As I sit down to write this post about mindfulness in the classroom, a notification pops up on my phone, the dryer buzzes, my baby lets out a cry in her sleep, and I realize I’m a little hungry. I consider going upstairs to grab a snack, but instead I remember the advice I received yesterday: take three breaths. Closing my eyes, I inhale deeply. Once, twice, three times… I’m refocused and ready to begin.
A Conversation with Author Jana York
The advice came from author Jana York during our video chat about mindfulness for teachers and students. Jana is passionate about this topic and recently wrote a book called U is for Understanding: Claire’s Journey Toward Mindfulness in the Classroom. We met in 2013 when Jana was the civilian Public Health Coordinator and I was a first grade teacher on a little US Army base outside of Tokyo. Jana’s journey into mindfulness began a few years earlier when she collaborated with an Army physician interested in treating post-traumatic stress, preventing suicide, and improving well-being in the military community. Their efforts eventually led them to offer 8-week courses in mindfulness to military and civilians working on the base. I took one of these courses, and I’m a little embarrassed to admit, I didn’t complete it because I felt too busy and overwhelmed with work to give it my full attention.
Exploring Mindfulness in Schools
I bring this up with Jana as we talk, but she’s not surprised. Throughout our conversation, we both acknowledge that life is full of distractions and the constant pull to get things done. She embraced mindfulness years ago because it allows her to fully experience the present. “I claim it as my superpower,” she writes in Educating Mindfully: Stories of School Transformation Through Mindfulness. It’s clear that Jana wishes to give others the gift of this superpower. Her experiences eventually led her to take coursework through Mindful Schools and train to teach mindfulness to grades K-12.
Jana and I agree that students bring a host of life experiences to the classroom that can positively and negatively impact learning and relationships with others. Julie C. was a 4th grade teacher when she took Jana’s 8-week class. Julie says, “Throughout that course, I kept thinking about how beneficial it would be for my 4th grade students, especially in the area of social skill development. I mentioned it to Jana, and she was definitely intrigued by the idea. She found and took the Mindful Educator course at mindfulschools.org.” Julie convinced her principal to let Jana teach the 8-week course in her classroom, and thus began Jana’s interest in reaching students through the gift of mindfulness.
Julie continues, “She taught it, and we followed up with a student survey. It was amazing how students were able to tell us how mindfulness had helped them academically, socially, and physically… Students described being able to focus on classwork and homework more often. They mentioned thinking before speaking in social conflicts, and/or walking away when the situation called for it. They described feeling more calm and sleeping better. I have had parents and students tell me that years later they are still engaging in some of the mindfulness activities.” The positive effects inspired Julie to take the course herself and support students and teachers in other grade levels.
In addition to Julie, Jana introduced high school special education teacher Carmen to the world of mindfulness. Carmen developed a program for high school student athletes, “teaching them concepts like flow, present-moment awareness, and how to be in the zone.” The championship-winning team attributed part of their success to mindfulness techniques! Carmen uses mindfulness strategies in her personal and professional life, and says, “My ability to stay calm and keep my nervous system in parasympathetic mode is the greatest intervention I could offer my students.”
When Jana retired from her role as a civilian Public Health Coordinator, she and her husband moved to Thailand, where she continued to teach mindfulness in the international schools for students from diverse cultures. All was well until the COVID pandemic struck. Jana suddenly found herself on strict lockdown in a foreign country, and a great deal of uncertainty stretched ahead. Determined to make good use of her time, Jana started thinking about a project that had been in the back of her mind for awhile. She wanted to write a story that would make mindfulness understandable and relatable for students. She thought about the 8- week course she taught in Julie C.’s classroom, developed the key framework into an engaging narrative, and collaborated with illustrator Caroline Webb to turn her dream into a reality. Thus, U is for Understanding: Claire’s Journey Toward Mindfulness was born.
U is for Understanding: Claire’s Journey Toward Mindfulness
U is for Understanding tells the story of Claire, an energetic second grader with a short attention span. Her teacher, Ms. Sage, introduces Claire’s class to the world of mindfulness one week at a time. Along the way, Claire encounters adverse experiences that any real-world second grader might find familiar: bullies, friends struggling with family issues, personal loss, and more. Through mindfulness, Claire develops self-regulation skills, resilience, and confidence.
Teachers will find Jana’s book to be a great introduction to mindfulness in the classroom. She uses vowels to highlight the key foundations of mindfulness in a way that’s easy for students to remember:
Her book also comes with an offer of 30 free companion activities and interactive worksheets. These activities support the five Vowels of Mindfulness, and readers will notice some of them in action in U is for Understanding.
