Should mindfulness be taught at schools? And for that matter, what does it mean to be mindful, anyway?

Mindfulness is the acknowledgment of the present moment. It is a state of consciousness that encourages one to pay attention to their emotions, without judgment. It involves stepping back and observing our feelings and thought patterns without reacting or labeling them as “good” or “bad.” They just are. In practicing mindfulness, children learn to slow down, cultivate self-awareness and recognize the world around them.

Mindfulness is the opposite of mindlessness. In this busy world, many of us operate on autopilot. We follow routines, eat in a hurry and don’t pay much attention to our own thoughts. When we run on autopilot, we are unaware of patterns in our thinking. Sometimes, those patterns can be negative. Thoughts may be anxious or worrying. Mindfulness teaches us to become aware of our thoughts and worries. By simply recognizing negative moments, we can disrupt the pattern.

Mindfulness practice does not aim to turn our children into happy little robots. In fact, it encourages children to honour all of their feelings in a healthy way. Many people in today’s society have become uncomfortable with negative emotions. Perhaps we see them as a sign of weakness and feel pressure to “fix” them. Mindfulness teaches children to observe their feelings, without judgment, to “ride the wave” of emotion, so to speak. If we don’t allow children to truly feel their emotions, how will they develop the skills to cope?

In the context of a classroom, mindfulness practices vary. Some lessons involve biting into a specific food and focusing attention on the experience. Imagine the experience of eating a grape, for example. Roll the grape on your tongue and feel the texture. Can you taste anything in the moment before you bite into its skin? Now, take a slow bite and feel the juice burst onto your taste buds. Is it sour? Sweet? Cold? Can you smell it? This might sound like fun and games, but it actually teaches our children to slow down and pay attention to sensations, thoughts and perceptions.

Other mindfulness activities may include mindful walking in nature. What do you see, smell and hear around you? Perhaps kids will practice taking deep breaths to calm their body and mind, and spend a moment or two listening to their thoughts.

Are you still wondering why educators are investing time in mindfulness practice at school? Studies show that focusing one’s attention on the present moment—thoughts, environment, sensation—can improve overall cognitive control. Our brain is a muscle, and by practicing our focus and attention, that part of the brain becomes stronger, and in turn, students develop a calm, concentrated state of awareness. This can be transferred to academic activities as well.

Mindfulness practice also increases a child’s self-regulation, for they are developing emotional intelligence and calming strategies, such as deep breathing. When students are calm and their attention is focused, their potential for learning soars.

When we encourage our kids to be mindful, they are better able to develop a sense of optimism because they understand that feelings are temporary and do not reflect who they are, as people. Self-reflection increases as kids become more self-aware of their own identity and of how they interact with others. Empathy and caring towards others increases, as well.

Teachers have found that when students practice mindfulness, their well-being increases. When children feel calm and happy, their relationships with others tend to improve. When students feel connected to their school, their classmates and their teacher, the opportunities for meaningful learning increase. Mindfulness practice not only potentially improves a child’s general outlook on life, but can play an essential role in the quality of their learning.

Kelly Cleeve is a passionate educator with 14 years experience. She is a graduate student at the University of British Columbia, a wife and a mother of 2 beautiful boys.