Beginnings are such delicate times.
I can remember as a child the mixture of eagerness and anxiety I felt each year as summer ended and the first day of school drew near. There were new teachers, new classes, new friends or new bullies. A distinct combination of novelty, uncertainty and possibility hung in the air.
These days, I recognize echoes of those feelings when I meet with any group for the first time, giving a lecture, teaching a class or workshop. Standing in front of the room or sitting on stage, there can be a tremble of vulnerability in my body regardless of the context. I can sense my yearnings for connection, friendship, and belonging.
As social creatures, our desire to belong is ancient, primal. Whether we’re six years old or sixty, there’s a part of the human psyche and organism that longs for the safety and security of the tribe. As we head back to school, mindfulness practice can help us to harness that longing in ourselves and our students to build a classroom culture that sets kids up for meaningful experiences, growth and learning.
The Importance of Initial Conditions
If you’ve worked with youth, you know the importance of that first day. All the adages about first impressions somehow seem amplified when you’re up in front of a room full of children or teenagers! But if we set the tone of our classroom carefully and consciously, the chances of having a good year with our kids increases greatly.
I’d like to highlight a few ways mindfulness can enhance your use of back-to-school best practices and create a climate for learning in the classroom by attending to our own inner experience, creating connection, and planning well to build a strong container.
I. Ground Yourself in Practice
Without the awareness and balance of mindfulness, the pressure and anxiety of the new school year can be challenging. We may end up obsessing over logistics, lesson plans or decorations, instead of giving adequate attention to our deeper intentions, the needs of the moment, or our students themselves. We can rush through the first week of school in a blur, weighed down by overwhelm or slogging through on automatic pilot!
Bringing mindfulness to the this time of year means paying attention to how you’re feeling both before and during the first days of school. Ground the excitement and energy in your goals and dreams for teaching. Staying connected to why we’re doing this work can help to sustain our motivation, and can translate into more creative teaching.
When more unpleasant emotions like anxiety, fear, irritation or fatigue arise, see if you can slow down and attend to them. Outside of class, allow yourself some time to feel and investigate what’s actually happening. During class, be willing to pause or take a breath and center yourself so you can choose consciously how to best proceed. The space of one breath can make the difference between a difficult confrontation and a teachable moment.
II. Put Kids at the Center
Beyond the planning and pedagogy, deeper than creating agreements and ground rules, how we show up in the room and relate to our kids is paramount. The importance of enhancing student’s social and emotional capacities in the classroom are well-documented and known among educators.1 Less acknowledged is the centrality of our own state of being and physiology.
In order to thrive, kids need regular interaction with balanced, non-stressed adults. The development of the human brain depends on daily contact with mature and well-regulated nervous systems. This need extends all the way through adolescence.2 Yet the conditions of modern life create a perfect storm for dramatically limiting that kind of healthy contact for children. The incredible pace of things, the disintegration of communities and extended families, the incessant presence of screens, and the demands of economic pressure have produced an adult population riddled with stress, anxiety, addiction and depression.
In the face of all of this, one of the primary things we can provide as educators is our own warm, genuine, heartfelt presence. Whether they are conscious of it or not, children and adolescents are hungry for relational attunement and connection on the human level. Their neurobiology demands it.
So, the next time you step into your classroom (or office, or clinic), I invite you to ask yourself: “What am I bringing to the kids?” Is your mind and body transmitting stress, worry and anxiety? Or are you sharing a relaxed, attuned and grounded presence in which kids can relax, learn and explore?
Mindfulness can help us to channel the chaos of a new school year and show up in the classroom in the ways we most value. Cultivating present-time, embodied awareness allows us to be more available for genuine, caring relationship with our kids. And even when we’re unable to find any stillness or relief inside, the simple fact of being in touch with our own experience grants us more access to empathy and greater authenticity with the children.
III. Build a Container
Showing up fully and caring are essential, but as we all know, they’re rarely enough! We also need to plan. As you prepare to go back to school and greet the scores of new faces, I invite you to infuse your planning with some wisdom. Take a few minutes to breathe and quiet your mind. Then, reflect on your own memories as a child and intentions as an educator. Or, if you like, listen to or download the back-to-school guided meditation here.
As a kid, what were your hopes and fears, your desires and concerns on the first days of school? What do you imagine are those of your students today?
What teachers in your life made a positive impact on you? What did (or didn’t) they do that contributed to that?
How do you want students to feel in your classroom? What kind of experiences do you want them to have? How you can help create that kind of environment?
Use the answers to these questions to inform how you plan your first days and weeks of the year. Here are a few suggestions to set a solid foundation in your classroom.
Set the Tone: Embody the qualities you want to model; communicate them directly and indirectly, through words and actions.
Create Structure: Set up routines, explain them, and be consistent. It’s generally easier to relax a strong routine than to impose one on a chaotic room.
Make Ground Rules: Have a conversation (age appropriate) about why you’re all there; co-create some guidelines and agreements with which everyone can get on board to support your shared purpose.
Get to Know your Kids: Find activities that lets you learn who they are, their strengths, learning styles, goals and dreams.
Plan Ahead: Be sure to plan beyond the first couple of days so you have a sense of how things hang together.
I hope these reflections are supportive for you.
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A version of this article was originally posted at Mindfulschools.org, where Oren works as a Senior Program Developer. Mindful Schools is a nonprofit organization training educators worldwide to practice and teach mindfulness.