Mindfulness for students (with no tibetan bells or yoga)

In my previous post I gave a brief overview of what I think mindfulness is, and how it can be beneficial for teachers. As I think it can be beneficial for everyone, obviously, there are applications for students as well.

While I do believe that our remit as teachers can be wider than simply teaching language, I don’t think it is the teacher’s role to therapise the students, nor are most teachers in any way trained or prepared for this. That said, most teachers don’t have a problem with encouraging students to develop self-evaluation skills, and mindfulness can be seen as simply an extension of this.

Perhaps the central focus of mindfulness is the focus on the present moment. This doesn’t mean that you somehow aren’t allowed to think about what’s just happened or about to happen, but that you shouldn’t be so caught up in the past or future that you aren’t really ‘here’. So an activity where you describe a memory is absolutely fine; thinking about what you’re going to have for tea tonight while your partner talks to you about their memory, not so much.

Clearly, it is in the interests of learning for students to be fully present in the classroom, so how could this be facilitated?

Start the class right

In my last post, I mentioned the importance of starting the day right. The same principles can be applied to a class. It’s really important to start the class with everyone fully focused. Some ideas for facilitating this, from Mindful Teaching and Teaching Mindfulness

–          For young learners, start with a song or jazz chant or clapping game.

–          Take out something really interesting to look at and gradually pull in everyone’s attention

–          Read something really interesting aloud

–          Start with a riddle or puzzle

–          If learners are engaged in discussing something as they come into class, start there.

[And there was another idea involving using a Tibetan bell….but I promised EBEFL that I wouldn’t mention anything like that ;)]


In this excellent post, Kevin Stein writes about keeping a real time journal- a reflective tool  where he jots down notes about what is actually happening in the class as it happens. This helps him to make decisions about what to do next- in essence it’s a tool for focusing on the present.

The same kind of activity can work very well for students, and is a good short activity for early finishers. Rather than drifting off, ask them to write a few sentences about what they notice happening in the classroom and/or about what they are feeling. This might give you an insight into the class or the student from a different angle- unless the student wants to keep what they have written private.

Or you could occasionally carry out more extended noticing tasks. For example, the dogme activity, the Sounds of Silence, from Teaching Unplugged, where the class simply listens in silence for one minute to whatever is happening around them (open the windows or door) and then discusses what they heard.

A classic mindfulness activity (originating, I think, with Jon Kabat-Zinn)  is to eat a raisin, with complete attention. For example:

Pick up a raisin and hold it in the palm of your hand. Look at it. Examine it. Describe the raisin. What does it look like? What color is it? How would you describe the texture? Now, feel the raisin in the palm of your hand. What does it feel like against your skin? Pick it up with your other hand. What does it feel like in your fingers? Is it slimy? Rough? Smooth? Soft? Hard? Squeeze it softly. What do you feel? Smell the raisin. Describe how it smells. Put the raisin in your mouth, but do not eat it. What does it feel like on your tongue? What does the texture feel like now? How does it taste? How does the taste compare to the way it smelled? Move it around in your mouth and notice every aspect of the raisin. Bite the raisin and think about what you taste. Now how does the raisin feel in your mouth? Finish chewing and eat the raisin. How did it taste? Describe the experience of the raisin.

This can work really well in class-students listen, carry out the activity and then write about the experience. Of course, you could do it with any activity- not just eating a raisin!

Dialogic teaching

Any approach, such as Dogme, where the emphasis is on real-time communication between the people in the class, will naturally promote being in the present (even if you’re talking about past experiences). If students are fully involved and engaged, they are present.

In this way, most teachers will, of course, already be promoting mindfulness with their students, and will be in a mindful state themselves whenever they are completely engaged and ‘in the flow’.

However, even in this kind of dialogue, we are not always in the present. Tim Lott puts this very well in a recent Guardian article:

In our western relationship with time, in which we compulsively pick over the past in order to learn lessons from it, and then project into a hypothetical future in which those lessons can be applied, the present moment has been compressed to a tiny sliver on the clock face between a vast past and an infinite future. Zen, more than anything else, is about reclaiming and expanding the present moment.

