology for a minute. Let’s give the mind a brief rest by giving our phones and laptops a rest.”
- Say: “This is a meditation bowl. It produces a pleasant vibration, which can help focus and soothe the mind and body. I’m going to ring the bowl, and I’d like you to simply listen to the sound as it drops off. You can also listen to ‘what remains’ after the sound of the bowl fades.”
- Say: “It may help to sit upright. Plant your feet on the floor. Let your hands rest easily in your lap. If you are comfortable, it may help to close your eyes or softly cast them downward.”
- Ring the bowl.
- Wait about 30 seconds to a minute after the sound of the bowl fades away. Then, instruct students to gradually come out of the meditation by slowly opening their eyes, blinking if that helps. They can stretch their bodies.
- Say: “Now, I am going to ring the bowl one more time. This time, after the sound dissipates, gently bring your awareness to how your breath enters and exits your nostrils. Don’t try to control or change the breath, just witness it in its natural state. If you become distracted by outside noise or have thoughts, don’t resist; just easily bring your attention back to the breath.”
- Ring the bowl. Allow students to observe their breath for a few minutes.
- Say “I’m going to ring the bowl again. When I do, don’t be alarmed or jump out of meditation. Just gradually stop focusing on your breath and slowly open your eyes.”
If time permits, you can encourage students to share their meditation experiences with the class or each other, but this is not necessary. Meditation can be a very deeply personal experience, and some may not want to share. For this reason, you might ask students to privately journal their experiences. Another idea: have students mentally gauge their stress levels and tension prior to the meditation—for instance, by having students mentally rate their anxiety levels (1–10, with 10 being completely overwhelmed or triggered) and their bodies’ physical tension levels (1–10). If time allows, you can have students revisit those numbers after the mediation to see whether any changes occurred.
American Psychological Association. (2019, October 30). Mindfulness meditation: A research-proven way to reduce stress. https://www.apa.org/topics/mindfulness/meditation
Clabaugh, A., Duque, J. F., & Fields, L. J. (2021). Academic stress and emotional well-being in United States college students following onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Frontiers in Psychology, 12, Article 628787. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.628787
Haberlin, S. (2022). A serene segue: Examining college student’s perceptions of starting classes with micro-meditations. College Teaching, 70(4), 509–517. https://doi.org/10.1080/87567555.2021.1987181
Haberlin, S. (2023). Meditation in the college classroom: A pedagogical tool to help students de-stress, focus, and connect. Rowman & Littlefield.
Lazar, S. W., Kerr, C. E., Wasserman, R. H., Gray, J. R., Greve, D. N., Treadway, M. T., McGarvey, M., Quinn, B. T., Dusek, J. A., Benson, H., Rauch, S. L., Moore, C. I. & Fischl, B. (2005). Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. NeuroReport, 16(17), 1893–1897. https://doi.org/10.1097/01.wnr.0000186598.66243.19
McCoy, B. R. (2016, January). Digital distractions in the classroom phase II: Student classroom use of digital devices for non-class related purposes. Journal of Media Education, 7(1), 5–32. https://en.calameo.com/journal-of-media-education/read/00009178915b8f5b352ba
Steve Haberlin, PhD, is an assistant professor of education at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. He is the author of Meditation in the College Classroom: A Pedagogical Tool to Help Students De-Stress, Focus, and Connect (Rowman & Littlefield). Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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