Why we need to encourage mindfulness in classrooms to help children thrive

Photo Credit: Stephanie Friedman

In 2010, I found myself in a dark space; dealing with a lot of depression and anxiety. It stemmed from the trauma I experienced as a child, but at the time, I had no idea how to express what I felt or figure out what to do to begin my recovery. After being introduced to mindfulness through friends, I learned to understand these emotions and identify where they were coming from. Then, I began to use mindfulness tools to help me embrace these feelings instead of running from them. Some of the main tools I used were yoga and meditation.

A year and a half earlier, I had left my dream job — teaching kindergarten at a Title I school in Austin, TX (Winn Elementary). I loved my students and their families dearly, but I’d always dreamed of volunteering abroad. After 6 incredible years of teaching kids who helped shape me into the person and teacher I am, it was time to move on.

Mangetti Combined School in Mangetti, Namibia, was where my dream was realized. It was 10,000 miles from home. In a country just 19 years young after apartheid rule, racial tension was very real. It had an education system that technically outlawed corporal punishment, but it was still very much practiced. In a rural southern African village with limited access to electricity and water, I spent the year teaching high school English and Math. That year, I transformed a single shelf library into an entire room with over 1,000 books and taught learners to properly run the library by themselves, stood up for my learners against corporal punishment, left the comfort of a western-style guest house to live in a mud hut due to anti-black sentiment, befriended many whom I was only able to speak a few words with, learned from colleagues and the most amazing principal I’ve ever worked for and had the humbling mindful moment that I was one person on a planet of 7 billion.

It changed my life.

Photo: Music and dance with learners in Mangetti, Namibia

When I returned from Namibia, I dealt with reverse culture shock. I fell deep into depression and anxiety as I hadn’t addressed the trauma I faced as a child. That’s when mindfulness truly came into my life, and when I started Mindful Classrooms with my students.

I had briefly used some secular yoga and meditation with my learners (as they are called in Namibia) at Mangetti Combined School as a way to deal with stress and try to evoke confidence and self-kindness in them. When I returned to teaching kindergarten at T.A. Brown Elementary, a Title I school in Austin, we would do a kid-friendly Sun Salutation online yoga video every day, and my students loved it. We started every day with intentional stretching and would stop to take deep breaths during transitions or when calm was needed.

When I moved to Pre-K at Gullett Elementary, I incorporated mindful stretching and mindful breathing into our every day schedule. Throughout these past 7 years that I’ve been teaching and using mindfulness, I have noticed incredible ‘whole child’ growth. I have also noticed that I have become a markedly better educator. And in 2014, I was recognized as the Austin Independent School District Teacher of the Year. In a school district with 130 schools, this was a tremendous honor.

With Pre-K Student At AISD Awards Ceremony

Mindful Classrooms is a program that uses 5 minute daily practices to empower teachers and students. It consists of 5 facets of mindfulness — mindful stretching, mindful breathing, mindful listening, mindful seeing, and mindful eating.

I am proud to say that Mindful Classrooms has now expanded to over 300 classrooms in 50 schools (and counting) in just ¾ of a year! Most of the schools are in Austin, TX. There was also a school in Pflugerville, TX that was featured using Mindful Classrooms on the news. The opportunity to help students and teachers stop and breathe, to pay attention to themselves and their surroundings, and to be kind to themselves and others is the most rewarding thing I’ve ever accomplished. I’m excited for it to continue to grow and positively impact classrooms across the globe.

Logo Design by Under Consideration

As a result of the overwhelming support and interest, I launched a Mindful Classrooms Kickstarter to publish the book, which serves as a year long guide to using mindfulness in the classroom, an app to supplement the program, teacher and parent training, and other learning resources such as posters and cards. The Kickstarter campaign ends on April 18th, and I’m approaching my goal. Check it out and support and share if you’re interested.

Bio: James Butler is a Pre-K teacher in Austin, TX who wrote a mindfulness program, Mindful Classrooms, that’s currently being used in 50 elementary schools in Austin & Pflugerville, TX, and in Wilmington, DE.