In this week’s review, let’s consider the title, Meditation is an Open Sky: Mindfulness for Kids, by Whitney Stewart and Sally Rippin.
A quick show of hands, who reading thinks they’re able to succinctly describe what mediation is? It’s often portrayed as an activity that requires isolation, absolute silence, and what might seem like impossible health expectations, in order to achieve the psychic, spiritual, or supernatural abilities presented in lore. Before we attempt to explain meditation to our students, let’s take a moment to examine some of these common definitions and misconceptions.
1.Meditation isn’t, necessarily, a spiritual or religious exercise.
Although there are spiritual systems which incorporate meditative practices, and there are instances of meditation being used as a measure of membership to some world religions, meditation can be just as valid as a secular practice. That means not only can one practice meditation without ascribing to a particular faith, but those who do keep religious commitments can practice meditation without experiencing conflict with their beliefs. To be clear, meditation neither makes one religious nor nonreligious.
2. Neither does meditation depend on a practitioner’s ability (to make certain postures or endure uncomfortable exertion).
So, it’s not out of bounds for those with personal, physical, circumstances that preclude flexibility and other physical limits.
Put simply, meditation is a set of techniques that are designed to foster focused states of awareness and attention. Meditation is a technique that, when performed, helps us observe our consciousness and improve our responses to stress. While it has been shown to have a wide number of benefits on psychological well-being, meditation can be an end unto itself. A state of awareness that isn’t competitive; practice isn’t about becoming more, or less, or new, or even better. Instead, meditation allows us, through training, to gain a sense of perspective that we can put to action in our lives, if we choose. When we’re meditating, we shouldn’t be rejecting our thoughts or feelings, but accepting what is on our minds without judgment, seeking to improve our understanding. The objective of regular meditation is called mindfulness. Mindfulness is the ability to be present, to rest in a state of mind that is fully engaged in whatever we’re doing from one moment to the next. We can activate our breathing, clear or quiet our minds, and notice our habits and emotions.
Like reading, counting, and complex thinking, meditation is a skill. Like any skill, it takes practice! But this practice pays off! Meditation has been shown to reduce stress, control anxiety, promote emotional health, enhance self-awareness, lengthen attention-span, and generate kindness, empathy, and compassion. These benefits increase with continued practice.
Now that we understand the practice of meditation and what it can offer to our lives, let’s think about some ways to help our students become more mindful by bringing meditation into our classrooms. I’ll start by sharing a story. It’s the story of how I got a room of Kindergarteners to be present for class one semester.
1. Establish a solid routine from Day 1.
I told students that breathing time was a special time to take for ourselves. They could close their eyes, watch the Smartboard, or they could choose a spot on our carpet to focus their eyes. To preserve the calm, there was no watching friends — emotional contagion is that disruptive phenomenon of automatically adopting the emotional state of another person. Though, if it was a particularly restless group we would begin with breathing butterfly as a video to help them understand slow, deep breathing.
2. Within the first week, I gave them a lesson about their “frontal lobe”.
We would tell our frontal lobe “goodbye” during our special breathing time. I told them: “The frontal lobe is a talker… it’s going to ask you what time lunch is, are you thinking about that game recess, what are all of the things you could be doing right now?” I needed them to tell their frontal lobes goodbye for the time being and I stressed the importance of having time to be with themselves. (Sometimes, we would have Thankful Thursdays where we would focus on all the things in life that we were thankful for).
3.Explicitly teach students about their emotions.
Students not only need to name their emotions, but also understand what their body does when they have that emotion. Students should also understand what someone looks like when they have that emotion, so they can help their friend if needed. As we learned about emotions, especially big emotions, I would remind them about their breathing practice. We would also practice various types of breathing exercises just like the ones found in our story.
4. I would create spaces in the classroom for students to “calm themselves”.
Students could take time to think whenever they needed to. Having comfort areas, like pillows, in our reading area also created a safe space for students if they had a big emotion. I had an easel with various markers to draw with. They had access to fidget spinners, sensory boxes, and other manipulatives in their safe space. I had pictures of various emotions posted nearby, so that students could name their emotions and reflect on what was making them feel how they were.
5. Create a calm environment.
Teachers can make the entire classroom a safe space by using lamps instead of the often harsh classroom lighting, having cushions and free areas marked for students, and allowing them to work where they chose to work. This encouraged feelings of safety by giving students agency over their workspace.
It’s important that students continue their mindful practices in the home to support the social and emotional learning required for a diverse world. Social and emotional learning (SEL) is an essential component of human development. It’s the process through which all young people and adults can acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary to develop healthy identities, manage their emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, such as empathy for others, supportive relationships, and responsible decisions. Teaching children who are out of the classroom to name the emotions they feel by increasing their emotional vocabulary, assuring them that having emotions, even big emotions, is important and valid, and that allowing their own perspectives to guide them are excellent steps that any parent can take to support a child’s social and emotional learning.
This title is a little different than the other stories we’ve been introduced to because instead of a narrative, Stewart and Rippin present a collection of scenarios between students and educators in the classroom that can help educators guide their students from negative emotional states to neutral and positive ones. The book suggests exercises like Mind Drawing, Mind Clearing, Bursting Emotions, Protection Circles, and Special Places among others to help students manage stress, find focus, and face challenges. Once you’ve read the text, I hope you’ll join us in discussing even more opportunities for mindful meditation in the classroom.