Think First: Practicing Mindfulness to Keep Students Engaged
Joshua Martinez believes that before students can focus on literature or math concepts, they need to focus on how their own brains function. At KIPP Raíces Academy in East Los Angeles, he has begun incorporating mindfulness practices into his classroom to help his fourth-grade students identify when they are frustrated or distracted—and build the executive functioning skills they need to respond productively. In his essay, Martinez describes how those practices help his students regulate their energy, focus their attention, and relate to rigorous lessons that will help them navigate the very challenges and obstacles outside of school that steal their attention in the first place.
Take a deep breath for 3…2…1. Hold it…and slowly let the breath out.
During our afternoon read-aloud, my fourth graders’ conversation begins with a quick turn and chat to generate ideas with an elbow partner before the whole class discussion. The students are immediately awash in debate about Maniac Magee, critically analyzing how the main character is blind to the realities of racism.
Except for Noemi. She’s noticeably silent. Typically, she’s the one I depend on to say, “But in the text it says,” introducing evidence to counter an argument. Today she’s different.
As the class lines up for recess, I crouch next to Noemi’s desk. She’s waiting for her mother to take her out of class. They’re going to an attorney this afternoon to sign documents that transfer legal custody of Noemi and her little sister to a family friend if immigration officials detain her parents.
Sometimes learning can be the last thing on a student’s mind.
Take another deep breath for 3…2…1. You’re slowing down the amygdala, the brain’s security guard.
When students experience high levels of stress, the amygdala is the part of the brain that responds, serving as an information filter that is controlled by our emotions. When calm, the amygdala allows information to flow into our prefrontal cortex where cognitive control and critical thinking take place. When stressed, information stays within the amygdala and is processed right on the spot, reacting without thinking. While this fight-or-flight response is necessary for survival, it is detrimental in the classroom.
I can plan for engaging and culturally responsive content, but if my students don’t feel safe and connected at school, many are not going to be successful. One tangible way to help students handle stress inside and out of the classroom is through conscious, controlled breathing. Deep breathing helps to slow the heart rate down, lower blood pressure, and improve our focus—releasing control back to our conscious thoughts.
That’s why, for 15-20 minutes every day, my students get to know themselves, and their classmates, by deepening their understanding of their own mental processes. Together, we learn how our bodies react when stressed and how to deescalate internal and external conflict.
For the last five minutes, I guide my students through mindfulness exercises—controlled breathing activities, paying special attention to our senses, thoughts, and emotions. Mindfulness prepares the brain to think first—then plan a response. It pushes kids to be metacognitive when they’re feeling distracted and identify the root causes. It also encourages students to see their brains and academic skills through a growth mindset lens. We can get better at anything—including regulating our thoughts and emotions—if we continue to challenge ourselves.
With the next deep breath I want you to focus on awakening your prefrontal cortex, the wise leader.
Julian stands near the back of the class trying not to distract others while he twists and turns. He’s scribbling ferociously on his whiteboard, proving the myriad ways to decompose the number 132.
The casual observer would stereotype this behavior as “off-task,” but Julian has chosen to stand like this because it helps him focus.
He beams after sharing his work aloud when one of his scribbles pushes our classroom thinking forward on the relationship between the distributive property and base 10.
Many of my students do wonderfully in small groups because they can focus. It’s their distractedness that’s getting in the way of learning. Frustrated by seeing this time and again, I began to research how I could bridge the gap. What I found was many of my students need explicit practice developing their executive functioning skills—a group of cognitive abilities central to controlling one’s behavior.
Julian is one of those students who needs to be active. Asking him to sit down or pay attention 20 times an hour is a waste of his time—and class time. If I can intervene in the beginning of the year to develop his ability to regulate his behavior and discern between inattention and engagement, I’m going to set Julian up for success not only in my classroom, but in his future academic endeavors.
First, he needs to notice that he’s in a distracted state. Next, he needs to use his breath to calm his brain and choose a coping mechanism like standing near the back of the class to move and regulate his attention. Lastly, he needs to consider if the new behavior has led to academic success.
We’ve practiced this. Over. And over.
