In the US, May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Introduced in 1949 by the community-based non-profit, Mental Health America, the observance is dedicated to addressing the needs of people living with mental illness and promoting mental health overall.
Today, worldwide, it’s estimated that 10–20% of children and teens experience mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety. Half of these start by age 14, with suicide being the leading cause of death in 15–19 year olds.
With the added weight of a global pandemic, increased time spent online, and a looming climate crisis, it’s important now, more than ever, to destigmatize mental illness.
An important space for that to happen is the classroom. Many teachers and schools around the world are turning to the practice of mindfulness as their approach.
This post explores the benefits of mindfulness in schools and classrooms and looks at five activities teachers can try with their students.
What is mindfulness?
Practicing mindfulness is learning how to maintain awareness of your thoughts, emotions, and experiences in a given moment without interpretation or judgement. A mindful activity is one that helps calm and center the body and mind.
Mindfulness in schools
When I was teaching in Japan, every morning at our high school began the same: students and teachers would close our eyes, correct our posture, and listen to a short guided meditation that played with music over the PA system.
This practice is known as “sei-shi.” “Sei” (正) means “correct” or “positive,” and “shi” (姿) means “form” or “posture.” It worked to help calm and quieten the minds of even the most troubled students.
On the other side of the world in the US, a similar practice is employed at an elementary school in Baltimore: every day begins with a breathing exercise broadcast over the PA system. Punishments for acting out—like detention or being sent to the principal’s office—have been abandoned. Students are instead sent to the “Mindful Moment” room, where they are able to breathe and calm down.
In the UK, the government recently committed to investing public funds into mindfulness and mental health education for the first time.
In Canada, mindfulness is taught to both teachers and students, with some high schools even offering yoga as a physical education credit.
Benefits of mindfulness in the classroom
Schools that implement mindfulness practices have seen a drop in suspension rates and an increase in attendance. Studies show that practicing mindfulness has many other social, physical, and psychological benefits, including:
- Reduced feelings of anxiety, stress, and depression
- Improved mood
- Decreased physical pain
- Increased sense of compassion
- Reduced bias
Mindfulness in the classroom
There are many different ways teachers can bring the practice of mindfulness into the classroom. Here are some ideas with related lessons and resources from ESL Library.
1. The 5-4-3-2-1 technique
Teach your students a popular coping technique for anxiety. When they are feeling anxious or overwhelmed, have them take a deep breath, take in their surroundings, and answer the following questions:
- What are 5 things you can see?
- What are 4 things you can feel?
- What are 3 things you can hear?
- What are 2 things you can smell?
- What is 1 thing you can taste?
In this Discovery lesson for beginners, students review the five senses through reading, speaking, listening, and vocabulary tasks.
2. Mindful movement
Exercises performed with awareness, such as walking, running, yoga, or dance, are excellent ways to practice mindfulness. In the classroom, yoga is especially beneficial as it doesn't require too much space and is easy enough for beginners.
Teach students some basic moves like Dandasana (Staff Pose) and Balasana (Child’s Pose) and create your own daily or weekly routine together for class.
This Sports & Leisure lesson for intermediate includes an explanation of the Yoga Sutra and fun activities like Guess the Yoga Pose.
3. Drawing and coloring
Drawing and coloring activities are great for improving fine motor development, but they also reduce stress and anxiety, stimulate creativity, and allow students to express themselves.
In the ESL classroom, drawing and coloring activities can be used to test students' understanding of new words or concepts. For younger learners or those with limited vocabularies, they can help students build confidence while they are learning to express themselves in words.
Students draw a picture of a sailboat and answer a few questions in this Young Learner Activities resource for beginners. Explore the Drawing section of this category for more topics.
A good way to destigmatize conversations about mental illness and mental health is to start one. Do your students feel anxious or stressed? How are they coping with those feelings?
Students are more likely to seek help for mental health conditions if they feel safe and equipped to talk about what they're experiencing.
In this Health Matters lesson, students learn ten ways to support a friend struggling with depression. The lesson includes vocab practice and a discussion on health-related issues.
Writing daily (or weekly) paragraphs about their feelings and thoughts can help students better identify and process their emotions. Writing is also a therapeutic activity that helps calm the body and mind.
Here are some writing prompts for students:
- What do if I feel anxious/stressed/worried about today?
- What good thing happened today?
- What am I grateful for today?
- What about myself makes me most proud?
- What about myself do I need to work on?
Teach or review vocabulary for expressing feelings and conditions with this handy flashcard set.
I hope this inspires you to create or continue your own mindful practices for the classroom. How do you help your students cope with feelings of anxiety, depression, and stress? Let us know your thoughts!