Promoting Mindfulness as a School-Wide Practice

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By Aya Ninomiya

Aya is an occupational therapy consultant for globally mobile families with special needs kids. Is your child set up for success at their international school? How will you set up your new home to best meet your child’s needs? Are you feeling overwhelmed to rebuild a system of support in a new location? Aya is the problem solver and coordinator you are going to want to take with you on every move. Find out how you and Aya can set your family up for success on her website:  www.ayaninomiya.com


Before I became an independent consultant, I had the unique opportunity to blend my occupational therapy practice into my position as a learning support coordinator. During my 5-year international school posting in Tokyo, I was responsible for looking after the success of students’ learning. Today, I’ll share what learned about cultivating school culture that’s both diverse and welcoming. 

The importance of tending to student needs before learning.

Maslow before Bloom is a popular phrase used in educational circles. It was recently brought to the forefront by folks that practice trauma-informed care. The idea is that physiological and safety needs have to be met before increasing demands out of the individual. Without fulfilling the basic necessities outlined by Maslow, the student’s capacity to learn cannot be actualized (Bloom). 

Without feeling safe as an individual and as part of a community, learning isn’t happening. Therefore, looking after the wellbeing of the school community is the key to success.

The 3 factors that brought ‘well-being’ at the top of the school’s agenda.

As a new international school, every year brought in new challenges. I recall the third year to be particularly a challenging one. Without getting into details, the school community wasn’t coming together for each other during its intensive year of curriculum reform. 

We came together that year knowing that an action plan needed to be put into place to bring back livelihood into the school community again. These 3 factors helped create a system for school leadership to keep a pulse on the community’s wellbeing:

  1. Regular student safety surveys
  2. A defined and designed multi-tiered system of support to maintain balance in each classroom
  3. Implementation of a social and emotional learning block for all students

A few years of data and discussing results with the leadership team provided enough evidence to see curriculum and scheduling changes. And it was during my last year when weekly SEL lessons were put on everyone’s weekly schedule. Homeroom reports provided feedback to families about the child’s non-academic development — emotional and social. 

Putting a spotlight on the wellbeing of students, teachers, and families helped the school community come together to nurture the whole child.

Do all students need mindfulness practice?

Mindfulness, compassion, and resilience all come together out of a caring and welcoming school community. A school-wide mindfulness practice builds capacity for individuals to learn. 

For children, their school community is their real world outside of the comfort of their predictable home. Their classroom is the best place to practice how to be there for one another. If a classmate was struggling, what better way to learn first hand how to be a caring friend? 

We don’t wish adversity or distress on anyone but children, teens, and adults all have to face it. If not now, then later in life. Regular mindfulness practice at school prepares students for that moment. 

Mindfulness is also helpful in managing daily stress, reducing anxiety, and depression. These are often factors that hide behind unexpected and unwanted school behavior.

Do teachers need to be trained?

Mindfulness is not a religious practice. If the school is implementing a mindfulness practice or social and emotional learning (SEL) program, it offers professional development for teachers and school personnel to ensure a unified approach. 

Without such a program, it falls on individual teachers to look after themselves to grow their own practice — 

  1. Do you have the emotional space and mindset to handle a conflict with care?
  2. What are your own triggers?
  3. What does your reaction look like in various emotional states? 
  4. How am I showing up for the child in distress?

This set of questions can also be applied to you. Remember, no one can give from an empty cup.

Whole-school curriculum change is one sure way to ensure all students are getting the necessary mindful moments in their school day. This level of change takes time, money, and a mindset shift. 

Try these 10 quick and easy mindfulness practices.

You can start your own mindfulness practice in your own home or classroom now:

Whole class or target group

  1. Mindful minute with a sand timer
  2. Body check from top of head to toes
  3. Deep breathing and calming imagery (example: sniff flowers and blow out candles)
  4. I spy, silent & sensory version
  5. Silent practice (reset)
  6. Peer check-in

Individual

  1. Quiet space with a ‘self check-in’ poster
  2. Personalized social story with their own calming strategies
  3. Personal check-in’s at the start and end of the school day
  4. Walk & talk

These ideas are easy to try. If you find success in them, share it with the teacher or classroom assistant to help your child do this at school. Being consistent with the wording and frequency will help your child get into his learning flow.

To nurture mindfulness in the school community, adults also have to be mindful.

We tend to think that we need to maintain composure around kids — as if this shows maturity or control. But the opposite couldn’t be more true.

We have this image of teachers and parents being positive and bubbly especially for younger kids. But it’s really okay to take that mask off. Talk through your emotions and how your body feels with your kids. 

We need to model what healthy emotional regulation and expression look like — because all emotions are okay. It’s how we handle ourselves in the different emotions that we need to practice.

Have you checked in with yourself lately?

There isn’t mindfulness mastery because it’s a lifelong practice to make you a more conscious parent, partner, child, sibling, and friend to others. 

Think back on when you needed to show up for your child.

  1. Did you react or respond?
  2. Are you happy with how your interaction went?
  3. Were you able to catch yourself in the act? If so, how? If not, what happened?

How would you like to model mindfulness to your kids? What can you do next time so that you are showing up for your child?

And please, please, please — be kind to yourself.

Additional Resources
Alphabreaths Read-Along
5 minute Body Scan Meditation for families and classrooms
Beginning in 2014, researchers from the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center led by Mark Greenberg began collaborating with Central Dauphin School District in Harrisburg to train teachers to introduce social-emotional skills and mindfulness practices into their health curriculum. Teachers were trained to deliver a manualized mindfulness program called Learning to BREATHE and outcomes on students’ social-emotional and executive functioning skills were assessed by the research team.

Today I encourage you to ask yourself

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