As educators, we usually start right into our teaching at the beginning of class, assuming that students are ready to learn. But when my students arrive in class, they are more often than not extremely stressed out. They might have had to rush to class to be on time, have had login issues, be worried about the assignment they haven’t completed or need to complete, be stressed about an event or person in their private life—the list can go on.
The learner’s emotional state has a major effect on their learning, and a little time invested in ensuring that students are prepared to learn will greatly enhance the outcomes of our teaching (Flook et al., 2010). By acknowledging their stress and worry at the start of class, I often see a look of relief wash over their faces. Then they have a moment before engaging in intellectual work, to pause, collect themselves, tune in to their bodies and how they are feeling, and simply breathe. Often, I can feel the emotional climate in the room become less tense. It’s as if the entire class is letting out one collective, giant sigh. After taking some time to literally just focus on breathing or pausing one’s activity, students seem emotionally ready to learn. While it is ideal to close the class on a mindful moment to send them off to their next activity in a calm manner, I don’t always have the time. In this article, I will explain two brief research-based, mindful breathing activities that I implement to help de-stress and calm students.
In an online teaching environment, I have implemented a mindful moment successfully and have found that students have naturally started using mindful moments well beyond the classes I teach. Students have discussed using them before starting exams in their other classes, before having to give oral presentations, and before entering many other stressful situations that might not be in a classroom (e.g., large group social settings or professional meetings or conferences). In short, students have discussed how they have used mindfulness breathing activities whenever and wherever they feel stressed. They have taught family members, friends, and roommates these social-emotional skills too.
Before actually implementing mindful breathing activities in my classes, I let the students know what to expect. Here is a brief checklist concerning preparation.
One you have prepared the students for what to expect, you will be ready to implement the mindful breathing activity. Because you have practiced mindful breathing on your own, you will experience various sensations, feelings, and other somatic events that you can share with your students. While it is possible to teach mindful breathing to students without having tried the technique itself, this is ineffective and could be problematic. It is crucial that teachers understand and feel the effects of various breathing techniques on their own bodies, so they can effectively instruct students and prepare them for the various responses they might have to various kinds of breathing activities.
Once the mindful breathing activity is finished, I conduct a quick debriefing or reflection session for the first two or three times I implement the practice with students. I want to get their feedback and comments, make sure everyone is okay, and answer any questions. After a few weeks of class, I do not conduct these reflection sessions (due to time constraints), but I might solicit feedback in another manner, such as in an exit slip at the end of class.
When first introducing mindful breathing to a class of students, it will take more than a minute, but as we all become more comfortable with what to expect and do, it takes literally only a minute or two. Depending on how the class feels or what is happening, I might adjust the practice. For example, if the students are about to take an exam, I might have a longer mindful moment. If the class session is a regular one, the mindful moment might last only a minute or less. The beauty of the practice is that it is adjustable.
In the eight years that I have been implementing this technique, students have received it overwhelmingly well. Teaching students how to be aware of their bodies and how their bodies and breathing react to stress and anxiety as well as to know how they can respond in an effective and healthy way to various stressors is a solid first step in developing their social-emotional competency and improving their lives.
Flook, L., Smalley, S. L., Kitil, M. J., Galla, B. M., Kaiser-Greenland, S., Locke, J., Ishijima, E., & Kasari, C. (2010). Effects of mindful awareness practices on the executive functions in elementary school children. Journal of Applied School Psychology, 26(1), 70–95. https://doi.org/10.1080/15377900903379125
Siegel, D. (2015). Brainstorm: The power and purpose of the teenage brain. Tarcher Perigree Publishing.
Penelope Wong, EdD, is an associate professor of education studies at Berea College.