Mindfulness Matters: A Middle School’s Experience with Managing School Avoidance

What does calm mean in a middle school? It might sound like students presenting pieces of writing in clear, sure voices in a language arts classroom, or offering to take turns in P.E.; it might look like confident body language as kids persevere during a challenging task in math, or planning ahead to organize materials in a science or foods classroom. At lunch and recess, it might feel like safety and inclusion as students invite each other to be part of a group, play, and recharge during a much-needed break in the day.

Two years ago, a team of staff members from Lincoln Middle School in Park Ridge, Illinois came together to think about how to bring more calm to our school community. We were (and are!) proud of our rigorous core program and expansive elective opportunities, our strong, creative staff and our commitment to supporting the needs of the whole child. However, we were noticing rising levels of anxiety and dysregulation among our general population, and higher absenteeism and incidences of hospitalization for a slowly growing subgroup.

We wanted our school to look, sound, and feel like a peaceful, positive, welcoming space for all students and staff members, and we certainly wanted everyone to come to school on a daily basis. How could we support students as they cope with the stresses of their lives inside and outside of school? What would improve self-regulation and executive functioning in our students? We turned to mindfulness as a practice that could impact students’ availability for learning and help them see school as a calm, nurturing place.

Our Path To Creating This Class

During the 2019-2020 school year, our middle school guidance team (administration, counselor, school psychologist, and social workers) met to discuss the need for Tier 2 social/emotional support for our students. To provide interventions for students experiencing severe anxiety and depression, as well as those struggling with consistent attendance (especially those students re-entering school from a hospitalization), the guidance team wrote a grant proposal to build a class entitled “Mindfulness and Coping” (MAC). We designed the class to be offered as a first period elective class to “Chill Into Your Day.” The class would be staffed by our counseling team plus one general education teacher; its goals would be to assist identified students in transitioning to the classroom/school day, and teach research-based curricula in a classroom setting with a small group of students to increase coping/resiliency skills.

How a Mindfulness Class was Created Within the Confines of a School Budget

Our district has an Elementary Learning Foundation that supports innovative educational programs by awarding grants to staff members and departments. In order to “win” such a grant, our team articulated: the project’s objective, how the project is innovative and provides unique opportunities for students or community members, what learning outcomes the grant supports/enriches, how students benefit from the grant, what professional support we receive, how we would evaluate the grant’s success, how we would promote the grant to the community, and the expenses that would be incurred as a result of the grant.

Within the proposal, we discussed a tiered approach to addressing school attendance/avoidance. At the Tier 1 level, our guidance team meets monthly regarding student attendance. At the Tier 2 level, we problem-solve about specific students who are identified as truant. For some of the students within this group, we identify whether or not the MAC class would be appropriate based on information we have about the nature of their absences. At the Tier 3 level, we know that even when we provide an intervention like MAC, some students will still need additional support, so we lean on the expertise of outside professionals. Our guidance team meets with teaching teams on a regular basis and communicates often with the parents of those students. When we feel that additional support is necessary, we make recommendations and provide referrals for parents.

Another component of our grant was providing parent sessions. In writing this grant, we felt that we would need to include wrap-around supports for our students. While having a specific class for our students would be useful, we often feel that students need support not only in the school system, but also at home. This year, we enlisted an external consultant from Rush Neurobehavioral Medical Center. The consultant provided three informational sessions available to any parent in the district. The sessions were also recorded for parents to send on to other family members or interested parties. The title of the series was “Nothing’s Normal: Understanding and supporting well-being and school success in these abnormal times.” The theme of the first session was “Connection,” the second “Control,” and the third “Containment.”

A Flexible but Data-Driven Approach to Enrollment

The students chosen for this class were identified through the problem-solving process with parents, teachers, and administrators. Some students were identified through our guidance office attendance meetings. Other students were exiting hospitalization programs for anxiety/depression, and the class felt like a logical next step as it would provide continued support beyond the hospital.