It doesn’t always work. Sometimes Julian’s whiteboard will display Star Wars characters or he’ll forget to finish his work after a stretch break. When I reinforce expectations for behavior or effort, I use instructive language: “Julian, while that’s a good sketch of Jango Fett, the problem is you’re not getting enough quality practice with multiplicative comparisons. If these refocusing strategies aren’t working, let’s find one that does.”
Every student wants to be successful, but not all students have the prerequisite skills to get there. By teaching students like Julian the explicit skills of self-awareness, mindful breathing, and coping strategies, I’m empowering them to take charge of their own behavior and learning.
With the next deep breath I want you to push the air all the way to the hippocampus, the memory saver.
I’m asking Estrella to prove the statement “all rectangles are parallelograms, but not all parallelograms are rectangles.” As her eyes begin to widen and shyly look around the room, I can tell she’s stumped, but not deterred. I nod my head to her. You got this.
After 30 seconds of a furrowed brow, Estrella takes her whiteboard out to draw the different shapes.
I have to remind myself, “Stay with her.”
What are the skills that Estrella needs to answer this question? Clearly she needs to know definitions. She needs to understand the comparative statement. But she also needs practice sticking with a question that’s cognitively demanding without giving up. So, I have to focus on the emotional mindset Estrella brings to challenging problems, not just the academic skills.
This should be taught like other traditional academic skills—with authentic real-world application and coaching. Every day, we use our breath to calm our brains so we can think clearly and persevere. Now, it’s Estrella’s time to rehearse, paying special attention to her thoughts and emotions as she works through this difficult problem with my support.
After another 30 seconds pass, I can see I need to scaffold this question a bit.
“What is a parallelogram?”
Estrella nails the definition.
“What is a rectangle?”
Again, she nails it.
“What’s a rhombus?”
“A rhombus is a parallelogram with four congruent…” and then the shy look evolves into an aha smile.
She takes a deep breath and answers.
“I loved the way Estrella stuck with it there,” I say to the class, whose pride matches my own. “It can take time for our brains to make the necessary connections. I know mine does. I really appreciated the way she didn’t give up.”
I walk over, give this courageous girl a fist bump, and whisper, “Excellent work, Estrella.”
The mindfulness exercises are continuing to make their way into Estrella’s long-term memory in much the same way as her understanding of geometrical shapes—through repeated practice. Earlier in the year, Estrella would have waited me out or possibly been frustrated to tears. Now, she’s more aware of how she thinks and responds to stress. She’s also grown in her confidence as a thinker, knowing that often the best answers are thought through, not blurted out.
Being mindful has also made its way into my own hippocampus. In my first years of teaching, Estrella would have called on a classmate for help, Julian would have owed me recess time to reflect on his behavior, and Noemi wouldn’t have had the space for “excuses.” Now, I try to model self-reflection, learning from my mistakes, and empathy. The students know I’m growing in these practices alongside them.
With the last breath I want you to visualize yourself performing a courageous act.
As Noemi’s mom came to pick her up that afternoon, I was feeling pretty empty inside. What do I tell this family? Be mindful, everything will be okay?
I began to question if these mindfulness strategies were an educational fad that trivialized my student’s realities.
The next morning during our mindfulness practice, Noemi, unprompted, shared her experience at the lawyer’s office from the day before. The rest of the children empathized, opening up about their own fears. Noemi ended our discussion with her parent’s advice: “Focus your attention on school because we came to the U.S. to give you a better opportunity than we’ve had.”
Talk about courageous acts. Noemi’s parents took her to school today despite fears of deportation. Noemi named her fears in front of everyone. Noemi is here, trying her best to learn.
How can I not be inspired to teach?
The real question now is, how does she turn her attention back to learning to honor her parent’s sacrifice?
Mindfulness acknowledges and names the feelings, emotions, and stresses our students encounter, but does not allow the students to be defined by them. These practices give them tools to identify and deal with their realities while teaching them the skills to find a way forward. We recognize we have what seem to be insurmountable challenges, and yet our stories continue.
After the morning mindfulness exercise, Noemi returned to her seat exuding calm and confidence. Knowing that she was in a safe and nurturing environment, Noemi’s deep breaths allowed her brain to relax, let go of her stresses, and turn her attention to learning.
Slowly open your eyes. Take a moment to notice how you’re feeling…
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