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How Can Mindful Education Benefit Middle and High School Students?

by Lori Schulte Trenkamp, Secondary Mindful Education Instructor

Photo: Our live Mindful Education in Schools program being taught at Drexler Middle School in Farley, Iowa.

"You just wait–this will almost definitely not be what you’re expecting- and hey, you might even have a little fun!" ~ Lori Schulte Trenkamp

Over the last two years of teaching Challenge to Change’s Mindful Education Curriculum in secondary schools, I have learned there is a huge misconception about what that really looks like- mainly from teachers and students saying to me after their first lesson, “Wow, that’s not what I thought it was going to be like!” 


As you might also be envisioning, many of these teachers and students pictured a 45-minute yoga class with me twisting them into pretzels and chanting om for 45 minutes. You know, like one would see at an adult class in a yoga studio. Instead, they got a little bit of breathing cues, a fair helping of good movement (no pretzel twisting allowed), and a lot of well-written social-emotional learning curriculum to go with it.

Each lesson includes five parts of practice that are intentionally designed to increase a mind/body connection, encourage social-emotional growth, and offer a calm space in the middle of the school day. To show you what I mean, let’s go through each part together.

Benefit #1: Focus + Engagement

Our lesson starts with a seated practice. This includes what we call the “check-in” with the students.

They have an Emotions Chart available to help them strengthen their emotional vocabulary so we can nail down exactly what they are feeling at that moment. Then they have an opportunity to journal why they're feeling that way. This is a great transition for them as they come into the mindful space we hope to create and sustain for the duration of the class.

Seated Practice: Giving students the time to connect to their breath first allows them to focus and engage more on the content of the lesson.

Students may be coming from science or shop class. They may have just taken a test or they may have been on an outdoor stroll during a photography class. Because we have no idea what has gone on in the moments leading up to this class, it is a great idea to give them a little time to settle into what we’ll be expecting here and now. 

To further that idea of preparing them for what will be happening in this lesson, we give a summary of the topic for the day and start to get their minds thinking on the subject. 

Immediately after this check-in and summary of the day’s lesson, we teach a breath practice they can use to help self-regulate in their day-to-day life. Each lesson of the year will teach a different breath practice so that all students have many different opportunities to find one or more that work well for them. What a valuable resource for children to have through a time in their lives when self-regulation can be a daily battle.

Here I am practicing belly breathing with over 100 middle schoolers

Benefit #2: Physical Health

Next, we step into our movement part of the lesson. This is the part where we strike some poses, flow with some routine movement, and rarely ask them to twist into pretzels. This section of the lesson serves a few purposes that I’m sure are evident to the teachers we work alongside, but likely not to the students.

Movement: Giving students a safe, constructive approach to moving their bodies while also connecting the movement to their breath.

The movement releases some of the energy they came into PE hoping to exert and gets their brains fired up and prepared for the heart of the lesson. Most importantly, the movement helps them to connect their breath to their constantly developing bodies and gain a better understanding of their body and mind.

Here's an example of a teen-inspired yoga practice.

Benefit #3: Self-Esteem

The heart of the lesson comes next and that, my friends, is where we pack most of the wonderful social-emotional learning that we all so desperately need. We dive more deeply into the topic we have summarized for them early on to help them understand the importance of things like positive self-talk, coping with fears, recognizing their feelings and emotions, focusing on a topic or task, managing stress in their lives and so much more.

Heart of the Lesson: Giving students tools and techniques to use daily.

We have a variety of tools in our bags to keep these middle and high schoolers interested while imparting some valuable information. We may play a game, ask them to work in groups, make lists or write in a journal, have a discussion, or maybe use different yoga poses and cues from us to help them see more clearly how their brain and body operate regularly.

Benefit #4: Stress Relief

After we’ve worked their bodies and their brains, it is time for nearly every teen’s favorite part of practice, the yoga nap. We call it the yoga nap, or guided mindfulness, but it is really a chance for these kids to take five minutes to let go of all the pressures and worries of their daily lives and absorb what we’ve just covered with a quiet and still body and mind.

Guided Mindfulness: Giving students time to reset their minds through the use of their imagination.  

The yoga nap, to them, is getting to lie down and do nothing within their school day- Whoo hoo! The yoga nap, to us, is a way to help them feel the amazing effects of slowing down, practicing a few minutes of mindfulness, and relaxing-also Whoo hoo! 

An example of a guided mindfulness practice designed for teens.

Benefit #5: Fostering Resilience

When the yoga nap is finished, we end the lesson with a Close of Practice. This is a very simple way to help them transition, but this time it is to seal in all the great work we’ve just done and be ready to face the rest of the day. Who knows what they’ll be moving on to in the next class they’re in? 

Close of Practice: Gives closure to the practice and allows students to transition back to their daily tasks.  

The close of practice includes another seated practice with us all breathing together while we think (and the teacher says out loud) a positive affirmation that starts with the words “I am”.  This can be a very powerful self-talk too, and is often referred to as a mantra.

This close of practice keeps the same peaceful state of mind we cultivated in our yoga nap but gently brings them back to the present, reminding them to carry this with them throughout the day. The final moments after breathing together with our mantra are spent either journaling or reflecting on their “check-out.” 

The check-out time is equally important to the check-in, helping them to notice, once again, how they feel in this moment and maybe even comparing that to how they felt at the beginning of this class, making connections about how what we’ve just done may have changed that. 

Simply going into schools and teaching a traditional yoga class would also be a great thing for students, but you can now understand how the five parts of practice do so much more. It’s why I find myself constantly telling new students who are upset about having yoga instead of dodgeball, “You just wait–this will almost definitely not be what you’re expecting- and hey, you might even have a little fun!”

When I leave I often hear those same students saying to either their friends, sometimes to me, or their teacher, “I really do feel great after that.” or, “Wow, I needed that today.” 

What could be a better testament?

~ Lori

P.S. We have a Yoga and Mindfulness Resource Center designed just for Teens! We have so many great brain-break resources at your fingertips - just click and play!


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