What Is Mindfulness?

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Mind Over Matter

Mind over matter is an expression that you’ve likely used yourself or heard someone else say as a way to motivate themselves. It alludes to the power of our minds and our ability to self-regulate when situations or events seem out of our control. But “mind over matter” can be easier said than done. Regulating our emotions and remaining steady and focused in the face of big, uncomfortable emotions isn’t an innate ability.
Rather, it is a skill that can be cultivated through a conscious mindfulness practice.

What Is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is defined as the intentional practice of focusing attention on uncomfortable feelings, thoughts, and emotions. A mindfulness practice helps us to recognize and name these emotions and maintain focus on the present moment (Shonin et al., 2015). Mindfulness is an attempt to cultivate an attitude of acceptance and foster an understanding of what our emotions are and how we can manage them in constructive ways.

Emotions are brain-based, subjective, and conscious states of being that are a combination of four key elements (Levenson et al., 1991):

  1. Subjective experience
  2. Appraisal of the subjective experience
  3. Physiological arousal
  4. Behavioral expression of the emotion: facial, bodily, or verbal expression

Under normal circumstances, people process emotions and experiences through the prefrontal cortex region of the brain, the site of our executive functioning that enables us to have cognitive control of our behavior. However, when we experience strong or uncomfortable emotions such as fear, apprehension, or rage, the amygdala—a small almond-shaped area in the brain responsible for emotions—interferes with our reasoning (Maren et al., 2013). This is known as an “amygdala hijack” (Goleman, 1995). When we experience an amygdala hijack, our executive functioning is diminished and we go into fight or flight mode.

Mindfulness is a crucial strategy for learning self-regulation, managing our emotions, and taking control of our thoughts, responses, and reactions (Bearance, 2014). Managing our emotions involves learning about ourselves and how we interact with the world; it also includes learning to respond constructively
to our unique triggers in order to combat an amygdala hijack. When we use mindfulness to do this, our emotional responses won’t derail our momentary and/or long-term success.

The Role of Mindfulness During Times of Trauma

During times of stress, the practice of mindfulness becomes even more important. The COVID-19 pandemic has been a collectively traumatic experience, and the field of education has been particularly fraught with challenges. Teachers have had to face risks to their health and well-being to meet the needs of their students. When their needs outweigh their resources, teachers can face burnout, and the problem of limited resources has been exacerbated by the pandemic (UT Research Showcase, 2020). Racial injustice has also been a prevalent issue in the past year. Teachers and students have experienced trauma as a result of the pervasive exposure to images depicting racial violence, as well as a political environment that has emboldened racial abuses (University of Georgia, 2020).

In managing the trials of the past year, we have had new experiences and been exposed to new information. New experiences and information can affect the neural circuitry of our brains, which means that they can impact us in many different ways. Mindfulness helps us to change our thought patterns and maintain
control of our prefrontal cortex, even when dealing with trauma (Wolkin, 2016). As administrators, parents, teachers, and students grapple with the complex logistics of providing an education in a safe environment during a pandemic, mindfulness can help us work through the continuing challenges with clarity and presence.

The Ability to Be Present: We All Have It

Research supports mindfulness practices as a promising approach to reduce anxiety and stress in students and improve their academic and behavioral outcomes (Jennings et al., 2012; Mulhearn et al., 2017). It can improve a student’s attention, which in turn helps them focus on learning. One of the best parts about mindfulness is that we all have the ability to do it. Mindfulness practice is diverse and can be tailored to meet our personal needs, meaning we can all cultivate our innate ability to be present.

Mindfulness principles as adapted by Fly Five highlight achievable practices that students and teachers can incorporate into their daily routine. These principles remind us to stay present, aware, and in control of our emotions in order to help us maintain perspective and balance in any situation. The Fly Five mindfulness principles are:

  • Put It in Neutral. Find stillness and observe yourself and where you are in the world
  • Take It Slow. Allow situations to unfold in their own time
  • Reset Experiences. See things as if for the first time and adopt a learning perspective
  • Have Faith. Trust in yourself and in the capabilities of your body and mind
  • In the Moment. Hold a moment in awareness and acknowledge it as it comes, whether it is positive or negative
  • Reality Check. Check-in and measure your expectations versus what is really happening
  • Suspend Judgment. Release expectations of attachment or rejection when they no longer serve you

Mindfulness Strategies

During a time when many schools are using online learning or going the hybrid route, mindfulness can help students remain present and focused in the midst of external stressors. Educators can choose which mindfulness principle will be effective in a given situation, and encourage students to focus on that principle while using one of the following strategies.

Set a mindfulness routine. Open class with a mindful moment so everyone starts off present and focused. This can be especially useful for online learning, where a student may not have a specific space for school. Beginning class with a few mindful breaths or a body scan can help students get in the right frame of mind for

Choose activities that align with students’ learning. Make sure students understand how mindfulness helps them and connects to their success. If they have a big project or exam, open the class with a visualization where students succeed, and remind them to have faith in themselves. When it’s been a big news week, implement a mindfulness activity that has space for thoughtful discussion, and remind students to take it slow when they process how they feel.

Keep it active. If students seem distracted or disengaged, especially during online learning, use mindfulness to get them back in their bodies. Have them stand up, walk around their space, and notice one thing in the room. Try having a dance break where students focus on their increased heart rate. When they return to
the screen, take a few mindful breaths together before returning to the lesson.

Move away from the screen. Mindfulness can be a respite from screen time. For quiet, reflective activities, have students turn off their cameras and focus on the room they are in. Teachers can put on calming music while students turn off their screens and create their own gratitude journals or complete a mindful coloring project. When students return to the screen, they can show off their mindful creativity to classmates.

Play mindful games. Incorporate activities such as a virtual show and tell, and have students share something for which they are grateful. Play a game of virtual eye spy, a fun way to keep students present and paying attention to the environment they are in.

When we practice mindfulness with consistency and intention, we become much more empowered to truly leverage the meaning of mind over matter. As we head into the end of the school year and many of us continue to manage various uncertainties and challenges, mindfulness can be the key to keeping ourselves
and our students on track to remain healthy, calm, and successful—no matter what comes our way.

5 Finger Mindfulness

Have students trace their hand on a piece of paper, or use the template provided here. Choose a mindfulness principle to focus on for the week. Do students need a boost in confidence in themselves? Then use “Have Faith,” and have students write an affirmation each day in one of the fingers. Is it midsemester and students need to be reinvigorated? Then try “Reset Experiences,” and each day have students write down something new they have learned. Get creative, have fun, and remind students how important and easy it is to have a mindful moment every day!