How Mindfulness Benefits Learning

By Saga Briggs

It’s no secret that social and emotional well-being can directly influence academic outcomes. When we are in tune with our emotions, we pay attention to the right things and make sound decisions; when we fail to manage our feelings, our thinking becomes impaired. Many of us have been incorporating social-emotional learning (SEL) into our lesson plans for years. So what’s the deal with this “mindfulness” movement we keep hearing so much about?

First off, mindfulness is not a replacement for social-emotional learning; it’s one strategy that supports it. Goals of SEL cover everything from self-management and independent growth to communication with and respect toward others. Practising mindfulness is one way to achieve these goals, along with other strategies like community service, collaborative learning, and exercises in emotional awareness. But unlike other strategies, mindfulness has the power to effect change in any setting, at any time, with or without the presence of others.

And therein lies one reason it’s become so popular: in our fast-paced, often individualistic society, mindfulness has acquired the same appeal as DIY and self-help techniques. Once you know how to practise it, you can carry it with you into any situation and rely on it for moral support.

In an educational setting, mindfulness has proven effective in enhancing attention, reducing stress, and boosting retention. To learn, a student must engage her prefrontal cortex to focus and monitor her attention and to inhibit impulsive tendencies towards distraction. The latest science suggest that regular mindful awareness practice can change how our body and brain respond to stress, possibly strengthening connections in the prefrontal cortex and reducing reactivity in our limbic system, supporting self-reflection and self-regulation. These functions play a critical role in learning, memory, and retention.

Teachers know that if they can equip students with this tool, students will carry it with them throughout their educational careers. And that is perhaps the most powerful reason to join the movement. Whereas most instructional strategies end upon delivery, mindfulness becomes the gift that keeps on giving, serving students in potentially every aspect of their daily lives.