This article depicts the mindfulness journey a preschool class took to develop and learn effectively as part of an inclusive and balanced Primary Years Programme (PYP) learning community.
As an experienced early years teacher, every new academic year fills me with a mixture of nostalgia for the years that have passed and nervous excitement for the experiences that lay ahead. The academic year of 2016/17 was no different, only this time the opportunity to grow as an educator came in the form of a complex challenge many long-serving teachers have encountered along their careers—a classroom community with a significant number of students with in-depth social and emotional needs.
Though at the time I had doubts over my capacities to attend to the needs of these students—whilst simultaneously ensuring equal opportunities for all students to develop and thrive within our programme of inquiry—the culture of my school, which is deeply rooted in the IB principles, allowed me to take leadership and experiment, applying methods that resulted in a transformational school year for all stakeholders.
It was through mindfulness practices that students learned to assimilate the IB learner profile attributes and independently began to take action over their behavioural choices within social groups.
Initially, I introduced students to the concept of mindfulness by using supportive literature and together we co-constructed the following strategies in our quest to become more self-regulated, self-directed and mindful of our own and others’ needs, wants and wishes.
Adopting the Environment as the Third Teacher (Brunton and Thornton, 2014) has always been part of the teaching philosophy at our school’s Early Learning Center, as we are inspired by a Reggio Emilia approach to learning in the early years.
With input from students, we altered the layout of our classroom spaces to provide a natural flow between busy and quiet spaces. Subsequently, we created a “mindful corner” that contained visual cues about emotions, literature on feelings, sensory cushions and props to help ease anxiety spells, and a listening station where nature sounds and children’s meditations could be played to help transport students to a world of calm whenever emotional meltdowns occurred.
- We revisited our classroom agreements and used the IB learner profile attributes of “caring”, “communicators” and “balanced” to develop new essential agreements that aligned with the codes of behaviour we were striving for as a community of learners.
- We integrated a “mindful minute” into our morning routines. Before diving into the hustle and bustle of learning, students and teachers gathered to practice fun, engaging and original breathing techniques. We welcomed every new school day by setting up individual and whole group intentions using the IB learner profile attributes as a guide.
Students would choose intentions such as:
- “Today I will be a good communicator by listening during story time.”
- “I want everyone to be caring by taking turns when a friend asks for a toy.”
- We built in “mindful moments” throughout the day to check in on how we were feeling, particularly during transition times. We would take time to consciously connect with our breathing before moving on to the next stage of our learning experiences.
- Students could also choose to take part in weekly afternoon mindfulness sessions, where—within small or large groups—we would develop and sustain students’ social and emotional skills. Using media, games and stories, we inquired into essential questions, such as:
- Do we express ourselves differently depending on how we are feeling?
- How can we be good friends?
- How can we show kindness?
- What can we do to promote our physical and emotional well-being?
Over the course of the school year, each of these practices instigated students to take individual and collective action, both at school and at home (as reported by parents), and in subsequent school years as well (as reported by some of my year one colleagues).
Below, there are samples of students’ self-initiated action represented through symbolic language. These samples illustrate the agency students exercised as part of their social and emotional learning processes.
The combination of the IB learner profile attributes, our essential agreements and mindfulness not only influenced students’ actions by strengthening their self-management, communication and social skills, but also successfully transformed our ability to regard, relate and learn authentically from one another in our classroom.
It is essential to consider that mindfulness practices do not just help to build on learners’ emotional intelligence from a younger age. They fundamentally shape students’ developing brains as they learn to exercise and grow their “mindful muscles” (pre-frontal cortex), which has been proven to assist humans to self-regulate and act from a place of choice and tolerance, rather than a place of reactivity (Young, 2018; Rechtschaffen, 2016; Kabat-Zinn, 2013; Kempson, 2012).
As part of the PYP enhancements, schools may now adopt mindfulness as a sub-skill to be developed within their programme of inquiry, thus demonstrating the IB’s commitment to developing students who can lead lives that are balanced and healthier, both physically and mentally.
Below are a few tips, should you wish to begin to integrate mindfulness into your learning community.
- Encourage learners to “name to tame” their emotions (Siegel and Payne Bryson, 2011). Remember that all emotions are just that—emotions—and labels of “good” or “bad” should be avoided.
- Use role-play to create wonder-filled short stories that will foster students’ curiosity and take them to imaginary worlds where they can actively engage their senses.
- Co-construct learning experiences with your students that are developmentally appropriate, as these will boost their dispositions for learning and contribute to mastery of vital life skills such as empathy and open-mindedness.
Brunton, L. and Thornton, P. 2014. Understanding the Reggio approach. 3rd ed. Oxon: Routledge.
Kabat-Zinn, J. 2013. Mindfulness in Education. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=77&v=Qm-qnkclUyE [Accessed December 2016]
Kempson, R. 2012. A mixed methods investigation of how secondary school pupils perceive the impact of studying mindfulness in school and the barriers to its successful implementation. Doctorate. Cardiff University.
Rechtschaffen, D. 2016. The Mindful Education Workbook: Lessons for teaching mindfulness to students. New York: Norton & Company.
Siegel, D. and Payne Bryson, T. 2011. The Whole-Brain Child: Revolutionary Strategies To Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind. New York: Delacorte Press.
Young, G. 2018. Finding a place of calm. Children in Scotland, pp. 28-30.
Catarina Peterson is a PYP Early Years Teacher at Luanda International School in Angola. She is also the author of Golden Sparkles: An Introduction to Mindfulness, a book inspired by her students’ experiences of mindfulness. Catarina holds a Masters of Education in Early Years and the IB Advanced Certificate of Teaching and Learning Research, and is presently an Ed.D researcher with Bath University. She has trained in the Mindful Schools Curriculum and is an alumna of the Greater Good Science Centre at the University of Berkeley, California. You can follow her on Twitter @CatRPeterson or subscribe to her blog.