CATESOL Book Review – Mindfulness in the Classroom; Strategies for Promoting Concentration, Compassion, and Calm By Thomas Armstrong
Book Review – Mindfulness in the Classroom; Strategies for Promoting Concentration, Compassion, and Calm
By Thomas Armstrong (2019) ASCD
By Michelle Omidi & Kara Mac Donald
A year plus of classroom instruction being impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in many cases heightened the need for mindfulness in the classroom to build resilience among teachers and students. As we transition back to the new normal of f2f instruction, there will be continued uncertainties and anxiety and this book is a guidebook of sorts on how to better care for us and our students, and foster awareness and resilience.
Chapter one begins with alarming statistics on the stress levels in children and adolescents and then introduces mindfulness – the non judgemental awareness of each present moment in time – as stress reduction intervention that has a significant positive impact on cognitive and emotional functioning. The author portrays the evolution of mindfulness from a thousand year old Buddhist tradition to a secular scientific concept in science and then a popular trend in culture, industry, and school programs. A rich body of research on mindfulness training and practices as well as teacher and student testimonials are presented, suggesting small to moderate positive effects on stress reduction, working memory, self-awareness, self-regulation skills, social and emotional development and executive functioning. The chapter ends with a discussion on how well mindfulness fits existing education programs.
Chapter two presents neuroscience findings that support the positive effect of mindfulness on stress-reponse as well as both functional and structural areas of key brain centres. The author describes the two key stress-reponse systems - sympathomedullary pathway (fight-or flight response) and hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis (a slower cortisol-based response system) and discusses how mindfulness alters the stress producing pathways of the brain in three different ways: by activating executive functions in the prefrontal cortex (e.g., emotional self-regulation, reflection, planning) to buffer against limbic system reactivity (“top-down” regulation), by reducing the reactivity of stress-producing regions such as the amygdala (“bottom-up” regulation), and by directly decreasing activity in the sympathetic nervous system (e.g., by lowering blood pressure) and activating the parasympathetic nervous system. The author further discusses how mindfulness training changes functional and structural regions in the brain, including the amygdala, the hippocampus and the insula as well as the default mode network which is associated with mind wandering.
Chapter three examines the three key components of mindfulness process: focus on any tangible activity that we are engaged in during the course of a day, such as breathing, eating or walking, open monitoring of ideas, feelings, and sensations that interrupt the focus, and a nonjudgmental and curious attitude toward whatever comes up. The author discusses formal and informal mindfulness practices in detail. Formal mindfulness practices which are deliberate and time-limited with a specific focus include mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful eating, mindful stretching and body scanning. Informal practices, on the other hand, include instances in which mindfulness is practiced in the midst of normal life experiences, such as showering, washing the dishes or cleaning the house. The chapter ends with tips for implementing mindfulness in the classroom and final takeaways.
Chapter four presents the benefits of mindfulness for teachers’ mental and emotional health in the face of constant challenges, demands and stresses of teaching. The author refers to a rich body of research studies that indicate there is a direct correlation between teacher stress and poor student outcomes. The author further argues that mindfulness practices have positive outcomes for teachers including decreased levels of stress, depression, anxiety, exhaustion and implicit biases, as well as improvement in teacher well-being, efficacy, adaptive emotional regulation, self compassion and focused attention. The author closes with a “start small, start now” slogan as the best way to begin a mindfulness practice, followed by final takeaways.
Chapter five begins with an argument that there is a kindness crisis in our achievement-oriented culture in which academic achievement is prioritized over compassion and then suggests mindfulness as a solution. The author presents the benefits of being mindfully compassionate that include lower anxiety, depression and stress, greater social connectedness, improved well-being, greater peer popularity, and better self-esteem. The chapter closes with tips for integrating kindness into curriculum and classroom as well as final takeaways.