We talk about ‘teachable moments’, and it is my experience that the more fully engaged people are, the more teachable moments appear. So, conversation with students can, I believe, be taken deeper, and made more memorable, by asking questions which bring students back to now.

  • How do you know that is true?
  • Can you think of any situations in which that might not be true?
  • Is there another way to see that?

This doesn’t mean that you are saying that what they believe isn’t true, by the way, just that you are getting them to think about it again, from a fresh viewpoint.

Emotional response

A central part of awareness is being aware of emotions and feelings. Fiona Mauchline recently wrote a wonderful blog post about getting in touch with emotions as a way of making language more memorable.

We learn language when it becomes ‘salient’ for us, and an emotional response is a big part of that. A lesson on what makes you happy, by @designer lessons, had a profound effect on a class I taught, both emotionally and in terms of the language they seemed to retain.

Similarly, you could have a lesson about what things make people feel angry (bearing in mind the questions under dialogic teaching above).

In mindfulness, however, there is an important distinction between being aware of emotions, and believing that the emotion IS you. Mindfulness works on recognising the emotion, accepting that you’re experiencing it (rather than suppressing it), but seeing it as a passing event, like feeling hot or cold. They’re just sensations in the moment, and will pass.

The element of surprise

You can’t learn if you’re not awake , said Kevn Stein in another blog post you should check out. He was talking about introducing elements of surprise or challenge to wake students up. Mindfulness, far from being a passive kind of drifting off, is all about being awake, really awake.

So, ultimately, anything which (gently) pulls students (and teacher) awake and in touch with what is actually happening right now, is mindfulness. With this in mind, I’d argue that it’s easy to see how mindfulness applies to the classroom, as much as any other part of life.

For Phil Longwell talking about mindfulness on the #ELTchat podcast see http://eltchatpodcast.podomatic.com/

If you’re interested in mindfulness, check out my new website, www.life-resourceful.com


Filed under Teaching methodology, Working with groups

14 Responses to Mindfulness for students (with no tibetan bells or yoga)

  1. Hi Rachel,

    Very much enjoyed the read and thanks for the links to the posts. I’m taken with the idea of questions, “which bring students back to now.” It sounds like a very useful step in the learning process. Especially since a lot of the topics I use as discussion material actually gets students thinking about their future (like discussing what they want to do after highs school) and probably could trigger all kinds of anxieties (Oh, I have an entrance exam in three weeks and I need to study!!!) that push them out of being more mentally present in the class. So I guess what I’m saying is, if I’m hoping to increase student mindfulness in class, I probably should think about the topics I use a bit more at given times in the school year. Then if I do decide to go with topics which might get in the way of mindfulness, I should try and design activities and discussion questions which help students stay centered and bring them back to the now. For example, “What are you going to do after you graduate high school,” is a big fuzzy question and a path to anxiety land. But, “Who do you talk with about your post high school plans?” is a bit more concrete and can be a step towards discussing future plans without triggering vague fears and worries.

    Not sure if this comment makes much sense. But I’m feeling like I’m about to get hold of something to help keep classes focused and (hopefully) a little less anxiety inducing. So for that, a big thanks.


    • Thanks, Kevin, I think that comment about the kind of questions you ask is absolutely spot on- and your examples are really helpful. Some years ago I was running a DELTA session on humanistic language learning and I asked participants to visualise times they’d been successful….can you guess what happened? One of them ran out of the room in tears because the question had made her think about all the times she HADN’T been successful.

  2. Hi Rachel,

    I have greatly enjoyed the last two posts on mindfulness, thanks for sharing! I think you are spot on in seeing a need for us as teachers to, not only be more mindful and aware of the now, but help our students to do the same.

    I agree with Kevin, and really like the idea of questioning students to focus “on the now”.

    Mindfulness is a concept I constantly work on myself. I thank you for reminding us that it is something useful and helpful to bring to our students as well! 😀

    John Pfordresher

    • Thanks for commenting, John, and really glad it has been useful. You’re right about the constantly working on bit- I find I need lots of reminders, so writing these posts and chatting about it has been very useful for me too.

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  9. Montserrat Oliva

    Does anyone know of any courses where you can learn to use Mindfulness in ELT?

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