Friday, October 9, 2015

Mindfulness-based Approach in the Classroom

By Phe Bach, Ed.D.

Good morning ladies and gentlemen,

         It is my honor to be here to share with you, dedicated and compassionate educators, some of the working strategies from my own classroom, personal and professional life. These strategies are also based upon my doctoral research; and together can be called a mindfulness-based approach.

Mindfulness is the energy of self-observation and awareness of what is going on around you and within you. Mindfulness brings you back to the present moment. The present moment is the only thing we truly have because, yesterday is history and tomorrow is mystery. Today is the gift--the here and now. Mindfulness enables us to focus, clear our mind, and enhance our loving-kindness. We all, including our students, know on some level that the future is dictated by what we are thinking, speaking, and acting at this moment. Everything we do has a consequence; and consequences can be positive or negative. Thus, if the students would like to have an A in the future, they must work hard at this very moment. At the beginning of the semester remind them that everyone is getting an A, but how to retain that A is another story. It is like love or being in a marriage: falling in love or getting married is an easy stage, but how you remain in love or stay married is an art and science in itself.

         A Mindfulness-based approach enables us to do just that--remain in love, stay married or keep the A. This is a life-skill that today’s students need. I often ask my students these questions, and I reflect often upon them as well. The questions are: "Are we part of the problem or part of the solution? and “What direction are we heading?” In terms of anything in our life: academics, finances, spiritual growth, our relationship to others-- including our siblings, friends, romantic partner, parents, and everyone else. If that “A” or that door, the gateway, to a better future is our aim, our goal, then are we heading in the right direction? Are we really moving toward that, with everything we do, say or think?

         Let's say, as an example to our students: Imagine you have 5 dollars for your allowance each day. In the morning you spend $3 on your Starbucks coffee and in the afternoon you spend another $3 for your Jamba Juice. You have $5 and spend $6--what direction are you going financially? You are going in a negative direction. You’re going to get a negative balance. In fact, you are going backwards just like Michael Jackson's moonwalk.  Thus, you need to be mindful, recognize your own actions, stop going backwards and move in a positive direction toward your set goals.  A philosopher once pointed out that it doesn't matter how slow or how fast we are going, as long as we are going forward in the right direction.

Through my own practice of mindfulness, I am able to recognize and be aware of how humans behave. As human beings, especially young ones, we are reactive. Whatever stimulus occurs, we tend to be reactive. For instance, students may talk back, using salty language or even displace physical behavior such as slamming the door. When using a mindfulness approach, whatever occurs, we are mindful--we pay attention to the moment, to what is happening inside oneself and outside in the situation.  Then you can respond to the situation. Not reactive, but rather responsive.  Know that we have many options, and choose the best one.

             In all situations, we can realize that we have a choice to settle on a win-win situation. Usually we react immediately when something happens; with the practice of mindfulness, whatever happens, we stay calm and practice mindfulness in that moment, and then respond to that stimulus.

The technique that I used often and asked students to use with me is called the P.E.A.C.E. practice, as put forth by Dr. Amy Saltzman in Still Quiet Place - Mindfulness for Teens (2010)

P - P is for Pause. When you realize that things are difficult, pause. Stop. Do not act. Do not do anything yet.

E - E is for Exhale. Take a deep breath (in via your nose and out via your mouth). I often do 3 times, but at first, students don't have that ability, so just once is all right.

A - A is for Acknowledge, Accept, and Allow. You must acknowledge your own emotions and the other’s emotion. If you are upset, mad or angry, it is ok to say that you are upset or mad. By recognizing your anger, you are already start to defusing it right then. I often say to my students, “I am not happy right now; what you did is a distraction to me and to the classroom. It also seems like you are not happy either. Thus, why don't you go outside the classroom and take a walk.”

C - is for Choose to respond with

Compassion: for yourself and others. In order for you to have compassion for others, you must have self-compassion first. Compassion is a concept central to Buddhism, and it can be defined as the ability to bring joy and happiness to others while reducing their frustration and suffering. We also need to turn this compassion inward towards our own selves. All transformation and happiness start from the within; we all transform and lead from the inside out. Compassion inward; compassion outward. (Like the egg if time permitted).

         C is also for Clarity: being clear about what you want, what your limits are, what you are responsible for. And finally, 

         C also stands for Courage: the courage to speak your truth, and to hear the truth of others.

         E - is for Engage Now we are ready to engage with the situation positively. We can create a win-win-win situation and "Begin with an open-end"--which means, to enter without attachment to a specific outcome.

          In the classroom, I use many mindfulness-based strategies to bring awareness to the present moment, such as inviting the bell --you call it “ringing the bell”, we call it “inviting the bell”-- to get students’ attention. We may do a quick breathing exercise, have quiet time or some other technique. I also share "Quotes of the Week" with my students to illustrate life lessons, with moral and ethical values. These quotes not only are to motivate my students, but also they help us build a strong interpersonal relationship. As you already know, once we have established a good relationship, teaching is much easier. I have even asked the students to do a “walking meditation” without letting them know they are doing that. If students ever use “salty language” or do some other misbehavior in my classroom, I ask them to go outside and not distract the classroom activities. However, instead of having them sit down and wait, which may result in anger building up, or at minimum, it’s boring and a wasted learning opportunity, I ask them to walk slowly and mindfully toward the next building. I tell them that they must touch this wall, to walk mindfully to that wall, touch it and go back and then go back and forth 5 times. By that time, they often have defused their frustration, sadness or anger and realized what they themselves did that needs correcting. When I asked "Do you know why I removed you from the class?", most of them say, ”Yes,” and “Sorry,” but if they don't, I ask them to walk 5 more times and this time, I guide them to focus their attention on a mark on the wall or a tree, and notice how their perception changes as they move closer or farther away from it. After the tenth time, they are more calm and ready to go back to the classroom and learn.

           Overall, research shows that mindfulness-based approach is working in the classroom both for teens and even for adults, at least for me. I am still using it. Here is an example to illustrate that: [play the audio].

         As you can see, it is hard for me as an educator, in this case a designated substitute Vice principal at Mira Loma High, to see a student get handcuffed and taken to jail. Somehow, I felt we failed as a whole system. This reminded me of something my Vietnamese Buddhist teacher once told me, “If the doctors or dentists makes a mistake, they can kill only one person, but educators like us, if we make mistakes we kill the whole generation." And I see it as not only one generation, but many generations.

          As educators of high school and middle school children, we deal with about 165 students in one single day, and our energy can run low each day. It is very important that we take a good care of ourselves. We can't give something we don't have. Please take care of yourselves physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually and all the 'lys' that you can think of, so that we can give it forward. Have some quiet time for yourself each day to recharge your energy. Teachers matters. Keep Calm. Be Mindful. Teach On.

Breathe and Smile. Thank you for listening.

Phe Bach, Ed.D.
Mira Loma High School
San Juan Unified School District.