We have made it clear to enrolled students that entering and exiting the class is flexible. Entrance criteria are based on whether or not a student has accumulated absences or tardies that exceed 10% of school attendance days, the student has entered a hospitalization program, or the student frequently refuses to come to school without adult intervention. All of these scenarios would begin a conversation about whether or not to add the MAC intervention class to the student’s schedule.

When we have a new student joining the class, we let the other students know ahead of time, which enables processing time for the group. When the new student joins the class, we review and discuss the request for confidentiality. This allows our students to feel comfortable sharing personal information, but we also warn them that we cannot require confidentiality and that we will need to help build and establish trust within our group.

Towards the end of the trimester, we begin a discussion for each student about whether or not the student should exit MAC. The criteria we reference for this decision include: a significant reduction in absences/tardies, an assessment of whether the student no longer needs adult intervention in order to attend school, and/or confidence that the student has and effectively utilizes a coping plan. If the student is not engaging in the curriculum or the class is not making an impact on tardies/absences, an alternative plan in place of MAC is discussed and a student may be exited from the class. When students are going to exit the class, we meet individually with them to help them prepare for how they can access support when necessary without the daily structure of MAC.

How the Curricula were Chosen: What’s Being Taught and Why

Our team chose research-based or research-informed curricula that were cost-effective (some research is still necessary in order to “prove” the efficacy of mindfulness practices). We decided to begin the year educating our students on mindfulness/breathing techniques so our students could learn how to calm their emotions if they became dysregulated. Once they learn how to breathe effectively (taking slow, controlled breaths), their heart rates will decrease and then they can engage the brain’s prefrontal cortex and be able to attend to learning new information. With the understanding that learning how to breathe effectively would be the first step prior to educating on brain science or distress tolerance skills, we felt teaching breathing techniques should be our first educational topic. We adopted the Learning to Breathe (Broderick, et.al, 2013) mindfulness curriculum to teach mindfulness/breathing techniques.

Our second topic was to educate the students about brain science so the students were aware of what their brains do when anxious and to be able to recognize those signs in order to intervene and engage in the breathing techniques previously learned. The educational materials we used were from MindUp Curriculum Grades 6-8 (Hawn Foundation, 2011).

The final topic was to teach concrete skills, which is why we focused on DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) techniques and practices. For those of our students who have been in inpatient hospitalization programs and intensive outpatient programs, DBT skills are often used and we felt that reinforcing these skills would be beneficial. The educational materials we utilized were from The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Workbook: Practical DBT Exercises for Learning Mindfulness, Interpersonal Effectiveness, Emotion Regulation, & Distress Tolerance curriculum (McKay, et. al., 2007).

Building the Class

The MAC teaching team consists of our school guidance counselor, two social workers, a psychologist, and a general education teacher. The gen ed teacher is present each day and co-teaches with a member of the support service staff, who attend class on a rotating basis. This allows for scheduling flexibility, diversity of personalities and instructional styles, and helps students develop relationships with multiple staff members.

Our class meets daily during first period. This time was chosen intentionally for a few reasons. Primarily, our class would offer students a calm, gentle start to the school day and, ideally, motivate them to make it into the building each morning. Additionally, this is the only time of day when sixth and seventh graders are participating in their elective classes simultaneously; this allows students from different grade levels to learn together.

How do we spend our 35 minutes together? After welcoming students to our space (in person or over Zoom), we do a feelings check-in to gauge availability for learning and make any adjustments to the lesson plan. Next, we set our intention for the class period and review expectations for participation. We move on to instruction: a coping skill, information about the brain or body, or a breathing technique. Sometimes students complete a written reflection or plan for future implementation of a skill. We mix in brief guided meditations, safe place visualizations, body scans, or mindful movement activities. Finally, students sometimes create a piece of art or paint with water on a Buddha Board for kinesthetic reinforcement of our lessons about the fleeting nature of feelings.

To encourage student engagement, we offer opportunities to participate verbally, type responses in the chat feature of Zoom (when students attend class remotely), and reflect in writing. With some coaching, they will respond to and initiate conversations with each other. We also offer choices about video clips, meditations, and games in an effort to help them take an interest in each day’s lesson and view themselves as students who participate in class.

