Educators and student family members will tell you that children who are stressed will not learn, grow, or play well. When children feel unsafe, when things are unpredictable, and when relationships are not stable or are unclear, the brain and body dedicate their energy and focus to survival and protection. It is not until the brain and body are assured of safety, predictability, and connective relationships that they will use their resources for other purposes such as play, fun, growth, and learning.
As schools adapt to learning in a post-pandemic society, we need to be mindful of the stresses educators and students have endured over the last year. Schools underwent drastic changes quickly to move to distance learning, and after-school activities were either reduced or pulled back entirely. When educators and students returned to the classroom, they had to reset again and follow a new set of revised rules and procedures. Any time we return to school after a vacation, a similar period of resetting occurs. By employing mindfulness techniques, we can help reduce the stress of students returning to their school day and after-school activities, and help them focus on in-person learning and participation.
When I returned to work after having my first child, there was a span of a few months—managing daycare, baby and work paraphernalia—when I would lose my keys. Or my glasses. Or both. It was infuriating and demoralizing. I was trying so hard to be superwoman but found myself undone by my keys, or my glasses, or both.
I did some research, reading articles on memory loss in your thirties and new parent short-term memory loss. As I skimmed and muddled through information, I found an answer: when we are unable to find a commonly used item we “just had”—like my keys or glasses—we were often multitasking at the time.
Multitasking pulls our focus away from an object, and in doing so we don’t create a memory—or rather, an image for our memory to store—of where the object has been placed. When we try to recall the location and search our short-term memory, we come up empty—not due to a failure of memory functions, but because of a lack of presence of mind in the first place.
To adjust, I put my learning to work in a simple way. The next time I placed my keys somewhere, I mentally paused whatever I was doing and looked at my hands, keys, and the location, and took a mental photograph. By being mindful and simply paying attention, I was able to remember.
When educators use mindful practices in their own lives, the impact on their emotional experiences and growing skills in resilience will carry over into the classrooms and after-school activities they are involved in. Truly safe and supportive learning environments are those where students and staff feel safe, welcome, and ready to learn. In studies where teachers were asked to teach a mindfulness curriculum or to practice a personal mindfulness program, larger learning gains for both teachers and students were found in those that participated (Jennings et al., 2013; Jennings et al., 2017). Using mindfulness practices in school settings will benefit students and staff, and help ease the stress of resetting after an absence, whether that is a planned school break, a sick day, or something else.
Mindfulness can also be a balm to even the largest injustices. Racism and bias are not new to schools and educational institutions. Oppressive structures permeate our everyday lives and often lead to feelings of hurt, frustration, and pain, especially for BIPOC students in our classrooms and communities. Researchers found that the short pause between thought and response where implicit bias lies was lengthened for those participants who had a mindfulness practice. It allowed these participants to exert some agency over their response, their mindfulness practice having reduced implicit bias (Lueke & Gibson, 2014, 2016).
Mindfulness provides educators with an accessible, simple option to tend to self-care, student need, and implicit bias, all within one simple practice—one that requires consistency and dedication to be effective, yet is an available key to resilience for all. In these moments, when we have such little control over our surroundings and the happenings of the greater world, it is easy to become overwhelmed, desensitized, or forlorn. Our body and brain, though, can offer us a simple salve to soothe any immediate distress: a deep inhale and full exhale, repeated, and again.
Instead of telling ourselves we must “do all these things” and drive ourselves into a multitasking frenzy, we can choose another way: pause and mono-task. Do one thing at a time. Do it well. Be mindful. Allow yourself to see where you place your keys, to capture and store the image in your memory. Grant yourself permission to sit for one minute in silence and just listen: to your heartbeat, the birds, the cars, the noise down the hall, your breath. Just listen and breathe and sit, knowing with full confidence that when you rise, you will have just taken huge steps toward bettering your personal wellness, that of your students, and that of the world.
Sara Burd currently serves as the director of Social Emotional Learning and Counsel- ing for the Arlington Public Schools in Massachusetts. Sara is an artist, actor, writer, school counselor, social worker, and registered drama therapist with experience in urban and suburban settings throughout the state of Massachusetts.