There’s an elephant in the classroom. It grows bigger and bigger or smaller and smaller, depending on whether we decide to acknowledge it or not. The elephant is anxiety, and while it doesn’t affect us in the same way, because of the recent pandemic, it has skyrocketed across the world.
Our students don’t make an exception. They might be even more susceptible to feelings of stress and anxiety in recent months. So what is an easy, cost-effective intervention that teachers can handle on their own?
The answer is simple: mindfulness.
Mindfulness-based intervention, as you might already know, shows promise in improvement of cognitive performance, resilience, and mental health. It has many benefits for improving classroom behavior and helps students focus during lessons.
However, given that school is likely to continue in an online format, is it feasible to try to incorporate mindfulness now? Also, do you need special qualifications? Let’s see what this particular study has to say:
The fact that it appears mindfulness can also be delivered in an efficacious manner as an internet-mediated intervention further increases its appeal given the cost-effectiveness of this delivery mode.
One of the most important factors relating to the effectiveness of mindfulness approaches is not the design, scale or delivery method of a given intervention, but the extent to which the mindfulness instructor is ‘soaked in meditation’ and can thus transmit an experiential understanding of this ancient contemplative technique.
9 Easy mindfulness activities for the virtual classroom
That being said, the easiest way to start a mindfulness practice in your own physical or virtual classroom is to incorporate short and easy techniques in your everyday lessons.
So let’s see what you can do to kick off the new school year in a positive way! Feel free to try them out as you’re reading:
A simple and short activity that you can do every day is to ask students to relax, sit in a comfortable position of their choice (legs crossed, laying down) and just have them listen to the sounds in the room for a minimum of 30 seconds.
The trick here is to get them to stay still, not make a sound, and become aware of their surroundings. It’s a great icebreaker exercise to do before a lesson.
Easy meditation technique
If you have around five minutes to spare, this meditation practice can help students relax and be prepared for deep concentration. Ask your students to sit comfortably and start by being aware of how they feel in the present moment. Then, invite them to breathe in deeply and exhale, imagining that their belly is a balloon that inflates and deflates.
It’s OK if they don’t get it right away, as it can take some practice, but even a few minutes can help them clear their minds. Here is a great video that illustrates this technique.
In my first Drama class, I learned that when we’re stressed, we tend to take shallow breaths, which only makes things worse. So one of the first things that you learn in these classes is to use your diaphragm to breathe properly.
For this, students should be instructed to place a hand on their belly and feel it expanding and contracting, shoulders relaxed. Take a deep breath for five seconds and release for three, do it again for a few minutes. This can be done anywhere, as I now do it while waiting for the bus, for example, and even before bedtime.
Alternate nostril breathing
This simple technique that yoga practitioners do all the time, will help students wind down instantly. Using one hand, instruct them to bend the index and middle finger and then place the thumb and ring finger on one nostril at a time.
Gently put pressure on the right nostril and inhale deeply through the left nostril, then release without exhaling. Close the left nostril with your finger and exhale through the right nostril. Repeat for a few minutes, alternating between nostrils. If this is hard to follow, here’s a demonstration of this technique.
There’s no secret that sensory experiences enhance learning and that they’re hugely beneficial for children’s overall development. Simply ask students to choose an item, be it a tennis ball, slime, playdoh, etc. They should hold the object in their hands, and describe or think about what they’re experiencing: texture, color, smells, etc.
While it can be a great introduction to mindfulness for younger students, it's suitable for all ages.
This is a great activity for introducing a new lesson or concept. For example, during a biology lesson, you can ask students to close their eyes, get in a comfortable position, and just listen as you describe a long walk through the forest. Guided by your voice, they can imagine walking through a path, imagine the types of plants or animals they can find there, the sounds, etc.
For a better experience, incorporate music or sounds to make it more interesting. You can find forest sounds, for example, on YouTube so it’s not at all difficult to do.
Finger tracing exercise
This exercise can be done anywhere and at any time, and it’s an intuitive exercise for beginners, who don’t know yet how to slow their breathing. Students take one hand and fan it out as if they were trying to trace it on paper. Then, using their other hand, they trace slowly along, one finger at a time.
Starting with the thumb, trace the outside and inhale, then trace the inside of the thumb and exhale. Repeat the process for the remaining four fingers.
Get up and move
Sitting at home or during class can make students feel more restless, which leads to a poorer ability to concentrate. Seat time has other downsides such as muscle pain, especially in the upper and lower back areas.
Get up and move can be a fun way to end an online lesson or even incorporate asynchronous lessons. Instructing students to take three minutes to do squats, jumping jacks, use hula hoops or steps to move can be a great way to get everyone moving. If you’re on a video call, do it with them — you’ll see the benefits yourself.
Read more: How student posture can affect their learning outcomes
Knowledge is power
Knowledge is power, in the sense that it’s usually easier to deal with feelings and emotions when we know what is going on with us. For younger students, activities centered around identifying emotions can be a powerful experience. For example, you can instruct them to draw smiley or frowny faces and show you or others what they’re experiencing at the moment.
For older students, you can have a discussion or design a mini-lesson centered around the fight or flight response, how our brain works, and how our bodies respond when we’re experiencing stress or anxiety.
Bonus tip: mindfulness in self-paced lessons
The ultimate goal can be for students to use these techniques on their own and use them willingly. For this, you can give them a choice, and what better way than incorporating mindfulness in asynchronous learning tasks?
Read more: Adopting the asynchronous mindset for better online learning
The easy way: before starting a new module or lesson in your learning management system, you can add a video or a short description of a mindfulness technique in the introduction. The same goes for any task such as taking an online quiz, which can trigger a stress response in many students.
Take a deep breath...
These are challenging times for anyone, and especially for students. A tiny change in their routine — like mindfulness — can have a rippling positive effect on their overall wellness.
All in all, you don’t need any equipment, money, or special apps. You don’t need special training or qualifications, although it does help to try them out yourself before doing them with students.
In other words, there’s nothing to lose, only to gain, by incorporating a bit of mindfulness in everyday lessons.