Some students struggle with participation and engagement, especially when attending class remotely. Some hesitate to turn on their cameras or to respond to prompts like “how are you feeling today?” In an effort to help them overcome feelings of discomfort around attendance, engagement, and participation, the teachers track our students’ efforts on a daily basis. They earn points for logging on (or coming in), turning on their cameras (or showing their faces during class), and sharing (either verbally or in the chat). With enough points earned for the week, students can earn an incentive (discussed below).

Over the course of a five-day week, one to two big ideas or skills are introduced. Two days are typically dedicated to instruction and another two to application, leaving the last day of the week for reflection, review, and celebration. Students enjoy playing digital games like Kahoot, Gimkit, Blooket, or Taboo, as well as participating in games like scavenger hunts to review vocabulary terms, ideas, and skills.

Friday also brings the drawing and distribution of our weekly “Mystery Motivator.” Students who have earned a sufficient number of participation points for the week have the opportunity to earn a small, silly prize (think pencil toppers, fidgets, putty, or stress toys). This incentive has been motivating, and students encourage each other to turn on their cameras so all of them, not just some of them, can earn the prizes. It’s been a bonding experience as well; one week, the prizes were small pencil sharpeners in the form of little noses (you might guess where the pencils would be inserted for sharpening), and the students thought that was pure comic gold. It was wonderful to hear laughter in the classroom as they recoiled from the novelty sharpeners, and sweet to hear them talk about those prizes in the weeks to come. For kids who struggle to connect with teachers and peers, it was heartening to see them experience the fun of being in on a group joke and forming a positive memory to carry with them into the future.

Course Corrections: What We’ve Learned Along the Way

Although there are many benefits to our co-teaching model, one of the challenges it presents is effective communication. We have established daily and weekly routines to keep us all informed about the students and the curriculum as well as to assist with problem-solving.

For example, the team established a shared drive to store our weekly slide presentations. We leave feedback for each other in the speaker notes section of the slides so the next day’s teacher can see how much of the content was covered and adjust plans if necessary. We also email each other with anecdotes from the day’s lesson, concerns about the students, or questions for the group to consider. This daily communication allows instruction to progress smoothly and saves time that might be otherwise lost to the multiple transitions.

We also meet weekly as a whole team to plan, share information, and make decisions. We establish the pacing for the upcoming week, review the learning targets, and discuss any needs related to technology or materials. Additionally, we share information about our students and put our heads together to solve problems related to attendance or engagement. Finally, we get an opportunity to share funny or heartwarming moments with the kids from the previous week, as well as to celebrate successes.

Despite all of the planning, individually and as a team, we also recognize that it is essential to be flexible and to respond to the needs of our students. Balancing that responsiveness and willingness to adapt the plans on the fly with our commitment to presenting the curriculum has been a learning opportunity for all of us. When students struggle to make it into the building in the morning, so anxious that they require an escort from a guidance office staff member, we cannot ignore the physical and emotional needs of the children right in front of us. Sometimes we get to one or two fewer slides in favor of providing an opportunity to use coping skills to make it through the class period. Occasionally we jettison the entire lesson plan because of an issue that needs to be addressed immediately, such as anxiety over a return to in-person learning and all of the “what ifs” that transition might bring. In making those decisions, we keep in mind the purpose of our class (to coach students through the application of their coping skills so they can be available for learning throughout the school day). Although it’s still a work in progress, we are learning more about when to pause, take a brief detour, and then return to our plan, and when to stop and rest for the period.

Sometimes a detour can include a review of skills or an on-the-fly presentation of a future skill. For example, on a Friday before our district was about to make a shift in student attendance (more students would be coming back into the building), our students shared that they were anxious that their peers would ask a lot of questions about our class: where were they going when they left the classroom? What is the name of the class? What is it about? Who else is in it?

The two co-teachers decided quickly to pause the lesson plan and to address these pressing questions; after all, students would possibly have to handle them in just a few days. They used role-play to demonstrate the strategy of distraction during a conversation that might unfold like one the students were imagining. The teachers modeled the technique with a different conversation subject, seeking student input about helpful and unhelpful responses and closing by asking students to analyze what helped solve problems during the conversation. Although these eight or nine minutes meant not getting to everything on the day’s agenda, they helped diminish the students’ anxiety and did present an opportunity to coach the kids through a real-life, real-time situation.

