So, you’re ready to teach mindfulness? You’ve seen the research, watched the videos, and heard the TED talks. You’ve got your chime, your teaching script, and ten minutes of tranquility set aside for your students. You’ve even been practicing mindfulness at home and listening intently to your yoga instructor – you can’t wait for all of the calm, peace, and happiness that will soon be your classroom.
The time has finally come. You show your students how to sit in a mindful body, turn the lights off, take three deep breaths together, ring the chime and – someone talks. Someone else laughs. If you’re truly unlucky, one of your students makes a fart noise and the whole class breaks into poorly concealed giggles and hushing sounds. Soon students are loudly proclaiming, “This is boring!”
This is, perhaps, one of the most common and pivotal choice points you will have in teaching mindfulness. Every teacher who has ever attempted to practice mindfulness in their class has been faced with distracting students, confusion, and sometimes, outright defiance. So how do you respond? Let it go and risk undermining your authority? Send the disruptive students to the dean? And what about the students who are really trying?
Now for the “6 Tips on how to deal with disruptive students”, right? Well, yes. However, it would be disingenuous to pretend that they are going to work every time. Just as we cannot look to mindfulness and SEL as a panacea for all of our educational woes, we cannot realistically expect to eliminate all behavior issues (especially when teaching something new and different). Unless you understand the bigger picture, you will inevitably keep repeating the same mistakes. The more that you can bring awareness to your own attitudes, however, the more likely your chances of success.
1. Stay Calm & Model the Way
“Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” ~ James Baldwin
If your only response to disruptions during mindfulness time is to remain calm, you are doing a great job. More than anything you say, students will respond to the presence you bring. While this might seem like a philosophical abstraction, consider the role of mirror neurons. (For an even deeper dive into how our presence influences our students and the importance of our own attitude, check out Paul Eckman’s work on microexpressions).
Mirror neurons are neurons that fire both when performing an action and in response to observing an action. This means that to a certain extent, the brain activity of a child yelling or of a child watching someone yell will be remarkably similar.
So, while there are usually not any concrete “right” and “wrong” responses when teaching mindfulness, if you respond aggressively, harshly, or by yelling you are accomplishing the exact opposite of what you set out to do. If you focus on maintaining your own inner calm, on the other hand, you are providing your students with a neurological framework for keeping their own cool.
The one catch? It has to be authentic. Children are naturally attuned to the emotions of adults and caregivers; so if you really want to teach them mindfulness, start with your own practice.
2. Cultivate Compassion
Ever wonder why certain students struggle more than others with mindfulness? If you are like many teachers, you may not have had time for these types of wonderings. It may be easier and simpler to write them off as hyperactive, distractible, class clowns, or even “bad kids.”
Consider, however, that these behaviors may be expressive of much deeper needs that are not being met, previous traumatic experiences, or ongoing biological or environmental issues. While it is beyond the scope of this article to cover the topic of childhood trauma in depth, it would be well worth your time to do a bit more research. Nadine Burke Harris’ Ted Talk and the ACES (Adverse Childhood Experiences Study) are good starting points.
Suffice it to say that children who have experienced multiple traumatic events are at significantly higher risk for a multitude of both mental and physical health problems. One of the most common mental health issues for children who have experienced trauma? ADHD.
This is not to say that every child who acts out or is diagnosed with ADHD has been through something traumatic, nor is it meant to imply that every child who has experienced trauma will act out or have health concerns. What it does suggest is that we might want to consider why a student has difficulty with mindfulness.
Mindfulness is an introspective practice – it forces us to be still, quiet, and take an honest look at our own inner thoughts. This can be an intimidating prospect even for healthy adults, so for a child with an unstable home life or unresolved trauma it could be outright scary. Silence and reflection can be threatening for many students, especially those who are the most disruptive. If we can understand that a student is acting out of fear rather than disrespect we can begin to cultivate an attitude of empathy and compassion towards their experience of mindfulness.