Next, in Chapter six adaptations for different student age groups are offered based on adjusting primarily time span and content of the activities to accommodate the developmental level of learners, but with a focus on sensory-motor and gross-motor activities for young learners (i.e. preschoolers and kindergartners).The chapter first presents evidence for the appropriateness and benefit of mindfulness activities with young learners, as there are organizational and interpersonal benefits exhibited as part of the learners’ development, and societal benefits long term as research shows a reduction in mental health, crime, and welfare issues. Some suggested examples are offered, such as; i) inhaling aromas from different items like cinnamon and mint ii) touching and noticing differences in the texture of different materials like clay and finger paint, iii) moving the whole body connected by hands as string of seaweed floating in strong currents, weak currents and calm seas. The chapter then moves to address implementation of mindfulness in the elementary classroom, middle school and high school with suggestions and challenges at each level. It closes with a recap of key takeaways.
Chapter seven takes on the critics of mindfulness in the classroom, those who believe it is a time sink and distraction from the academic objectives of the curriculum that need to be fulfilled, and can put learners at a disadvantage if they fall behind when assessed ultimately by state and/or district standardized-testing. Here the author front and center argues that mindfulness supports academic success in four ways, as mindfulness; i) develops increased ability to focus, ii) permits learners to better deal with test anxiety, iii) increases cognitive functions, iv) easily can be integrated into content area studies. The remainder of the chapter presents examples of the fourth point, integrating mindfulness into the curriculum content, describing ‘mindful reading,’ ‘mindful writing,’ ‘mindful math,’ ‘mindful science,’ ‘mindful social studies,’ and ‘mindful arts’. Again, the chapter closes with key takeaways.
Up to this point in the book, the author has addressed mindfulness in the classroom with regard to individual classrooms (i.e. what a teacher can implement in his/her classroom), but chapter eight examines a school-wide approach to mindfulness and its benefits. It starts with asking the reader to ‘take the pulse’ of his/her school’s climate and moves on sharing how to make time and space to incorporate mindfulness in the school to lower stress, improve performance and interpersonal connections. Suggestions such as having areas where learners can calm down and/or discuss issues to avoid and/or substitute punitive punishments like detention and suspension. The positive impact of a mindful senior school leader and the building and utilization of mindful practices among faculty are described. Suggestions on how to foster professional development on and a culture of mindfulness from a bottom up or middle-level approach are provided. As always, key takeaways at the end of the chapter.
Chapter nine addresses dialogue and concerns about mindfulness being taught in classrooms as it is considered to be associated with a particular faith and/or religious practices, as in the U.S. there is a separation of church and state in public and non-denominational schools. The author clarifies that the origin of mindfulness is in fact connected to Buddhism historically however, the recommendation for the use of mindfulness in the classroom is based solely on secular data and cognitive science, not religion. So, the author provides some caveats to avoid connections to particular religions, although possibly included innocently as socio-cultural elements (e.g. ringing of Tibetan bells at the onset and end of mindfulness sessions). The author closes with the valuable role of parents as partners in mindfulness implementation in the classroom and addressing some misconceptions parents and other stakeholders may have around mindfulness in school. Of course, key takeaways offered.
Chapter Ten is brief, yet offers a clear and an impactful ‘takeaway’ from the book; the teaching of and inclusion of mindfulness need to be consistent across the numerous domains learners encounter and practiced by educators, parents, and other stakeholders. “It makes no sense to steal a child’s recess [so they can study to over-achieve on assessments] and then teach them self-control.” (p.120). Likewise, it makes no sense to have a ‘Calm Down Area’ if it is used to punish a child for an incorrect response or emotional reaction that child is not yet able to control. The ‘takeaway’ is that mindfulness cannot be incorporated in a piece-meal approach and must be implemented within a unified agenda and a principle part of a school’s climate and daily pulse.
The authors found this book extremely practical in that it lays out the theory on which the practical suggestions are presented, as they recently have been involved in receiving mindfulness training that they will be involved in with others as a team to increase mindfulness to further foster a culture of resiliency among faculty and language students. It is a quick and easy read and recommended for any educator from the classroom to senior program administrators.