Mindfulness Exercises to Help Students Stay Focused

Teachers are experts at redirecting students in the classroom during in-person instruction. Your spidey senses begin to tingle, and you can tell that Amelia is sneaking a look at her phone while you’re labeling the elements of an atom. A quick eyebrow raise on your end gets her right back into the zone. This isn’t as easy when doing virtual or hybrid learning, which doesn’t lend itself to the nuances of body language and normal classroom redirection tools. Combine this with the stresses many students are facing at home while trying to juggle their own schoolwork, and you have a recipe for chaos, disorganization, and unfocused learning. As educators, what tools can we give our students to help them maintain focus, even when they’re not right in front of us?

The key may lie in mindfulness exercises that help students stay focused, even during times of stress. Teaching students these skills is an important part of a student’s social and emotional growth, and will serve them well long after you’re not there to redirect their every move. The practice of mindfulness has gained increased traction in recent years as educators and administrators recognize the growing need for students to manage their emotional and mental well-being with healthy activities. Here, we’ll look at several mindfulness tips for students that are useful for maintaining focus during lessons.


1. Name it to Tame it

For younger students, or students who are emotionally immature, being able to name what they are feeling is often difficult. Reactive impulses such as anger and frustration impede higher-level thinking skills, rendering your perfectly planned lesson useless unless the emotion is under control. When you notice a child’s actions or behavior that seems out of place for what you’re doing, ask them to name their feelings. You can frame it as, “I wonder if you’re feeling scared” and allow the child to put their own tag on what they’re experiencing. By naming the emotion, you’re letting the child acknowledge their feelings and release chemicals that help them return to the present task. If you name the emotion, you’re able to tame the emotion.


2. Practice Regulated Breathing

Everyone feels stress, but knowing how to push through it in a healthy way can truly change a person’s trajectory in life. Students that suffer from anxiety or panic attacks also benefit from learning how to regulate their breathing. Instead of telling someone to “calm down” when they’re upset (which never works!) instead try the 7-11 breathing technique. Breathe in for a count of 7, and out for a count of 11. This is a technique that can be taught as a re-focusing strategy when students feel stressed, as a way to begin a large project or big test, or even in the middle of a crisis when a full-blown panic attack is in motion. It’s simple, easy to remember, and effective at calming students during stressful moments.


3.Upstairs Brain Vs. Downstairs Brain

This is a great tool for teaching students how to be mindful of their emotions and reactions. Think of the brain as a two-story house. The downstairs part of your brain houses the elements that keep it running like your breathing and heart beating, and also your more basic impulses like your fight-or-flight reaction. The upstairs part of your brain is more complex, and this is where your higher-order feelings and thoughts (like sympathy and synthesis) are located. When a child’s “downstairs brain” is activated, the upstairs door is locked. They cannot complete your lesson because they’re in their downstairs area and making rational choices isn’t an option. This is especially true in younger children whose brains are still developing, and children who have experienced trauma, which alters this area of the brain. What can you do when you see students in these areas of poor decision making? Ask them which brain they’re in—upstairs or downstairs. This requires a bit of pre-teaching, but with some reinforcement helps students identify the root of their emotion, and put it in the correct place in their mental “house.” Emotional intelligence is a key component of mindfulness, and helps students sort complex emotions.


Students who are given the tools for dissecting and understanding their emotions report feeling more focused in the classroom, less stressed, and better able to tackle complex assignments and projects. Mindfulness is not just another educational trend, it’s an approach to better meet our students’ social and emotional needs, which are just as important as their academics.