By Dana Asby, CEI Director of Innovation & Research Support
As students, families, and educators embark on the most stressful Back to School season in their lifetimes, they are looking towards mindfulness to bring a sense of peace, calm, and clarity in these times of uncertainty and fear. “Self-care” has become an even more prevalent buzzword since COVID-19 brought toxic stress into each of our lives—although to varying degrees of severity. We implore schools and families to go beyond merely taking care of themselves with helpful strategies such as making time for yoga and/or meditation each day and to practice “community care,” using mindfulness to change the hearts and minds of your entire community.
Mindfulness as Self-Care during COVID-19
Many compassionate school leaders have been providing their staff members with the time and resources necessary to practice self-care during this global pandemic. Heart centered school leaders with knowledge of the neurobiology of toxic stress and trauma understand that before teachers can be effective at providing the warm relationships, structure, and sense of safety that students need before learning can begin, teachers must address their own stress. Self-care practices that our research has led us to promote and which the Childhood-Trauma Learning Collaborative Fellows have found effective during this crisis (Mason et al., 2020) include:
Daily yoga, meditation, and breathwork practices
Making time for reflection through journaling or talking with colleagues, friends, and family
Spending time in nature
Reading a book
Taking long, warm baths and showers
Carving out time to be alone or with friends
What all of these self-care practices have in common is taking the time to slow down, come back to the body, and be in the present completely. Mindfulness is about being in the here and now, helping those suffering with depression about the past or anxiety about the future find joy in the present moment. To get the full benefits of these practices, make them a habit by using them every day. We have a plethora of ideas for how schools and families can integrate mindful habits into their daily routines. Schools can emphasize the importance of self-care, not only for teachers, but for students and their families as well.
Moving from Self-Care to Community Care
School leaders will increase their success in teaching students and families how to use mindfulness technology by starting with themselves and their staff. When you see the transformational effects of mindfulness for your life, your experience will be inspirational to your school community. Heart centered schools care deeply not just about the academic success of their students, but also their social and emotional health and well-being. To be shepherds of this positive well-being, we must move beyond using mindfulness merely as a self-care tool to using it as a community-care tool.
Community care is the concept that to be our best selves- individually and collectively- we must work together to take actions that make ourselves and our community a better place.
Where to Start
A first step for schools new to mindfulness might be to send mindfulness tips, such as links to kids yoga videos, articles about the benefits of meditation and how to begin a practice with your family or a tweet reminding families to leave space and time for reflection during this stressful time. Once school leaders or teachers feel more confident in their own mindfulness practices, they can invite students and families to practice mindfulness with them.
Here are some ideas to bring the whole school community together for mindfulness practices:
Host an in-person or virtual mindful moment at the beginning of each day. You can pair an inspirational quote, poem, or song lyric with a quick breathwork activity, meditation, or yoga movement practice to start the day off on a positive note.
Have teachers make videos of themselves showcasing a favorite mindful activity and send it out to parents to try at home with their children. Give teachers time to do this during a professional development session so that they are not getting one more task added to their plate.
Educate families about the science behind mindfulness by sharing compelling articles or videos about the neuroscience of stress and mental illness and how yoga, meditation, and breathwork have been proven to reduce depression, anxiety, and stress.
Create a space (virtual or in-person) for school community members to come together regularly to practice mindfulness as a group and to reflect. Whether it’s a Google Hangout or a soccer field, create a welcoming area to engage in group meditation, yoga, or breathwork. Make it a habit by putting it on the school calendar once a week or once a month, depending on how invested your school community is. Have patience in watching attendance/participation grow. If only two people are there for the first four sessions, that is a group, and those two people are benefiting from it. More will come.
Mindfulness is a powerful individual practice, but when we come together to use this technology, science shows us that there can be even greater benefits.
The Benefits of Mindfulness as Community Care
Group mindfulness practices can help us understand each other better and create community bonding. Neuroscience research shows that alpha and gamma brain waves actually synchronize when people practice meditation in a group setting (Brandmeyer & Delorme, 2013). Alpha brain waves are our “resting” waves, those that help with “mental coordination, calmness, alertness, mind/body integration and learning” (Brainworks, n.d.). Gamma waves, on the other hand, are the fastest brain waves, those that moderate perception and consciousness and are related to “universal love, altruism… and expanded consciousness” (Brainworks, n.d.). So, practicing meditation alone can help an individual increase their self-compassion and compassion for others, but meditating in a group goes beyond this to help us literally get on the same wavelength as those in our community.
When students, families, teachers, and school leaders all have opportunities to practice mindfulness together, not only will they reap its stress-relieving benefits, but they will also have a stronger sense of togetherness, something each school community will need to start this school year off as a heart centered group.
Brainworks. (n.d.). What are brainwaves?
Brandmeyer, T. & Delorme, A. (2013).Meditation and neurofeedback. Frontiers of Psychology, 7(4), 688. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00688.
Mason, C., Asby, D., Rivers Murphy, M., & Staeheli, M. (2020). Stress, school, and self-care: COVID-19 highlights inequities, mental health challenges, systemic needs, and possible solutions. New England Mental Health Technology Transfer Center.