Think back to your own childhood in school. Your teacher probably had a lot of requests for you and your classmates. “Please no talking when the teacher is talking!” “Please take a seat.” “Take out your homework”. “Please pay attention!”
All of these requests have come from my own mouth at one point or another in my own career as a teacher. However, it was not until I really started to study and practice mindfulness that I realized that one of my most frequently used commands to my students, “Pay Attention”, was something that I am not sure was ever taught to them.
Think back as far back as you can in your education. Did anyone actually ever teach you how to pay attention? Do you remember a lesson on this skill? Probably not! This is one of the keys to learning, yet we never actually teach our students how to do it. Then, like so many other things, we just expect kids to be able to follow these simple directions having had no formal training in the area. We do the same thing as parents, grandparents, and so on.
This is where mindfulness can be an even more useful tool. Mindfulness helps to train our brains to focus on the present moment. It helps us to be able to be in the here and now and pay attention. As mentioned before in previous blog posts, mindfulness is a practice. It is something that needs to be done more than just once, preferably on a regular basis, in order to become good at it.
For those of you who are thinking that you just don’t have the time to take up meditation or you cannot fathom teaching children to meditate in your classroom, it is ok. Mindfulness can be taught through regular daily tasks. For instance, in this time of incessant washing of hands, practice paying attention to washing your hands. Feel the temperature of the water. Smell the soap. Pay attention to the difference of your hands feeling wet versus feeling dry. If you are at home with kids or if you want to do this for yourself, make a cup of tea, hot chocolate, or coffee (perfect since it is snowing here in NY today!) and focus on the process. Hold the cup in your hand and pay attention to the warmth on your hand. Inhale the scent of the beverage. Feel the steam as it rises on your face. Really focus on the taste and feeling of the sip that you take. In a classroom, practice listening to the sounds in the room. Practice listening to the sounds outside of the classroom. Have your students be still and quiet while noticing all of the things in your classroom that are the color blue.
Training your brain to focus on these moments is practicing mindfulness. These are the ways to teach yourself how to pay attention. In a day and age when there is so much information coming at us all at once, we need to train or even retrain our brains to focus on the present moment. It is said that we take in as much information in a day as our ancestors did in a lifetime. Imagine the effects that has on the brain. As a matter of fact, think of the last time that you were driving someplace or reading a book. Did you have a moment where you realized half way to your destination that you have no idea how you have gotten to where you are because you were on autopilot and thinking of a million other things? Have you ever gotten to the end of a page in your novel only to not have a clue as to what you just read? Your brain needs to be trained to pay attention again!
So teachers (and parents who are now taking on the role of teacher assistants) the next time you get frustrated with your student or child who does not seem to be paying attention, stop and do a mindfulness activity with them. Create opportunities throughout the day where you help them to focus on only one thing and learn to push the other things out. Turn off the television and focus on the meal you are having or the game that you are playing. Take a walk outside and look for as many things as you can that are green. Search an area of your backyard for rocks or stones and stop to really look at them, touch them, smell them, describe them. Stop and smell the roses or flowers in bloom. Think about the fact that they may never have been trained to pay attention. It may be a skill that was just expected of them. We would never just expect a child to read without learning how. We would never expect them to ride a two wheeler or write in cursive (yes, some kids still learn this, thank goodness!) without first training them. Why not take time in our homes and our classrooms to train our kids to do the one skill that will help them to be more successful than anything else?