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Making Time for Mindfulness

At International School of Beijing, calming busy minds can build better brains geared for 21st-century success
By Tom Fearon
Making Time for Mindfulness

A few chairs squeak as students plant their feet on the ground. Some close their eyes, while others focus on their clasped hands. It is the beginning of a daily routine for International School of Beijing (ISB) fourth-graders preparing to give their racing minds a well-earned rest.
For the next three minutes, a calm voice lulls the students into a soothing place of mental tranquility.
“Imagine you are holding a warm bowl of soup,” coos the voice from Mind Yeti, a guided audio mindfulness app. “Breathe in slowly through your nose and out through your mouth. Smell the soup as you find your ‘yeti’ body.”
Mind Over Matter
Mindfulness meditation is the practice of quieting the mind to bring awareness and attention to the present moment. It is increasingly being used in schools around the world as a tool to improve student well-being and enhance academic performance.
The benefits of mindfulness in education have been well-documented in research for years. For teachers, these include increased responsiveness to students’ needs and better management of stress. For students, mindfulness is linked to reduced anxiety before testing, increased classroom participation, and improved social-emotional learning.
“Being around peers with your eyes closed can be scary. For our kids to be able to do that now is a great skill. They feel comfortable, safe, and cared for,” said ISB guidance counselor Kevin Koolenga.
Together with Catie Spears, Mr. Koolenga facilitates mindfulness activities for elementary school students at ISB. Both counselors also support homeroom teachers by providing training as part of their professional development (PD).
“It’s nice to give young minds time to pause and reflect. There isn’t a lot of ‘me time’ for kids. We expect a lot of them and they are surrounded by people and things competing for their attention, so giving them opportunities to take time out is important,” Mr. Koolenga said.
Investing in Peace of Mind
In 2015–16, ISB approved a research and development proposal to promote mindfulness among students of all grades. The grant included faculty training, programs facilitated by counselors, and other opportunities including parent sessions for the wider school community.
In July 2016, ISB counselors attended a week-long retreat run by the Greater Good Science Center Summer Institute for Educators at the University of California, Berkeley. The PD experience explored more than just mindfulness, however, with counselors learning strategies to foster empathy and other pro-social behaviors.
“It was the best PD I’ve ever had. When we left for the airport, I felt like I wanted to change the world. I felt empowered and I appreciated the opportunity to sit and reflect among like-minded educators,” said ISB high school counselor Cara Tebo.
Skills for Success
Fellow high school counselor Sommer Blohm has long been a mindfulness advocate. A yoga instructor who leads classes for ISB high school students and staff, she said the retreat was about “cultivating compassion, building empathy, and creating safe spaces in schools.”
The latter is especially important in order for mindfulness to flourish.
“Psychological safety and trust among students, parents, teachers, and administrators needs to be at the foundation. A caring, collaborative, and vision-driven community is built upon psychological safety and trust,” she said.
From Mind Yeti exercises in elementary school classes to guided meditation in high school mentoring sessions, ISB counselors have discovered the possibilities (and benefits) of mindfulness are extremely promising.
“In the short term, it’s about helping students de-escalate or decompress. But longer term there are deeper skills that prepare our students for success in the 21st century,” explained high school counselor Gina Cuthbert. “Employers are looking for people who collaborate, display a growth mindset, and think critically to solve problems.”
In March 2017, ISB’s middle school students will undertake a mindfulness unit to build on strategies learned through mentoring sessions. The aim is to give students confidence in managing challenging situations and transitions, according to counselor Bertha Knox.
“Sometimes students might not know how to best deal with certain situations. When there are pressures from friendships, schoolwork, and family, it can feel a bit like one big mess,” she noted.
“Practicing mindfulness gives them different pathways to bring themselves back to feeling centered where they can think rationally and make constructive choices.”

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