A steady flow of new and emerging research continues to suggest that mindfulness offers great benefits to health and well-being. It shifts the nature of our relationship to experience and we now know that cultivating an even-handed and openhearted stance toward life can strengthen emotional balance, resilience, and interpersonal effectiveness; skills we can all use throughout our lives in and beyond the classroom. Mindfulness education is not only useful as intervention for specific populations but as a universal approach to preventing distress and imbalance that often take shape as a range of mental health issues often with difficult to manage symptoms.
Patricia C. Broderick, PhD,, licensed clinical psychologist, certified school psychologist and counselor for grades K through 12, and author of Learning to BREATHE: A Mindfulness Curriculum for Adolescents to Cultivate Emotion Regulation, Attention, and Performance, has spent years developing and testing a program for adolescents that would integrate what she learned at Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and through her positions as a research associate at the Prevention Research Center for the Promotion of Human Development at Penn State University, and founder of the Stress Reduction Center at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. The finished product, a curriculum whose focus is on the practices of present-moment attention, emotion regulation, and stress-reduction skills, teachers and students alike must settle into present-moment awareness by slowing down and practicing a new skill set for paying attention. Although there is a structure to the lessons and activities, this curriculum allows for and in actually encourages openness and flexibility on the part of the teacher or therapist in order to remain present in each moment without the constraints of pre-determined expectations or limiting beliefs.
To Broderick, teaching mindfulness means facilitating adolescents’ recognition of their own personal experience, at the moment of that experience, which she says is best accomplished through a connectedness to your own inner and outer experience and to your students. Mindfulness is the opposite of being “zoned out,” asleep, in denial, or unaware of what’s happening. On the contrary, is it open, moment-to-moment awareness, held without judgment, even when what is occurring may be unwanted. Each new moment provides the experiential material that is the heart of this curriculum.
The Learning to BREATHE curriculum is unique in that in order to implement it in the classroom the facilitator must obtain a level of understanding which incorporates experience. The pedagogical tradition of providing teachers and clinicians with skills and techniques in a curriculum manual may only be useful if such techniques are employed within the context of the instructor’s own mindful awareness.
So what are some recommendations for teachers and clinicians who will teach this program?
- Some basic training in mindfulness is strongly encouraged, particularly when you are teaching adolescents about mindfulness of thoughts and emotions. Ideally, this would come from participation in a course like Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) or other mindfulness-based programs. The eight-week MBSR program, for example, incorporates practice in various mindfulness techniques, classroom discussion, and homework. Engaging in other contemplative disciplines can also provide a foundation for teaching. Mindfulness retreats and workshops are becoming more readily available, as are in-service trainings to provide you with guidance in this approach to teaching.
- Continue to practice mindfulness or some other contemplative practice on a regularly basis. We are all “in training” to develop inner strength and it is difficult for teachers and therapists to embody the qualities of mindfulness in groups unless they themselves do their own inner work. For example, it is particularly difficult to practice silence in the group without feeling at ease with silence yourself. Likewise it is difficult to respond to adolescents’ questions about practice without some personal experience of what the practice is like for you. The foundational attitudes of mindfulness—nonjudging, patience, beginner’s mind, trust, nonstriving, acceptance, and letting go (Kabat-Zinn, 1990)—are nurtured through sustained practice.
- Have or obtain appropriate credentials to work with children and adolescents. Professionals in this category might include classroom teachers, counselors, psychologists, social workers, health professionals, and others who are appropriately certified for their positions. The Learning to BREATHE curriculum, for example, is a program that requires some expertise in group work and adolescent development. The success of the program hinges on the facilitators ability to manage group discussion, classroom organization, establish a supportive environment, carefully manage social-emotional issues, and understand developmental needs among the group. Classroom teachers should be sufficiently trained to recognize when students may need more intensive support, especially with youth who have experienced trauma, and should be able to refer those students for appropriate services. Therapists may repeat certain themes or support the curriculum with other therapeutic modalities if needed.
- Be mindful of maintaining the orientation, structure, and essential messages of an empirically-validated curriculum. “Competence is one component of treatment integrity (the extent to which the approach is carried our as intended); the others being adherence (the extent t o which the teacher applies the appropriate ‘ingredients’ at the appropriate time point and does not introduce the intervention procedures which are not recognized as a part of the approach) and treatment differentiation (how the approach can be distinguished from other approaches)” (Weck, Bohn, Ginzburg, & Stangier, 2011).
- Finally, remember that mindfulness practice is a moment-by-moment experience. Each of us begins over and over again, in each new moment, regardless of what the moment holds. It’s important to set the intention to be present, as fully as possible, and keep the intention in mind. It’s equally important to be accepting of yourself, not expecting perfection but remaining curious about the process and open to the possibilities. In this way, every moment of every day in the classroom or in the therapy office is an opportunity to start wherever you happen to be and to work with whatever happens to be here.
For the full curriculum, get your copy of Learning to BREATHE here.
J. (1990). Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness (hardcover ed.). New York: Delacorte Press.
Weck, F., Bohn, C., Ginzburg, D. M., & Stangier, U. (2011). Treatment integrity: Implementation, assessment, evaluation, and correlations with outcome. Verhaltenstherapie, 21(107), 99–107.