When I was asked to prepare a newly developed course in Child Development, Health and Wellness this fall, I was immediately energized to think about the concept of what it means for a child to be healthy and “well” in this world, and how that concept of wellness translated to my adult students’ own “wellness”. My students are a mix of graduate and undergraduate students and almost all of them come to class at 5 pm on Wednesday nights after a full day of work. When they get to campus, they are expected to sit in their seats for the next 3 hours ready to learn together.
From previous experience, I knew that it would be hard for them to jump right into learning each Wednesday night because most of them did not have even a moment to unwind from the stresses of their day. I was frustrated that in the past, it often took 5 to 10 minutes for students to close or shutdown electronics and to silence chatter so that we could begin class in earnest. I contemplated solutions during my daily jogs along the lake Michigan shoreline. I brainstormed ways that would allow me and my students to be quickly focused and energized to learn together each Wednesday night.
My research and readings, along with my daily musings while running, led me to examine the possibility of engaging in a short meditation at the start of each class period. In a study by Gryffin, Chen and Erenguc (2014), college students at a public university in the Midwest were given surveys to determine their perceptions regarding the use of meditation. About 50% of the respondents stated that not having enough time to meditate was a barrier to engaging in the practice. However, 86% of them indicated that calmness and stress reduction was a benefit of meditation and 10% indicated that they believed that meditation enhanced the ability to focus on tasks and learning. This was encouraging to me because the kind of meditation I was thinking of having my students engage in was “mindful meditation”. It would not take outside class time and would not use up valuable learning time. Instead we would engage in it at the start of each class. I envisioned that it would be short and involve a 3-minute guided meditation (I would be the guide). The purpose of the meditation would be to focus on “being present” and in the moment so that we could be fully available in class to learn.
I decided to try it! I found some meditation music online that I liked and I developed a guided meditation script that I would say at the start of each class. I was nervous, because I knew that in order for it to be effective and useful for the students, I needed to believe that it was important and I needed to believe that it would help us to become a community of learners. I knew that I needed to be serious about it and routinize it for all of us. After weeks of research and reading and practicing guided meditation myself and seeing the benefits, I felt committed to it.
On our first night of class about 40 students piled into the classroom and were talking and laughing and were on their computers and phones. When the 5:00 start time came I turned down the lights and explained that we would be engaging in a short 3-minute meditation to start each class period. I let them know that the purpose of the meditation was to help us all be present and that my research led me to believe that it would contribute to our own overall wellness.
I asked them to close their eyes and in the darkened room I played some meditative and calming music over the speaker system. I started my guided meditation script by inviting them to take a breath and to simply be more conscious. I asked them to allow their breath to bring them to the present moment. I explained that as they breathed out through their nose, they should expel any stress and negative emotion they had built up over the day, and as they breathed in, to inhale cool air to nurture themselves. We established that as we breathed in we would say “I” to ourselves and as we breathed out, we would say “AM”. We continued breathing in this fashion while adjusting our posture so that our feet were firmly rooting us to the ground and the present moment. We quieted our minds and disengaged from the past and future and enjoyed the present moment in the safe space of our classroom. As we cultivated inner peace I asked them to come back to the room and set an intention for their class time that night. Finally, I asked them to open their eyes and I welcomed them to class. I expressed my gratitude that I was able to be with them to learn and grow together that night.
All of this took only 3-5 minutes and when I turned up the lights, the silence and focus was astounding to me. Since that first class, we have started each class with this focused energy and it has been transformative for me as a teacher. I have found that the short meditation that I led allowed ME to become more focused and ready to teach and learn. I quickly realized that I too was busy all day before class and often entered class frenzied and a bit discombobulated. All of that ended during the meditation and I now start each class with a clear and focused mind.
I asked my students to give me some feedback after 8 weeks of weekly meditation at the start of class and below are a few examples of what I heard.
I like the meditation in class, it refreshes the mind to focus on what we will be working on in the present. It’s like a restart or reprogramming the body’s system.
Meditation helps me to transition to school from work. It helps me by staying focused and getting rid of all the stress from work. It makes me feel welcomed to the classroom and I get rid of any negativity I might have
I think meditation is a great way to start class. It brings you in the moment and takes outside factors away. It prepares my mind for class and I really enjoy it. I wish we could do it longer honestly
The meditation before class has been great. It helps me to focus my attention on this class and reminds me that everything else outside this class is not important for the next 2-3 hours of class. I feel more relaxed during class and look forward to the beginning of class each week
Meditating before class is a wonderful and unique tool to begin or session for the day. I usually get to class super rushed from work and stressed. So, being able to relax before getting started is so relieving. I also have tried to meditate before and was never able to really clear my mind, so I feel like I am learning how to slowly
Personally, I have become a firm believer of this type of mindful meditation to start class. This is a simple way to practice meditation and does not take years of meditation practice in order to be successful with it. All of us are able to lead this type of guided meditation practice in our classrooms, even those of us that are novices and new to meditation. It has enabled me to become a more focused and better teacher, and it has enabled our class time to be more productive because we are all focused, energized and present. I encourage you to be brave and even step outside of your own comfort zone to try this technique. I would love to hear about your experiences.
Gryffin, Peter, William Chen, and Naz Erenguc. “Knowledge, Attitudes and Beliefs of Meditation in College Students: Barriers and Opportunities.”American Journal of Educational Research” 2.4 (2014): 189-192.
Kathleen M. Sheridan is an associate professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago. She is also a visiting scholar at the Institute for Government and Public Affairs and coordinates the Human Development and Learning Program.