Mindfulness practice is a set of skills that are foundational to many aspects of social-emotional learning (SEL). In its simplest form, mindfulness is a sincere commitment to becoming present in the moment and fully aware of what’s going on both externally and internally. This involves developing self-regulation and self-awareness and striving for a mindset of curiosity, empathy and gratitude.
Adding some of these mindfulness activities to your curriculum, along with other social-emotional learning activities, will help your students build a growth mindset, act with intention in all aspects of their lives and find healthy ways to cope with the stresses of everyday life. These skills are becoming even more important to teach early as new technologies encourage a societal mindset of distraction and passive consumption.
An ideal introduction to mindfulness is showing students how to be mindful of the actions of their autonomous nervous system—the structure responsible for all the automatic actions our bodies are constantly doing to keep us alive.
Start with the heart: have students stand up at their desks and hop in place for 15-30 seconds, then have them sit down and put one hand over their heart. Ask them to sit quietly and focus on the beating of their hearts, the way it slows from active to resting.
Have them visualize their hearts pumping blood through their bodies to carry fresh oxygen to their organs. After a few minutes of sitting and focusing on their heartbeats, ask if they have any thoughts on this exercise.
Focus on Breathing
Another good introduction to mindfulness is to have students focus on their breath. Ask students to sit quietly with their eyes closed and pay attention to their breath as they inhale and exhale. This can be done as an introduction to a guided meditation session or on its own with calming music or silence for 5-15 minutes.
The challenge of this activity is to focus on breathing without becoming distracted by conscious thoughts. This doesn’t mean to stop thinking because that just invites more thoughts; instead, it means acknowledging thoughts as they arise and then releasing them rather than turning focus to them.
It’s easier for most people to do this by counting their breaths and starting the count over every time they get distracted by unrelated thoughts. Having to start the count over multiple times is normal and shouldn’t be cause for disappointment. The more students practice, the more they’re improving their ability to intentionally focus on whatever they choose instead of being led by random impulses.
Tense and Relax Muscle Activity
This activity is a good way for students to work out any tension they’ve developed from sitting at their desks during the day. Ask students first to tense their toes and feet as tight as possible, then release.
Repeat the instruction working up the body: calves, upper legs, hips and lower back, upper back and chest, neck, shoulders, upper arms, forearms, wrists and hands. Once students have completed the whole sequence, the room should feel significantly more relaxed and ready to move on to the next lesson.
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Body scan meditation is the process of progressively focusing on different areas of the body as a method for discovering unnoticed muscle tension, discomfort and other signs of anything being different than normal.
Often the body will be dealing with stressors we’re not even consciously aware of. Looking for indications of unconscious stressors gives your students the agency to work out what those stressors are and lessen them. Many physical stressors can be reduced by improving posture when indulging in screen time.
It’s worth noting that students should pay attention to positives as well: if a student threw a ball really far during recess and their arms feel strong, that’s something they can acknowledge during their body scan.
We recommend using this body scan meditation script from Mindfulness Exercises. You can also adapt your own or find a recording of a similar exercise online to play for your class to follow.
Mindful awareness of the entire body while taking slow, calculated steps is called walking meditation. This can be done indoors (in the classroom, gym space or hallways) or outdoors (on the playground or another location during a field trip) and can take up any amount of time you need to fill.
Students should start with slow, deliberate breathing. Next, they need to slowly lift up one foot and focus on every muscle in their leg that needs to be used to do so. They focus on the muscles in the leading foot as they place the foot on the ground in front of them and then begin lifting their lagging foot.
Students continue taking slow, deliberate steps and slow breaths while they focus their awareness on the actions they’re taking in every moment. After you finish this activity, lead a discussion with your students about how it feels to walk slowly and intentionally compared to the automatic and unconscious way they usually walk.
Like walking meditation, drawing meditation involves drawing slowly and deliberately while focusing on the feeling of drawing. This can be done digitally on a tablet or by using paper and a pen. The drawing should be guided by something students can feel connected to, like their breath or instrumental music you play in the classroom for this activity.
As students listen to the music or their breath, they should slowly draw a line to represent their music experience or their breathing. While drawing, they should focus entirely on the section of the line they’re drawing presently in the moment, not the larger overall pattern or structure. This means their art will probably be very abstract, which is the point.
