“I knew I couldn’t do this job for the rest of my life.” Eight years ago, primary school teacher Nathalie Bühler found herself at a turning point: challenging pubescent boys, mentally stressed children, stepping in for colleagues who were absent due to burnout, and, privately, the loss of someone close to her. At some point it all became too much for her and she didn’t want the situation to get away from her. That’s why she decided to focus on mindfulness.
I notice that the children’s concentration spans become longer, and at the same time they can also reduce stress.
She completed a so-called “MBSR” course: stress management through mindfulness. The program is based on traditional meditation techniques that have been scientifically tested for their effectiveness. There she realized for the first time how much the stress at school was affecting her. “At the same time, I realized that I had to change something in the relationship with the children: not react out of emotion, but rather be present and perceive the children’s needs impartially,” explains the teacher. In this course she learned to distance herself internally and to remain calm even in stressful moments, which had a positive effect on the lessons.
Mindfulness for teachers and children
Stay calm in stressful moments: This is what children should also do in class. You have to concentrate, even if colleagues on the left and right are talking to each other. Nathalie Bühler today integrates mindfulness into the lessons of her fifth and sixth graders in Bern Bümpliz.
The teacher begins each morning with a mindfulness exercise: The children sit quietly in a circle, close their eyes and concentrate on their bodies. You should observe without judging. If you feel anything in a part of your body, you can place your hand on that part of your body. Sitting still and observing your body – such exercises also help later in class, says the teacher: “I notice that the children’s concentration span is longer, and at the same time they can also reduce stress.”
After the exercise, each child tells how they are feeling. Only then is the class ready for mathematics. “Such transitions are important,” says Nathalie Bühler. A school day is intense for everyone, so moments of calm in which the class does something together for their well-being are important. Awareness of one’s own state of mind and that of others is a basic element of mindfulness. This creates a constructive way of dealing with others and with yourself.
Don’t make feelings a taboo
Primary teacher Nathalie Bühler thinks the class has changed since she integrated mindfulness into her lessons. “The class climate has changed and so has the understanding of one another.”
At home you don’t always have the opportunity to talk about feelings, so I like it when we do that in class.
Her students also confirm this: “At home you don’t always have the opportunity to talk about feelings, so I like it when we do that in class,” explains Elsa. Anik says that mindfulness has changed the concentration in the class: “In the fifth grade we were very unfocused, that has gotten much better now.” Alec is now able to relax better: “I like that we do the exercises every morning, so I’m no longer so antsy and restless afterwards.”
Children should feel comfortable
The teacher works with the mindfulness program MoMento, which was developed specifically for school classes. It is one of many programs offered to teachers and families to develop life skills in children.
Promoting life skills – that is also a declared goal of Curriculum 21. So-called socio-emotional learning includes self-awareness, self-control, relationship skills and responsible decision-making. All skills that can be trained with mindfulness. In addition, such exercises can also deepen the relationship with the children. “Children learn better when they feel comfortable in the class,” explains Matthias Rüst, Managing Director of MoMento Swiss.
What is crucial is that the teacher himself exemplifies these principles – treats the children with calm and attention, but also with structure and leadership. “Children learn most from role models.”
Take a quick breath when stressed
Another important topic in the classroom is impulse control. The children should practice how to regulate their emotions. Using neuroscientist Daniel Siegel’s hand model, students learn how their brain works.
A thumb pressed into the palm of the hand illustrates a dangerous situation. The so-called lower level of the brain sounds the alarm and feelings such as fear or stress arise. But what can the children do about it? Breathe deeply. Then the brain calms down and can think rationally again. MoMento calls this “the strategy of the pause”.
When you breathe deeply, your fingers place protectively over your thumb, allowing you to act carefully. The fingers symbolize the so-called upper level, the cerebral cortex, which regulates feelings. With this hand model, children can remind themselves of this “calming process” over and over again.
This has an impact in sports, for example, says Nathalie Bühler. In the past, when a team lost, the children would have had a lot of things to say about each other. Today they would be quicker to say: “Stop, that’s too much for me.” Nathalie Bühler and the children feel more comfortable in the class today. And when asked whether she enjoys teaching, the primary school teacher now answers with conviction: “Yes, very much!”