Colorado Academy faculty are working on not just what students learn, but also how students pay attention.

For the last two years, teachers at CA have done a great deal of work on “mindfulness,” and how the practice of being mindful can impact the way teachers teach and the way that students learn. Research has shown that “mindful” activities boost dopamine levels, enhance one’s long-term focus, increase empathy, allow for sounder sleep, and reduce stress. It is an effort in many classrooms nationwide to teach social and emotional learning (SEL).

Upper School English Teacher Brett James has introduced several elements of mindfulness practice in his senior seminar class to help students relax. The 22-year teaching veteran says this practice allows for one to respond to a situation instead of being forced to react. James is quoted in a recent national publication, ASCD’s Mindful Educator, saying, “As teachers, we’re in an environment where the dynamic changes every 20 seconds. People may say things that might make us angry or catch us off guard, and we don’t have to immediately react,” he says.

“If we can just take time and be with what that interaction is, then maybe we can have a better response to the situation.”

He points out that just as adults are distracted and multi-tasking throughout the day, students exist in the same hectic and demanding environment. He says this practice “is about the focused and quiet practice letting go of outside concerns and agreeing to be HERE NOW.”

He says students do need direction on how to do this. “If I say to them ‘just be in the moment,’ they don’t know what that means.”

This summer, James attended an international conference on the science of social mindfuledand emotional learning (SEL). It included nearly 100 teachers of students in preschool through college.

Those attending were from 13 countries and 22 states working to understand the biology and neuroscience of pro-social behavior.

Presenters at the conference say the practice is more than just being present. One instructor says mindful teachers can “make students feel seen, valued, and important… With mindfulness, it’s not just the curriculum, but the personal attitude you bring with it.”

That personal practice was not new to CA’s James. Part of his mindfulness practice includes rising at 5 a.m. to meditate each day, teaching others to meditate, and at the request of the SEL conference organizer last summer, leading a guided medication for the nearly 100 people at the conference.

Said one presenter, “Mindfulness is a way of returning to normal. It’s the first time many adults and students are being given permission to not be defending or assessing or orienting outwards. It’s the first time it’s safe to stop.”

The presenter continues, “The dichotomy between thinking and feeling is a false one… They both occur as a result of synchronous engagement of multiple systems in the brain that are signaling something about the environment…. This understanding has major implications for the field of education, which, historically, has focused solely on the cognitive development of students and almost completely ignored their emotional development.

“Students have started to ask for it,” says CA’s James as he begins his classes with a moment to focus, shift the energy in the room to the subject at hand, and to let students know that their only obligation at the moment is focusing on the present. now, Upper School Town Hall meetings at CA begin the same way. Teachers who are invested in using SEL say the short-term outcome may be academic success and happier kids, but in the end, it’s about creating a more conscious and compassionate world.