STS Blog

Teaching Mindfulness in a Digitally Connected Culture
Dr. Kirk Wheeler, Head of School

As the world spins faster, here at St. Thomas School (STS) we make it a priority to press pause on our busy day-to-day responsibilities and teach the value of being present. We take pride in our school's commitment to the development of the whole child, and a large part of that includes supporting social emotional learning and introducing our children to the concepts of mindfulness, reflection, and meditation. Encouraging these practices and taking time to part from our increasingly distracting digital society can support mental resilience.

Recognizing how technology and the pace of life can impede a child's pursuit of inner calm, as educators we challenge ourselves to build a solid foundation of mindfulness practices through reflection, routines, and rituals. It's evident that we are not getting any better at multi-tasking. We are simply getting faster at switching between tasks – and that puts a huge burden on our brains. Instead, we need to enhance students' abilities to focus on a task or a moment and be fully present.

At STS, we intentionally weave mindfulness into the curriculum as often as possible. This enables our students to experience and practice, at an age where they can begin to understand, what it feels like to be present, to press pause, and reflect on their actions. We know, through experience and an understanding of the development stages in early childhood, that predictability helps move children into a learning zone, which better allows their brains to be "in the moment," rather than focusing on what's next. At times, of course, we want children to develop the capacity to manage change and to be flexible. But, there is real power in being fully present and knowing that certain routines remain constant.

We are prewired to pay attention to change and patterns, something video game developers know too well. We must strengthen our brains, almost like a muscle, to get better at being calm and present. It's imperative to practice and stretch our "brain muscles" to better build the skills of sustained focus and attention – important for lifelong learning and health.

One simple but important practice we employ at STS is our daily chimes. Although just a simple tone, the ringing of chimes provides students with a predictable routine, and they become accustomed to responding by stopping their activity, not talking, and focusing. Chimes sound at the beginning of Chapel each morning, signaling a moment to come together with shared focus, which may also include the practice of repetition of certain responses, sayings, and songs. We also ring the chimes during lunch to signal that it's time to finish eating and to clean up. And, they are used in classrooms and assemblies as a way of bringing children together. It works, ring a gentle chime at STS and everyone calmly pauses, takes a breath, and listens.

Another mindfulness practice we teach is based on basic meditation strategies and brain research. Our students have learned that by design our brains look for patterns and change, which is likely a basic survival strategy that perhaps no longer serves us well. Knowing this, we teach children how to calm their thoughts, and how to stay centered and ignore extraneous noise by focusing inward. Next, we practice how to help our bodies relax. A simple technique is to have student focus on feeling their bodies in a space, such as their feet on the floor. Each time we practice, we extend the time slightly, knowing that for young children even 15 seconds can feel like an eternity.

Lastly, we ask students to think about a place in their lives where they feel the most comfortable, whether it's hiking outdoors, in their bedroom, on a soccer field, and then imagine being in that space when they become anxious.

It's worth noting that the ability to channel mindfulness can also greatly impact how we react to a crisis or emergency. We teach our students how the pre-frontal cortex and amygdala work as part of their brain's auto-response mechanism and that fear and stress activate the amygdala's fight or flight response, shutting down their ability to make rational decisions. But, as with most things, we can get better. We practice how it feels to be startled, perhaps by a loud noise, reflect on how our bodies respond (rapid heartbeat and rapid breathing), and discuss how we control on our responses. Students learn that even anticipating or envisioning a stressful situation can them help them to respond more calmly when they find themselves in time of stress and anxiety.

Parents can help reinforce mindfulness by developing home routines and rituals that incorporate our practices. For example, set expectations for stepping away from digital devices, and include routines such as setting the table, dinner conversation, and specific times for homework and bedtime.

We also coach parents about the benefits of mindful and intentional parenting. As parents, we're all busy with leading our own lives, and there can be a lot to accomplish in the evenings, but we encourage our parents to be present and avoid distractions. When possible, listen for cues when your children are naturally inviting you in. Take full advantage of those rare five-minute moments when your children want to share and answer questions. Your to-do list of shopping, making a grocery list, or other adult activities can wait until children are in bed.

STS also offers resourceful information and workshops to help parents identify ways to put parameters on technology at home. Let it begin with mindfulness.