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7 Tips for Teaching Mindfulness to Teens in Schools

What I learned from teaching hundreds of teens in the Vancouver, BC school system for the last two years.
mindfulness n schools, vancouver
Mindful meditation, or simply mindfulness, reaps big rewards for children and adolescents, too. Research published in theJournal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology in 2009 found that adolescents who participated in eight weeks of mindfulness-based stress reduction showed an 80 percent reduction in mental health problems.
A 2013 study in the Journal of Positive Psychology reported that low-income third-graders who participated in once-a-week sitting meditation, yoga, and breathing exercises showed a noticeable decline in hyperactive behavior and ADHD symptoms. Studies have also shown mindfulness to increase kindness, empathy, and emotional control in fourth- and fifth-graders and to ease school-related violent conflict by 65 percent
So there is a clear argument that mindfulness can be a useful tool to empower teens in their social and emotional learning. Here is a few helpful tips when teaching mindfulness to youth.

Keep it concrete and relevant: Use story and anecdote rooted in your own and their own experiences and routines that young people can relate to. I learned with practice to avoid the tendency for mindfulness teaching to become too abstract, too wordy and too didactic. Use everyday incidents from your own life and the students lives to illustrate mindfulness concepts. Relate it to sports, parents, grades, friends, and other issues they deal with day to day.

Build trust first: Most of the early sessions I do with a class are about establishing trust with the students. They have to feel safe and that they can trust you before they will engage in a meaningful way with you. That's because anything that requires them to share their own experience, no matter how simple or superficial can seem risky to them. If you do not have the trust of the students then they will not really engage with the exercises. This may take a few classes or even a few weeks. 

Create variety and movement: Students are being lectured at all day. So find opportunities to keep the exercises interesting by allowing them to stand, move around or "shake out" some of their restlessness for 15 - 20 secs between exercises. Sometimes the time of day will influence energy and engagement levels of the class. Be aware of this and work with it creatively. I think best time to teach is mid-morning and with engagement lowest just after lunch or mid-afternoon. Use a variety of exercises that explore the full range of mindfulness activities (seated meditations, mindful eating, listening or gratitude practices).

Give special help to students with learning disabilities or anxieties: My experience here is that these students might have shorter attention spans or some cognitive challenges. Some may struggle with english as their first language. I focus on talking clearly, talking a bit slower and using shorter exercises at the start. Often I will check in more frequently with these students that they are following me OK. You may need to work through your mindfulness curriculum at slightly slower pace and even double back on any exercises that were either a success or more challenging.

We are planting seeds: Not all the kids are going to be fully engaged all the time or even most of the time. Expect motivation and engagement and interest to vary week to week. Class engagement may also be influenced by other school or class related issues you may not be aware of. So if some sessions are harder than others to engage students, it may be due to factors outside your control. So always be aware we are not trying to make the students "do" something. There is no pass or fail. There is no ideal end result. Rather each session is merely an invitation to explore a new way of being with themselves (and each other). And we are planting seeds that may one day bear some fruit for students when they most need it.

Try outside: If the weather is good and the opportunity arises, try taking the walking meditation or even a mindful listening practice outside. The sounds and sights of nature can be a refreshing change from the sensory environment of the classroom. This can extend to encouraging them to try moments of mindfulness as they walk to and from school in the morning.
Embody your practice: This is in my opinion one of the most important aspects of teaching. A well developed personal mindfulness practice shows up in your own physical, mental and emotional presence you offer to the students. My experience is that students recognize this each in their own way. But it becomes an important element of showing and sharing what being present or being mindful means in real life.  This means a willingness and ability showing warmth, openness, acceptance and curiosity in all circumstances - even in the moments when students test you. These challenging moments might be where students will watch your reaction and if you embody what you teach, my experience is that the students will give you a bit more 'street cred' !