Leaving an Imprint

When we began researching to find evidence to support the benefits of mindfulness education, we were thrilled to learn that contemporary Western science had finally caught up with the mental health field’s intuitive understanding of the importance of turning within to self-regulate. We focused specifically on the benefits of mindfulness in a school setting. Our review of the literature uncovered the finding that mindfulness can help students be more available for learning by improving memory and focus, increasing access to executive function skills, sharpening the ability to think critically, and reducing stress. Additionally, mindfulness training has been found to lessen the impacts of bullying; as students improve their self-regulation (and decrease impulsivity) and are more able to exhibit empathy and compassion, their behavior improves as well as their ability to solve conflicts peacefully. Finally, we learned that students who practice mindfulness are better connected to peers and teachers, and these positive relationships pay academic, social, and emotional dividends (Leland 2015).

During a time in which the pandemic has overturned many of the structures of a typical school year, MAC has built a comforting foundation for many students. Staff are increasingly concerned about our students’ mental health and we have had many conversations about how to support them emotionally. As our staff have become more aware of our mindfulness curriculum and the benefits of this intervention class, we have had many conversations about whether this class is necessary for particular students or what resources we can share for Tier 1 support for general education students. Some of us have pushed in to classes to do mindfulness lessons and others discuss strategies in team meetings.

These conversations are having a large impact on our school culture; our school is becoming more aware of the need for educating our students on how to be mindful, present, engaged, and how to calm their overactive brains. We’ve learned and demonstrated that incorporating mindfulness into the curriculum can be done effectively in many different ways; whether it is a few moments of deep breathing before a math test, a whole-team lesson on the benefits of positive self-talk, or the construction of a year-long class dedicated to mindfulness, all teachers and students can benefit emotionally, socially, cognitively and even physically from this practice.

The planning and construction of MAC began before COVID-19 impacted the world, but its rollout occurred during a year in which our students have had to transition among full-remote, hybrid, and full in-person settings. It’s true that adapting our instructional practices hasn’t been easy, but we feel proud about being able to offer an intervention that speaks directly to students’ needs around resilience, optimism, and self-regulation at a moment in history that demands those coping skills on a daily basis.

While multiple articles have been published theorizing the mental health impacts of the pandemic, the only sure thing is that there are many unknowns when it comes to planning for the future. As more students are welcomed back to school after months of learning at home, and return to classroom settings that may feel very unlike the ones they left suddenly last year, it is critical that we focus on more than academic benchmarks. As we think about how to best support students with respect to attendance, engagement, executive function skills and mental health, we anticipate an increased need for a class like MAC. At the very least, we have tools and resources to share with teachers building-wide to support their implementation of mindfulness practices as the foundation of healthy coping skills.

While there is still a long road ahead, we feel that we have set a positive foundation for supporting our students through their struggles. In conducting individual problem solving for students at a Tier 3 level, building a mindfulness class for our Tier 2 students, helping teachers incorporate mindfulness practices in their classrooms for Tier 1 students, and offering parent/community sessions, we are making meaningful change for our struggling students. We have seen the power of mindfulness practices and we are excited for the journey ahead as we continue to improve and refine all of the supports we offer to our community.

Works Cited
Leland, M. (2015). Mindfulness and Student Success. Journal of Adult Education, 44(1), 6.

Joanne Bruton has been a middle school educator for 15 years. She was a teacher for 11 years then switched to school counseling and has been a counselor for 4 years. Her lifelong passion for helping others inspired her to become a counselor as she felt she could make a more meaningful difference for students in this capacity than as an educator. Outside of work, she enjoys reading, hiking, traveling, and being in nature.

Melissa Walters has been teaching middle school language arts, math, and intervention classes for 22 years. She specializes in working with students identified as gifted/talented and twice-exceptional. When she’s not teaching, or thinking about teaching, Melissa is likely reading, baking, running, or cheering on her son at baseball.