Mindfulness: Helping Educators Cope with Stress at School

Education has consistently been identified as a high stress occupation that takes a toll on the mental and physical health of practitioners.1 Stress is often reflected in diminished job performance and weakened relationships with students, leading to negative outcomes for you and your students.2

One seasonal cause of stress in schools this time of year, is a perceived scarcity of time. The psychology of scarcity influences thinking and behavior. In a mindset of scarcity, we experience both myopia—exaggerated attention to the immediate—and tunnel vision—focusing almost exclusively on the limited resource.3

A scarcity mindset leads us to attend single-mindedly to the immediate problem, discounting thoughts of any negative ramifications that may result from doing this. For example, when a person is dying of thirst, she will drink from a potentially tainted pond to slake that thirst even if the predictable long-term result is illness that causes more loss of fluids.

When educators feel time is scarce, we are tempted to maximize instructional time at the expense of other concerns, including well-being. Every perceived "error" in how time is spent feels terribly consequential.3 Every expenditure of time is layered with constant evaluation about whether this is the right choice for these minutes.

When educators feel time is scarce, we are tempted to maximize instructional time at the expense of other concerns, including well-being.

Thoughts about making errors in time management tax us heavily in reduced bandwidth – our thinking is held captive by the scarcity concerns.3 Any thinking about other matters is continuously interrupted with scarcity concerns leaving us distracted. Distraction itself has consequences that we often don’t recognize or acknowledge – consider what we have learned about using a cell phone while driving. Further, this reduced cognitive capacity means we are more likely to rely on heuristics, short-cut decision-making and problem-solving techniques, than on higher quality, critical thinking processes.4 Just when we most need our best decision-making, we are leaning on decisions that are more likely to be errors in judgement.

A technique that can help us cope with the stress, including stress caused by a scarcity frame of mind, is practicing mindfulness.

Just when we most need our best decision-making, we are leaning on decisions that are more likely to be errors in judgement.

Mindfulness means being fully present in the moment, such as becoming engrossed when playing an instrument, playing a sport, or watching a sunset. Moments like these are rooted in the present, and the experience of having your mind fully occupied by the moment arises spontaneously. However, by becoming more aware of your thought processes, and practicing being fully present in the moment more often, you can cultivate a more habitual state of mindfulness even during routine events.5

Mindfulness consists of two chief components: 1) drawing attention to your thoughts and feelings in each moment, and 2) accepting those experiences without judgment.6 Using mindful thinking helps regulate your thoughts to sustain a broader focus.6

Sample Steps of Mindful Thinking

  • Notice when and how a time scarcity concern pops into your thoughts.
  • Are those thoughts accompanied by negative judgements of failure and blame?
  • Recognize this as mental commentary on the event and not actual description of the event.
  • Could the event that invoked the concerning thought and accompanying judgement be viewed a different way? Perhaps the student disruption that slowed your lesson was actually demonstrating that not everyone was ready to learn, and now you have the chance to get the class in a more receptive frame of mind.

Other Tips for Integrating Mindfulness Into Your Day

Create slack. Make room for open, unplanned time in your classroom schedule.3 Unplanned time allows room to handle the unexpected and offers a psychological sense of plentiful resources. Even small “mindfulness moments” in the classroom can support reflection and offer connection to people and ideas that have been otherwise marginalized by a psychological sense of scarcity.7 Sixty seconds of silent breathing and other short intervals of quiet and stillness during transitions and other stressful moments can nourish a sense of calm.

Intentionally name your priorities. One core element of mindfulness is intention.7 Rather than unconsciously striving to maximize each student’s instructional minutes, perhaps consciously strive to make the school day positive and productive for each student. That more accurate focus will demand critical thinking and force a wiser, and likely less stressful, distribution of time and attention. In a mindfulness mode, intentions do not translate to outcomes and goals, but rather to pathways chosen with the wisdom that awareness allows.7,8

In a mindfulness mode, intentions do not translate to outcomes and goals, but rather to pathways chosen with the wisdom that awareness allows.

For more information on mindfulness, and tips for how to practice mindfulness daily, we recommend the Mayo Clinic’s article, “Mindfulness exercises: See how mindfulness helps you live in the moment.9

Have a mindful day!

References

1Herman, K. C., Hickmon-Rosa, J., & Reinke, W. M. (2018). Empirically derived profiles of teacher stress, burnout, self-efficacy, and coping and associated student outcomes. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 20(2), 90–100.

2Wentzel, K. R. (2010). Students’ relationships with teachers. In Meece, J. L., Eccles, J. S. (Eds.), Handbook of research on schools, schooling, and human development (pp. 75–91). New York, NY: Routledge.

3Mullainathan, S. & Shafir, E. (2013). Scarcity: Why having too little means so much. New York, NY: Picador.

4Kahneman, D. (2013) Thinking fast and slow. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

5Rechtschaffen, D. (2014). The way of mindful education: Cultivating well-being in teachers and students. New York, NY: W W Norton & Co.

6Skinner E., & Beers J. (2016) Mindfulness and teachers’ coping in the classroom: A developmental model of teacher stress, coping, and everyday resilience. In: K. Schonert-Reichl & R. Roeser (Eds.) Handbook of mindfulness in education (pp. 99-118). New York, NY: Springer.

7Shapiro, S., Rechtschaffen, D., & de Sousa, S. (2016) Mindfulness training for teachers. In: K. Schonert-Reichl & R. Roeser (Eds.) Handbook of mindfulness in education (pp. 99-118). New York, NY: Springer.

8Gates, G. S., & Gilbert, B. (2016) Mindful school leadership: Guidance from Eastern philosophy on organizing schools for student success. In: K. Schonert-Reichl & R. Roeser (Eds.) Handbook of mindfulness in education (pp. 99-118). New York, NY: Springer.

9Mayo Clinic (2018). Mindfulness exercises: See how mindfulness helps you live in the moment. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/consumer-health/in-depth/mindfulness-exercises/art-20046356