Through this lens, we may opt to spend some extra time with this student outside of class rather than punish them, or perhaps we provide a safe alternative for them during mindfulness time. The bottom line is that we must consider the individual needs of every student, and this understanding only comes through a personal relationship. With compassion and empathy, we can make more informed choices about how to respond to disruptions.
3. Treat this Time Differently
Non-judgmental awareness and acceptance of the present moment are key tenets of mindfulness. While you have good reason to maintain order, structure, discipline, and firm boundaries throughout the academic day, it would benefit you to approach mindfulness time with a different mindset altogether.
Only you can decide where to draw your boundaries, but if you are aiming for the same level of control that you exercise while teaching other subjects you may be fighting an uphill battle. More than likely, 100% silence and participation is not a realistic expectation for a class just learning mindfulness.
Remember: mindfulness is unique in that there is no goal or outcome to aim for. The whole point of practicing mindfulness is to be aware and present to whatever is happening right now – even if that experience is unpleasant or unwanted. We’re not suggesting you simply allow your class free reign, but we are suggesting that you reconsider what success looks like during this time. If you have provided your students with a few minutes of quiet and calm, a chance to deepen personal relationships, or just a moment to be together without an agenda, we would call that a success.
4. Avoid Punitive Consequences
Ideally, you want your students to enjoy mindfulness time and associate it with feelings of positivity and relaxation. This is a lot less likely to happen if they are being punished for misbehavior. As much as possible, try to avoid associating mindfulness time with negative experiences and emotions.
As an alternative to punishment, try providing rewards for desired behaviors or providing alternative activities (silent reading, homework time, etc.) for students who are not participating in mindfulness. Given the choice between extra homework and mindfulness, most students will warm up to the idea of sitting quietly for a few minutes.
Another easy option to avoid punitive consequences is to simply restart the practice each time disruptions become too great to ignore. This will help you to keep your cool and take it less personally too (“It looks like we are not all meeting expectations for mindfulness time. I will restart our timer and we can try again.”)
5. Let Go of Attachment to the Outcome & Trust the Process
There is a saying among archers and marksmen - if you aim for the trophy, you will miss the target. Keep your eyes on the target, however, and you’ll get the trophy. The same is true for most situations in life, and especially for mindfulness. If your “aim” is on a quiet, well-behaved and emotionally adjusted class and you pay no attention to how you get there, you are going to be disappointed.
If, on the other hand, you remain patient and persistent through the ups and downs of teaching mindfulness you will eventually create the type of class you are aiming for. There will be setbacks along the way. There will be students who act out or complain. There will be times you wonder why you ever tried to teach mindfulness in the first place. All of these ups and downs are the process of creating a mindful classroom. Each time that you remain calm and present in a challenging situation you are making progress – and because these challenges are integral to the experience of growth, you cannot rush the process.
6. Manage Your Expectations
The number one thing you can do? Manage your own expectations.
Perhaps you have heard the fable of the scorpion and the frog. In this tale, a scorpion comes to a river he cannot cross. At the bank, he finds a frog and asks the frog to carry him across the river. The frog is rightfully suspicious and asks, “How do I know you won’t sting me?” The scorpion replies, “If I sting you, we will both drown.” So the frog consents and they begin to cross the river. Halfway across the scorpion stings the frog. As they both begin to sink, the frog asks “Why?” and the scorpion responds, “It is my nature.”
It is the nature of children to be child like. In a setting where we often expect children to perform and act more like adults, it is easy to forget what is and is not realistic to expect of our students.
Are the distractions and disruptions problems, or are they normal, expected parts of the process? Are students being disrespectful, or are they behaving exactly as we might expect them to in this situation? Is mindfulness really not working in your classroom, or is it a process that requires time, patience, persistence, and practice?
If you can bring awareness to your own expectations and connect with the bigger picture, then you can respond intelligently no matter the situation that arises. Mindfulness is called a practice for a very good reason: it takes practice.