The concept of mindfulness, some say, is the marrying of inner calm to outer results.

“Mindfulness” refers to focusing your attention on the emotions and thoughts you’re experiencing right now, leading to a better understanding of how you learn, think, act and react. Mindfulness practices are growing in schools, offices, hospitals and veterans’ centers, for example, because science is affirming the notion that well being can be learned. Research shows it is possible to help children achieve more peace of mind by focusing on what’s really important and by turning problems into opportunities.

“When we’re teaching the use of attention as a skill –- just like reading, writing, arithmetic — then we are contributing to their ability to make choices based on larger criteria, to self-regulate their emotions and to emphasize and care for others,” says David Mochel, a neuroscientist and mindfulness expert. Over the last five years, he has spent about 25 days at Colorado Academy, a Pre-K – 12th grade independent school in southwest Denver, teaching about mindfulness.

He notes there are at least a dozen organizations that are bringing mindfulness training into U.S. schools. “The research that supports the effectiveness of mindfulness in education is mounting daily,” he says. “There are hundreds of research papers directly related to mindfulness in learning, creativity and self-regulation.” The research includes a study published in the journal Developmental Psychology by the Waisman Center at the University of Wisconsin. Researchers there at the Center for Investigating Health Minds Healthy Minds “found that kids who had participated in [a kindness] curriculum earned higher marks in academic performance measures and showed greater improvements in areas that predict future success than kids who had not.”

Why do researchers believe that this is learned behavior? Here are two examples of mindfulness exercises in which Mochel has led CA students and teachers.

(1) In the Middle School, Mochel placed a rope circle on the ground, about 25 feet across, and everyone stood inside it and closed their eyes. “I tell them I’m hiding a pen inside the circle,” Mochel said. “I ask them to open their eyes and when they see the pen, to step outside the circle, without saying anything. It’s easy to see the pen. Quickly, everyone is outside the circle.”

Sometimes it’s as simple as asking a non-attentive student, “Where is your attention?” Mochel said teachers “will say, ‘pay attention.’ But that doesn’t help build skills. But if the teacher says,‘Where is your attention,’ that helps build mindfulness.”

In the second round, he hides the pen near someone’s foot, and it takes everyone a little longer to find it. Then in the third run, he puts the pen up against the side of the rope, and it takes even longer to find. “Then, I put the pen behind my ear, and I’m standing inside the circle,” Mochel said. “They’re inside the circle, with their eyes closed. When they open their eyes, they all look on the ground, and keep looking on the ground, because in very short order, their attention has been trained to find the pen on the ground. It takes them much, much longer.

“And I’m walking among them; the pen is right next to them, and they’re looking on the ground. That exercise teaches them how easily their attention can be trained to look in the same way and the same places. That simple exercise is a great way to learn that we look at the world the way we do because we’ve been trained to look that way, and we can train ourselves to look differently.”

DSC05583(2) He’s done this exercise mostly with faculty. Ten people stand around a hula hoop and hold it with their index fingers, at shoulder level. Their index fingers are pointing into the circle and the hula hoop is resting on their fingers. Mochel tells them to lower the hoop to the ground.

“The most interesting thing is that the hoop first starts to rise,” he said. That’s because when someone pushes to keep the hula hoop up, others must do the same. “Pretty soon, the hoop is above everyone’s heads,” Mochel said. “It’s unexpected by the group, but it’s incredibly reliable. That triggers surprise, frustration, and people respond by blaming others. ‘Why are you doing that? Stop lifting it.’ We use that to demonstrate to people that we have familiar behaviors that we resort to when things don’t go the way we want them to.”

The purpose of these exercises is to capture the attention of participants. “Oh, that’s what I do when things don’t go the way I want them to, they say,” Mochel said. “And then for people to see that they have a choice. That brings them full circle to the executive control. You can feel frustration and behave with kindness, for example.That’s what we’re trying to get kids to do -– and adults.” He defines “executive control” as “the ability to choose behavior based on larger or longer-term goals and values.” It’s the ability to make choices, prioritize, organize, delay gratification or see a problem through to a solution.

“It’s an inherently human skill,” Mochel said. “In the animal kingdom, there’s not much choosing beyond survival. Humans can choose beyond what they’re feeling at any given moment.”

Mochel also offers three examples of how teachers, arts instructors, and coaches can can instill mindfulness in their students.

  1. When class begins, teachers ask the students to sit quietly and pay attention to the sensations in their body – such as their rising chests and belly movements while breathing. “The exercise is when a student’s attention wanders -– and it always will -–- the student is learning to bring their attention back to the breathing,” Mochel said.

It’s not just for the classroom, it’s for life. Our attention often gets drawn away from what’s most important in favor of what’s urgent. This practice allows us to notice that sooner, then return our attention to what’s important.”

  1. Another example is using silence to focus students’ attention, rather than the teacher talking louder. “Often, a teacher gets louder and louder in order to settle things down,” Mochel said. “But another strategy is for the teacher to train the students that when the teacher becomes quiet, the rest of the students can become quiet, as well. This enables students to settle into silence and not be coerced into it.”
  2. A third example: “I ask teachers to pay attention to the pace of their speech because we know the brain actually assembles words into ideas in those spaces between words,” Mochel said. “The more teachers are aware of creating space for students to assemble meaning, the more likely students are to do that, to assign meaning to what they’re hearing.”

Sometimes it’s as simple as asking a non-attentive student, “Where is your attention?” Mochel said teachers “will say, ‘pay attention.’ But that doesn’t help build skills. But if the teacher says,‘Where is your attention,’ that helps build mindfulness.”