Mindfulness in the classroom: autopilot and paying attention

Amy Malloy
Amy Malloy
students sat at desks looking at their workbooks

The challenge: the lure of automatic pilot

Have you ever got to the bottom of the page in your favorite book and then realized you have no idea what you just read? This is due to being in a semi-conscious mental state called 'automatic pilot'. In automatic pilot mode, we are only partially aware of what we are doing and responding to in the present moment. If left to its own devices, it can end up masking all our thought patterns, emotions and interactions with those around us. Humans are habitual creatures, building functional 'speed-dials' to allow us to survive in the present while the mind is elsewhere planning for the future or ruminating in thought. The challenge here is that we are responding to the present moment based solely on habits learned from previous experience rather than making conscious choices based on the nuances of the moment itself. Luckily, mindfulness can help.

The solution: the importance of paying attention on purpose

Jon Kabat-Zinn, Professor Emeritus of Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, is often credited with bringing mindfulness into the secular mainstream. He defines the practice as: "paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally." 

Paying attention on purpose is the skill needed to move out of automatic pilot. As such, practicing mindfulness starts with learning how to pay attention. The more we focus, the more the brain builds strength in the areas involved in this type of concentration - and the easier it becomes to do it automatically. In other words, it becomes a habit to be present.

In the early years of primary school, a child's brain is developing more quickly than it ever will again. Young minds are in the process of forming their very first habits, and so learning to pay attention on purpose will have a long-lasting impact on their capacity to learn and succeed in school.

The why: why is this particularly important in schools? 

If you're a teacher wondering why this is important, mindfulness has many benefits in the classroom. Perhaps the most notable is its facility for improving children's attention span during English lessons and elsewhere in life. This is increasingly important as children are immersed in a world of digital screens and social media. Learning to focus can help to counteract the constant demands on their attention and develop greater patience and staying power for any one activity. 

While the debate continues on whether average attention spans are reducing because of screen time, experts agree that our attention span varies depending on what we are doing. The more experience we have of how much attention a certain situation needs, the more the brain will adapt and make it easier for us to focus on those situations. 

The brains of school-age children develop rapidly. So, the more we can do to demonstrate to them what it feels like to pay attention for a prolonged period, the more likely they are to be able to produce that level of attention in similar situations. 

For teenagers it is even more important. During adolescence, our brains undergo a unique period of neural development. The brain rapidly streamlines our neural connections to make the brain function as efficiently as possible in adulthood. Like a tree shedding branches, it will get rid of any pathways that are not being used and strengthen up the areas that are being used: use it or lose it. So if teenagers are not actively using their ability to pay conscious attention and spending too much time in automatic pilot mode, through screen use and in periods of high exam stress, the brain won't just not strengthen their capacity to focus; it may make it harder for them to access the ability to pay attention in future. 

The how: three exercises to teach your students mindfulness 

These three mindfulness exercises will help your language students integrate awareness into everyday activities in their school and home lives. 

1. Mindful use of screens and technology 

Screen use is a major culprit of setting the brain into automatic pilot. This is an activity you can practice in school during computer-based lessons or even ask the students to practise at home.

  • Close your eyes and notice how you feel before you've started 
  • Consciously decide on one task you need to do on the device 
  • Consciously think about the steps you need to do to achieve that task and visualize yourself doing them 
  • Then turn on the device and complete the task. When you have finished, put the device down, walk away, or do something different
  • Notice if you wanted to carry on using the device (this doesn't mean we need to)

2. Mindful snacking

We eat so habitually that we rarely notice the huge range of sensory stimulation going on under the surface of this process. This is a great activity to practise with your students during breaks or lunch. 

  • Hold the snack in your hand and notice five things you can see about it
  • Close your eyes and notice five things about the way it feels in your hand or to touch
  • Keep the eyes closed and notice five things you can smell about the snack
  • Bring the snack slowly to your mouth and taste it – notice five different subtle tastes

3. Counting the breath

A brilliantly simple exercise to teach the brain to focus attention on one thing for a longer period of time. It can be done anywhere and can also have the helpful side effect of reducing stress through passively slowing down the breath.

  • Close your eyes or take a soft gaze in front of you
  • Focus your attention on the breath going in and out at the nostrils
  • Notice the breath temperature on the way into the nose compared to its temperature on the way out
  • Count 10 breaths to yourself – in 1, out 1; in 2, out 2; and so on
  • If the mind wanders, gently guide it back to the breath
  • When you get to 10 you can either stop there or go back to 1 and start again
  • In time, it will become easier to stay focused for the full 10 breaths and for even longer

If a part of you is still wondering where to start with mindfulness, then paying conscious attention to anything that draws our senses to the present moment: the breath, physical sensations in the body, sounds, smells or tastes - these are all brilliant places to start. Remember that mindfulness is simply a state of mind, a way of interacting with the world around us. How we access that state of mind can vary depending on the school, the language lesson and the students - there are many possibilities. As an English teacher, it's important to encourage and help students academically and in regards to their wellbeing. 

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