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Body + BrainBody & Brain

Less Stress, More Focus Through Mindfulness

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For many students, school has its share of stressful situations. But for those dealing with economic, emotional, and physical hardships, the idea of going to class every day can be an incredible burden.

Students living in poverty at home may find it especially difficult to cope. Their reactions to stress may trigger increases in heart rate, adrenaline, and stress hormone levels like cortisol. Constant activation of the body’s toxic stress response due to poverty-induced stress can lead to health problems such as diabetes and depression and can even alter brain chemistry.

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While it may not be possible to eliminate every stressful situation, teachers can help children learn to take control by incorporating meditation and breathing exercises as part of their daily routine. Here are some mindfulness techniques to introduce calm into an otherwise hectic school day:

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  • Offer students calmer transitions . When it’s time to go to lunch, ask students to take three deep breaths and then listen to the sound of a bell. Have students listen quietly until the sound fades away before moving on.
  • Take five . Have children who are too young or too restless to do regular meditation sit quietly and make a mental note of five things they can see. Follow that by asking them to close their eyes and count five things they can hear. Finally, ask them to pay attention to five things they can touch.
  • Set up a quiet corner. Create a space in the classroom where children can go to deal with difficult emotions. It might have pillows and be stocked with stuffed animals, calming books, or smooth stones. It should be inviting for students and not feel like a punishment.

Studies have shown that mindfulness interventions can be useful in

reducing stress and increasing focus among students . In one study, researchers conducted a six-week trial with 101 healthy sixth-grade students in which two history teachers, who were trained in mindfulness meditation, led students in a short period of silent meditation at the beginning of each class period. Initial meditation periods lasted three minutes, while final meditation periods lasted as long as 12 minutes. Following each daily session, students were asked to record their reactions in journals.

At the conclusion of the study , 92 percent of students reported a perceived benefit of the meditation practices as either an increase in relaxation and decrease in anxiety or as an increase in the ability to focus or concentrate. After practicing meditation at least once, 88 percent reported feeling more relaxed and calm or having a decrease in stress, anxiety, worry, or tension.

Want to see mindfulness practices for the classroom in action? Take a look at how science, yoga, and breathing exercises help low-income students combat stress in this PBS NewsHour report .

This post is the second in a series of blog posts about the science of learning based on NOVA’s School of the Future film . Stream the film on NOVA’s website and check out the full collection of resources on PBS LearningMedia .

National corporate funding for NOVA is provided by Draper. Major funding for NOVA is provided by the David H. Koch Fund for Science, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and PBS viewers. Additional funding is provided by the NOVA Science Trust.