Emma Reynolds, an accredited Mindfulness teacher, looks at how teachers can help learners deal with difficult emotions and stay calm, focused and present as they return to a “new normal” in the online classroom. Emma explores how to question the thinking that provokes negative emotions and invites anxious, storytelling minds to turn instead towards positive thinking.

There are lesson materials including worksheets and teacher’s notes at the bottom of the article as well as a link to a webinar in which Emma discusses these ideas at length.

Introduction

We are all living through turbulent times. Old ways of doing things make way for the “new normal”. It’s perhaps not surprising that difficult emotions such as anger, frustration, sadness and anxiety can arise in class. How can teachers best equip themselves to handle an outpouring of emotion? And how can they help both themselves and their students stay calm and present in this ever-changing landscape?

Many of the things that currently cause stress are out of anyone’s control: social distancing, wearing masks, loss of connections with friends and family, online schooling, and uncertainty about the future. But if learners can recognise when they feel stressed and when they start reacting negatively, they have a chance to respond more wisely.

This article looks at how teachers and students can recognise stressful situations and redirect the stories they tell themselves about these situations. The mindfulness activities explained here can help teachers and their students take their first steps toward choosing to respond in positive ways.

Training the wandering mind - mindfully

Mindfulness, in a nutshell, is an invitation to focus our attention where we choose to put it, rather than allowing the mind to endlessly wander into fear-filled future scenarios. Our “what if …” minds cook up more horror stories than the next Stephen King, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

We humans give too much power to our thoughts. One worry pops in, uninvited, and before we know it we are off and running — one thought attaching itself to another and another until we have a snowball effect. A small problem can suddenly become enormous and we can feel overwhelmed.

Clearly, what we do as adults, children do as well. They worry, they create stories in their heads and then they suffer because of them. Just like us adults, they try to think themselves out of a situation, but this often just creates more worry.

In the same way that we can train ourselves to do almost anything - learning a language, playing a musical instrument, or creating muscle memory for a sport - we have the capacity to train the mind to focus on what we want it to focus on. This has benefits for mental health as well as education. Students learn better when they are relaxed and calm. If they’re preoccupied with an inner struggle, they are less likely to remember anything about whatever you might be teaching.

Thought Triangle

Thoughts create emotions, which create body sensations, which create more thoughts and emotions.

Getting out of the mind and into the body

The key to escaping this endless loop of thoughts, negative emotions and body tension is to go directly to the body. Take a moment as you read this article to pause. Take three deep, slow breaths and notice where you feel tension in your body. Try to notice the tension without judging it or trying to change it. Using your imagination, send your breath into the tense part of your body and create more space so that it feels less tight. If you feel calmer than a moment ago, it’s because you have reconnected to your body and stepped out of the thinking mind. 

Mindful breathing: a practice for all ages

Do a “three breaths” exercise with learners at the start of an online class as they settle in front of the screen or transition to a new activity.  Have everyone write one word to describe how their body feels and one word to describe how their mind feels.  For example: tense, worried.  Then ask the class to relax and look at a point one metre away and gently breathe in and out mindfully as they count to themselves: One (breathe in and out), two (breathe in and out), … up to ten.  Invite learners to write a new word for the body and the mind after breathing mindfully.

Working with the power of words

Turning towards difficulties such as a busy or anxious mind is an approach that, when done with care, can help us keep our emotional states within our control. 

To explore how words can affect our mood, try this exercise:

Ask learners to help you create a list of emotions. As they call the words out, you can write words like “anger, fear, anxiety, sadness, frustration, bored” on one list and words like “happy, excited, joy” on the other. Have a few extra words ready to teach as needed. 

Have students lower their gaze whilst you read out the “negative” emotions list. Ask them how they feel when they hear (or think about) the word. They may respond with: “heavy” or “low energy”. Ask them where in their body they feel the word. Often it will be in the chest, back, belly, but be open to other suggestions. Record their responses.

Then ask learners to take a deep breath and relax. Read the positive words and again ask them how they feel as they focus on their body sensations. They may feel more open, lighter, or they may notice they are smiling. Record their responses.

Older students will be able to reflect on how they use and view words related to emotions. For example, they can comment on how they use positive or negative words with themselves.   They can point out language related to emotions when they are on social media and comment on the effect language has on their feelings and their body. 

Befriending the anxious mind

Each of these activities help learners connect to their bodies, allowing them to learn to listen to the signals the body is giving off. Being able to recognize the signs of a potential emotional melt-down is invaluable. When difficult moments arise, the following ABCDE practice can be a good model.

  • The ABCDE practice:

    A —Awareness: Notice how you’re feeling and what you’re thinking.
    B —Breathe: Take deep belly breaths.
    C —Count: Count ten breaths, in and out.
    D —Distance yourself: If ABC isn’t enough, move away from the upsetting person or situation.
    E —Express yourself: Once the moment has passed, calmly express how you were feeling and why.

Expressing gratitude

Start your class with a gratitude circle.  Invite learners to share the things that make them feel good. Is it a hug from a family member, or playing with their favourite pet, having a laugh with their friends or remembering an occasion when they felt really happy? If they feel shy about saying what they are grateful for, invite them to post their suggestions in the chat window or on a whiteboard. Looking for positive aspects of life can help students balance stress and increase their resilience. 

Examining the context and story

Attitude is everything. Imagine that your favourite football team is about to win the league. While watching the game, you notice your body is tense, you have sweaty palms, your heart is beating fast. You’re excited right? Those very same bodily sensations can also tell us we are scared. Context and the story we tell ourselves make all the difference. Public speaking is either fun or a massive stressor. It’s not the event or situation itself that is intrinsically stressful.  It’s the story we tell ourselves about it.

If the mind is creating a story that has an emotional attachment, try this exercise to see if there is another way to look at the situation.

  • Is it true?

  • Are you sure the story is true? Is there any other way to see this?
  • How does the story make your body and mind feel?
  • What is the storyline? (the story that the thoughts are creating)
  • What would it be like to stop thinking about this story?
  • What benefits might you feel?

Everyone would like to feel safe and in control, but no one knows what the future holds, and life is full of things that can’t be changed. The present moment is all we have, and we can choose what we focus on. That makes all the difference in our lives.