Schools nationwide are implementing mindfulness classes to help with focus, calm, and academic success. Learn more about these initiatives, with tips for practicing mindfulness at home.

By Nicole Harris
February 17, 2015
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It's not easy to clear your mind nowadays, thanks to the increasingly fast-paced and demanding world around us. Taking a moment to breathe, though, has many benefits for adults and children alike. That's why many schools are implementing "mindfulness programs" to help students improve focus, reduce stress, and achieve better academic performance.

Here's everything you need to know about student mindfulness programs, with tips on implementing the techniques at home.

FatCamera/Getty Images
FatCamera/Getty Images

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness involves paying attention to your thoughts, sensations, and emotions. Practicers relax the mind through breath awareness, and they focus on the present moment—not upcoming school assignments or past conversations with friends.

The benefits of mindfulness have been proven by a growing body of scientific research. It's been shown, for example, to reduce stress, improve attention span, regulate emotions, and lessen the severity of ADHD and mental problems like anxiety. Mindfulness has also been linked to improved academic success—specifically in math and language arts.

Mindfulness Programs in Schools

Nationwide, thousands of schools have implemented programs focused on mindfulness, including Learning to Breathe, Inner Resilience, and Mindful Schools. Another popular option is MindUP, the signature program of The Goldie Hawn Foundation that was founded in 2003. After September 11, Hawn found herself "alarmed with the increase in mental health issues and suicidal thoughts popping up in schools across the country,” says Mika Jain, Assistant Director of Education Partnerships for MindUp. Hawn gathered experts to create lessons based on brain science, mindful awareness, and similar topics—and what resulted was the MindUp program as it exists today. 

MindUp focuses on "stimulating and priming the brain for learning," says Jain. "It's a foundational program to help kids become ready for education.” She adds that benefits include improved working memory, social control, and overall well-being. Here are some statistics about MindUp's positive impact, according to its website:

  • 86% of children reported boosted well-being
  • 88% use MindUp lessons at home
  • 83% experience improved pro-social behaviors

MindUp has been formally implemented in over 400 schools in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada, says Jain. It's geared for those ages 3 to 14. 

So what's the program like for students? Take it from the daughter of New York City-based writer Ellen Sturm Niz, who participates in a mindfulness program at school. She says her class sits in a circle, closes their eyes, and take turns ringing the bell—a singing bowl—to start the session. Then they sit quietly and notice their own thoughts and what's around them. Each session has a different lesson, such as mindful seeing (their eyes are open for this), mindful hearing, mindful breathing, and heartfulness, which is sending kind thoughts to others. Sturm Niz's daughter says the sessions help her focus on the next thing they do in school.

How to Practice Mindfulness at Home

Want to reap the benefits of mindfulness at home? Some school-based programs, such as MindUp, offer family workshops for this purpose. "We want to see that the mindfulness language is reinforced throughout the school day and in the family environment," says Jain.

But even if your school district doesn't have a mindfulness practice, you can still take steps to help your child find focus, quiet, and calm. Here are some options.

  • Download an app. Consider getting a mindfulness app such as Stop, Breathe & Think Kids (free; App store). Designed for those ages 5-10, this app has a series of mindful activities to improve focus, calm the mind, ease over-excitement, and encourage peaceful sleep. Kids get stickers upon completing activities, and they can also check in with their emotions through emojis.
  • Have a "brain break." MindUp has a core practice called a "brain break," where students calm themselves with deep breaths and peaceful focus. It's easy to borrow this technique at home; simply encourage your child to "quiet her mind" during emotional moments, before bed, or as a homework break.
  • Eat mindfully. Mindfulness involves all five senses, and kids can learn to eat mindfully by focusing on their meal instead of systemically shoving food into their mouth. Other benefits of mindful eating include increased satisfaction after meals and a smaller chance of over-consumption.
  • Engage the senses. Next time you embark on a routine activity, like grocery shopping or driving to baseball practice, encourage your kid to be "in the moment." Have him focus on sounds, sights, tastes, and smells—and ask him to describe them to you.

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