Seeing all the different ways students respond to the same prompt can make a compelling collection of perspectives. A fun way to display that collection is by publishing it using one of our free classbook publishing kits! Simply combine your students’ art and writing into a themed classbook and create an entire classroom full of published authors at the same time.
Try at Home: Mindful Meal
This might just be the easiest homework assignment your students will ever have! All they have to do is choose one meal or snack over the weekend and eat mindfully. Make sure students know they don’t have to be fully silent or do anything specific except focus on the food they’re eating, eat slowly and pay attention to how they feel while eating it.
Whether you use this “homework” as the basis for a writing assignment or a classroom discussion, encourage your students to remember as many details as possible. One of the side benefits of mindfulness practice is an increase in recall for information that was taken in with a mindful approach as opposed to information that’s received more passively.
Using positive affirmations while meditating, during self-reflection or in a more general way in everyday life helps students cultivate a rich compost of positivity to surround themselves with and makes it hard for negativity to bloom. Your students can choose inspirational quotes or song lyrics or make up their own personal mantra.
Use positive affirmations as part of an overall strategy to increase mindfulness work by the power of simple repetition. Whether overt or subtle, any statement repeated enough times will give the impression of being so common that it must be internalized as fact. Rather than passively internalizing any message being repeated to them, students can be given a choice to intentionally internalize any message they choose in the form of positive affirmations.
If a student has a specific area of opportunity they should be focusing on, help them create their own personal positive affirmation to make conscious, mindful changes. A good pattern to follow is “I am a [natural image]. I am [improvement they want to make].”
Invoking nature helps people feel more connected to the planet. Try to find a general emotion or mindset that would improve their area of opportunity. For example, a student who has trouble with emotional regulation might choose a positive affirmation like, “I am a tree. I am calm in the wind.” A student who has difficulty speaking up in a group might choose a positive affirmation like, “I am a wolf. I add my voice to the chorus.”
Paying attention to the people we’re having conversations with shows them we respect them and value their time. Giving those around us our full attention is becoming more difficult as phone usage takes up more and more of our free time.
While most elementary school students are at least a few years away from participating in social media, this is an ideal time to teach them to listen effectively and participate in conversation. It’s also a great time for them to choose what boundaries they want to set around technology.
Dr. Elaine Smookler, writing for Mindful, explains how to practice mindful listening using the acronym HEAR. Halt what you’re doing and offer your full attention; Enjoy a breath and choose to receive what’s being communicated; Ask yourself if you know what they mean and if you don’t, ask them to clarify; Reflect back to them on what you heard. This shows you were listening and allows you to correct any misunderstandings.
When practicing mindful listening, it’s only natural to expect the same in return, and communicating that expectation in a calm and non-confrontational way is another aspect of mindfulness.
Students may want to ask friends to listen mindfully when they’re talking, or they may want to ask adults to put away their cell phones if they’re having a conversation. Since these are reasonable requests, it makes sense to discuss with your class how to set social boundaries and react when those boundaries aren’t respected.
Self-Paced: Quiet Time
All it takes is 10-15 minutes of purposeful, self-paced effort to help students let go of their post-lunch-break rush and move into a more mindful classroom mindset. Yes, we’re suggesting you schedule a break after the break, and we think everyone benefits from this arrangement.
Here’s how it works: after students return from their lunch break, they have a set amount of quiet time in the classroom to work on an activity by themselves. They can read, write, draw, work on a puzzle or do something else that’s quiet and calm.
This also gives teachers a few minutes to finish getting settled and prepared for the next lesson, which can be invaluable on busy days since we all know how crunched for time the average teacher’s schedule is.
To give students more experience with time management and increase their sense of agency over the time they’re given for quiet activities, it can be helpful to have a countdown timer or hourglass for the time allotted displayed where the class can see it. It’s also beneficial to give a warning a minute or two before time is up, so students can begin wrapping up what they’re doing and get mentally ready to move on to the next lesson.
By practicing mindfulness, your students will learn self-regulation and self-awareness, which are important traits to have. These traits will help them recognize their thoughts, emotions and impulses and react in positive ways.