In the Third Grade class 3C, Daniel’s desk was in a corner of empty space. He was alone in his grouping: all the other students in clusters of four or five around the room. On my first day of teaching mindfulness to his class, I began to understand why he might be there.
Daniel likes to test the boundaries in the room. His push against the rules probably extends from a deep desire to be seen and recognized. Like many of us, he wants a little bit of extra light thrown on his potential and smarts. Unlike many children, his need for attention overrides his ability to regulate his behavior.
Despite my good intentions, I found myself getting angry with Daniel, almost immediately. After I asked all the students to stand still in a mountain pose, eyes closed, arms out, Daniel began waving his hands and making funny noises. He looked straight at me. We were learning how to notice our emotions. A practice that begins with the question: “How am I feeling right now, in this moment?” And Daniel found it too uncomfortable to stand quietly and just be with himself.
But today in my seventh session with the class, when I asked the children how they had been using their mindfulness, Daniel raised his hand as high as he could. And when he began to speak, his voice slowed down, and he took his time: one breath of words carefully following another. Now, his desk was in a group with his classmates, and I felt comforted by this change in seating.
“You see, my soccer team was really worried because the other team was number one. And they didn’t think we could beat them. So I told them that we do this thing in my school called mindfulness. And we need to just go out there and do our best and put all these feelings of not being good enough aside. I told them that we can do this.” He smiled. And in his smile, I realized that he had found power in his ability to “put aside” all that distracted him from playing soccer, right then, in that moment.
Although Daniel didn’t say it like a mindfulness teacher, he was trying to encourage his teammates to focus on the here and now. The ball, the play, the goal: whatever was happening in the moment. But most importantly, Daniel told us that mindfulness had become a way of shifting experience for himself. He could see the fear in his teammates eyes and understand the feelings of doubt, but choose not to take them on. Instead, Daniel chose to approach the game with an air of confidence and focus. He would go out onto the field and play the very best soccer he could.
Every time I step into a group of students to teach mindfulness, I ask them how they have been using the tools they have learned, so far. “Have you practiced listening? Noticed your monkey thoughts? Taken calm-down breaths?” And every time I ask these questions, most of the kids in the class raise their hands, eager to share. The stories that tumble into the room include challenging moments with math, annoying siblings and, inevitably, high emotion surrounding athletics. Kids report feeling worried, scared, anxious and sad on their way to field hockey, soccer and football. The stress that rises when the ball comes to them or a penalty shot is theirs is palpable. Mindfulness provides the tools they need to slow their heart rates, regain focus and concentrate on the task at hand. I was able to calm down and just go out there and go after the ball, they often say.
Mindfulness bring students a greater awareness of their overall experience. And most importantly, it provides them with a way of taking control of their mindset and shifting it into a positive place. For Daniel, that meant knowing he could approach his game with an air of confidence and experience. He knew how to play soccer; he knew he had talent; and he could decide not to let the other team’s reputation degrade his performance.
At the end of our class, Daniel motioned me to come close, he had more to say. “At the end of the game, we were tied. And then we had a penalty kick.” Daniel paused to slide back in his chair. “So I took three calm-down breaths and then asked my coach if I could do the kick. He said I could. So guess what?” Daniel smiled. “I made the goal, and we won.”