When I teach mindfulness to early childhood educators, I don’t teach them how to teach it to their students—I teach them how to bring mindfulness into their classrooms by first learning to be mindful themselves. Teachers who engage in mindfulness-based practices have been shown to have lower cortisol levels and to be more responsive and compassionate towards their students, less emotionally reactive, and more intentional in their teaching practices.
Mindfulness is also an important tool in increasing equity in our classrooms by helping us become aware of how our own bias can keep us from extending compassion toward our students, families, and coworkers.
While I try to be careful about touting mindfulness as a solution to all of the challenges facing early childhood educators, it is a tool that they can learn to use to help them take wise action and lead them to more intentional interactions with students, coworkers, and even themselves.
Practice pausing: In order to pay attention to the moment, we have to train ourselves to remember that the moment is there. I often have educators choose a touchstone, something that will remind them to pause throughout the day. For me, it’s a stone I found on a beach—I put in a place that I pass several times a day. For others, it’s an act, like every time they wash their hands or get in their car.
Take a moment to stop and check in with yourself by taking a breath or doing a quick scan of your body. The purpose of this pause is not to judge what you notice—it is simply to notice. And then let go.
4-7-8 breath: Finding a structured way to breathe can be very helpful to tune in and focus our attention. This type of breathing also works to regulate our parasympathetic nervous system and can really help us in high stress moments when we need to think before reacting.
Breathe in for four seconds, hold for seven, and then exhale for eight. If this is too difficult, start with a shorter ratio. I usually place my hands on my belly while I’m doing this breath, so I can be sure I’m breathing deeply, into my diaphragm.
Walking: When I was teaching, I would try to practice mindfulness while walking down the hall. I would start by tuning into my feet, noticing how my heels felt when they hit the floor and how I rolled up onto the balls of my feet. I noticed the way my weight shifted from one side to the other with each step, the way my knees bent. I would do a quick scan up my entire body until I got to my head, and then I would shift my attention to my senses: What do I see? Hear? Smell?
You can also do this quickly by just standing up. Bring all your attention to your feet and shift your weight from side to side and notice how your whole body moves. Learning to tune into our bodies can be a great way to bring us into the moment and build our mindful muscles.
Leaves on a stream: When we begin to tune into our thoughts and feelings, we can get carried away out of the moment we’re in. This often happened to me while teaching—I would be in the middle of a lesson and would be thinking so much about the data I was hoping to collect that I would miss what was happening right in front of me. We can learn how to choose wisely which thoughts and feelings to pay attention to and which ones to let go of.
Take a few moments throughout the day to just tune into your thoughts and see what’s there. I like to imagine thoughts as leaves floating down a stream. Each time I notice a thought, I place it on a leaf and watch it float down the river. It’s normal to get lost in thought during this process. The key here is not to judge—as soon as you notice you’ve gotten carried away, just begin again.
Journaling with RAIN: Investigation is an important part of mindfulness. Once we begin to recognize our thoughts and feelings, we can begin to investigate where they come from and what they are asking of us. Journaling can be a great way to do this. I like to use Tara Brach’s acronym RAIN as a structure to journal with—I often use this process when I’ve had a challenging moment with a student or coworker and need a way to process it more deeply before responding with some kind of wise action. These are the journaling prompts that I would use:
Loving kindness practice: I’ve found this essential in sustaining my ability to extend empathy and compassion to myself and others. This practice can also be very helpful as we start to uncover some of the implicit biases and stereotypes that can impact our ability to extend compassion and empathy to those we see as different from ourselves.
You can create your own loving kindness phrase or find a standard one. I like to use this one: “May I be safe, may I be happy, may I be free from suffering.” I begin by offering this phrase to myself. I then offer it to someone I love dearly, like my child. Then I extend this phrase by picturing someone I don’t know well, maybe someone I see in my neighborhood or school, but don’t know personally. Next I extend this wish to someone I find challenging. (I learned the hard way not to start this practice with the person you find most difficult—start with someone you find slightly annoying, and move from there.) I end by offering this same phrase to all beings. By practicing offering compassion to all people, we increase our capacity for compassion and empathy.