Getting Started in Your Classroom
Adding anything extra to your teacher workload can feel impossible. Although Jana highly recommends the courses offered through www.mindfulschools.org, she recognizes that enrolling in a course is a commitment many teachers cannot make (Please note: This is not an affiliate link. Neither Jana nor I receive any compensation should you choose to enroll in a course). She suggests starting small and simple. “I think some people think you have to sit on a mat,” Jana says, but she goes on to explain that mindfulness can be quick and easily integrated into our daily lives. Here are a few ideas you can use with your students for mindfulness in the classroom (or in your personal life!):
Contact Author Jana York
Jana is an incredibly kind person with a passion for spreading the message and power of mindfulness. “If it helps even one person,” Jana explains, she’s happy to offer support. She can guide you in the right direction as you get started with mindfulness personally or professionally. Jana can be reached by email at email@example.com.
This activity teaches students to find appreciation and gratitude by tracing the path of a grape from seed to present. It is appropriate anytime, and especially during the autumn months when many are celebrating Thanksgiving. Click here to download the directions for free (this is an example of one of the mindfulness activities included with Jana’s book)!
Jana writes, “Word clouds are fun and easy ways to demonstrate similarities and differences on any topic. There can be added value in simple visualization. The use of the ‘Gratitude Cloud’ will help students explore and share their thoughts, emotions, and feelings of being grateful. This activity is especially appropriate during difficult times when it may be hard to see the good!” Click here to download the directions for free, and use a site such as EdWordle to create your cloud.
Gratitude Lists or Journals
Keeping a gratitude list or journal can be as simple or detailed as you would like it to be. Given the busy nature of modern life, I like to keep things simple. Consider asking students to write one word or phrase of gratitude each day. There are many ways to incorporate this into your daily classroom routine. For example, when students arrive each morning, have them sit at their desks, take out their gratitude lists, and spend a minute reflecting and writing before beginning the day. It’s a great way to start the day on a positive note. Click here for a free gratitude list and mini-journal. As students complete the lists/journals, have them reflect in some way. For example, they can privately reread what they’ve written, share a few thoughts with the class, or choose 3 words to contribute towards a class “Gratitude Cloud” (see above).
At the beginning of this post, I mentioned Jana’s advice to “take three breaths.” Teaching students to breathe deeply and pay attention to their breaths can have a wonderful effect. You can do this to refocus a distracted group, prepare students for an exam, transition to a new activity, and more. Mindful breathing is also a great personal strategy for teachers! Feeling overwhelmed with everything you need to do during your prep period? Frustrated with a talkative class? Close your eyes and take a few mindful breaths. This doesn’t solve all your problems, but it helps you get in a better frame of mind for tackling difficult issues.
When I taught first grade, I had students take “belly breaths” at the beginning of our Morning Meeting. Students would sit or lay down for one minute while I guided them to take big breaths that filled their bellies. After a few breaths, I encouraged students to focus on something that made them feel thankful. Then I pulled 2-3 sticks with students’ names and offered to let them share. I always reminded them that some ideas are private, and they could pass if desired. This routine took a few minutes but its effects were worth the time. Students were generally calmer throughout the rest of the Morning Meeting, and it allowed us to get to know one another better.
Another kid- friendly way to teach mindful breathing is to call it “hot cocoa breathing.” Ashely Partley of Counselor Station offers free printable instructions for this exercise.
U is for Understanding: Claire’s Journey Toward Mindfulness
Jana’s book is a great starting point for teachers to introduce mindfulness through storytelling. It’s filled with relatable content and offers many discussion points. Check out the video shared above to preview the first three chapters, and visit Amazon to read the reviews!
(Psst: If you’re reading this between November 1st-7th 2021, I’m giving away a free copy! Click here to enter!)
As Giselle Shardlow writes, “Educators know that children learn best when they are comfortable, safe, and relaxed.” Integrating mindfulness into your daily routines can have long-lasting benefits. With Jana’s advice in mind, take three deep breaths and ask yourself: how can I use mindfulness in the classroom?
Jana and I are here for you! Jana can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and feel free to email me at email@example.com. If you’re interested in subscribing to my monthly newsletter, you can do so by clicking here. I send an email on the first of every month with classroom tips and a First of the Month Freebie! You can also comment on this post with questions or additional ideas for exploring mindfulness. Thank you so much for your time, and best wishes to you wherever you are on your mindfulness journey!