Students have a lot going on. Most are balancing fifteen or more credits, working 20-40 hours per week, and have relationship and family issues to contend with. Cell phones and social networking are constantly distracting students. Combine this pressure with a poor economy and no wonder that students are feeling stressed and can’t function properly in school. A 2008 survey by Boynton Health Service, found that nearly 70 percent of students attending University of Minnesota reported stress as the major issue in their lives. The same survey reported that one-third of students felt stress negatively impacted their academic performance. Scientific studies correlate stress with medical problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease and addiction. Stress has also been linked to the inability to focus, insomnia and the inability to concentrate. There are many ways that students cope with stress: exercise, diet, music, sleep, yoga and others. However, mindfulness practice is another method that has shown to be beneficial in reducing stress. Studies by Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin and Jon Kabat-Zinn of the University of Massachusetts found that mindfulness practices increase students’ ability to focus and think creatively while decreasing blood pressure and insomnia.
What is Mindfulness?
Ellen Langer, Harvard professor, also known as the “the mother of mindfulness,” offers that a mindful person seeks out and produces novelty, is attentive to context, and is flexible in thought and behavior. The psychological concept of mindfulness is so simple people often think they are missing something. Langer says, “We simply need to go through life paying better attention to life itself.” She suggests that when people actually stop and think about what they are doing, when they turn off “auto-pilot”, they can think and live in the present moment and become more connected with themselves and the world around them. Langer’s concept of mindfulness grew out of her work examining mindlessness, which she described as a robotic thoughts and behaviors that are based on pre-programmed associations and routines learned in the past. Langer states that the most significant negative effect of mindlessness is that it stunts creativity and overall student potential.
Ellen Langer on Mindfulness: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vlRJo51JWME
Buddhism plays a major role in the art of mindfulness. However, many Western psychologists have gained interest in it as a method to help deal with stress and anxiety. According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, founding Director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.” It means focusing our minds on the present moment with an increased awareness of our thoughts and actions.
There are many centers and foundations based in universities dedicated to increasing an awareness of the benefits of teaching mindfulness to students. Some of the most popular strategies employed in the classroom are:
- Breathing Exercises: Teach students to take a deep breath in through their nose for two seconds and then breathe out through their mouths for four seconds. Breathing slowly in and out, the teacher can add in meditation, “I am” on the inhale and then “Relaxed” on the exhale.
- Creative Visualization and Imagery: Instructors can incorporate music and images into their lectures to create “an alert attentiveness” among students. Students can be taught to visualize themselves as being successful in college and their future careers.
- Self-Awareness: Create meaningful learning experiences that require interaction with each other and the environment so that students can come to know themselves better. Students who exhibit self-awareness often have an increased understanding of the people in the community around them.
- Mindfulness meditation: This involves focusing on anything in the present moment. This awareness occurs through an acceptance of all that comes to mind and body while staying in the present moment observing thoughts, feelings and sensations that arise as each moment is formed.
- Compassion: Include assignments that require students to be introspective and reflect on their life experiences. Some professors have found that creating learning communities in the classroom fosters introspection and meaningful dialogue among students. These small group conversatoins foster compassion.
There is a growing interest in teaching mindfulness to students from elementary school through college. Many faculty have already creatively included Mindfulness exercisess in their lectures and labs. Many students who learn mindfulness in college continue to practice it in for the rest of their lives. One student who attended a mindfulness program at his university commented: “Advice given on first year law school exams usually is: ‘Don’t freak out.’ Mindfulness teaches the ‘how’ in “how not to freak out.”
“We must help students to find the meaning in daily life, to feel connected to other individuals and to their community – past, present and future; and to feel responsible for the consequences of their actions. We must help them to achieve the state of flow – the balance between skills and challenges – which motivates individuals to return to a pursuit time and again. Plato understood this, 2500 years ago when he stated, “Through education we need to help students find pleasure in what they have to learn.”
Howard Gardner, An Education for the Future
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“Be Mindful: Stressed Students, Just Breathe.” Minnesota Daily. N.p., 17 Oct. 2012. Web. <http://www.mndaily.com/2009/11/29/be-mindful-stressed-students-just-breathe>.
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“The University of Virginia Magazine.” Here and Now. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 Oct. 2012. <http://uvamagazine.org/index.php/short_course/article/here_and_now/>.
“UVA Mindfulness Center.” School of Medicine at the University of Virginia. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 Oct. 2012. <http://www.medicine.virginia.edu/clinical/departments/medicine/divisions/general-med/wellness/the-mindfulness-center>.