How can mindfulness create a classroom that inspires and supports both the students and the teacher?

Submitted by Dr. Pearl Ratunil, Associate Professor/CII Faculty Fellow, Spring 2015

What is Mindfulness?

“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” -Jon Kabat-Zinn

When Jon Kabat-Zinn coined the term “mindfulness” in 1979 he had just begun a chronic pain clinic, and he hypothesized that the breath awareness techniques and concentration exercises he learned in ancient traditions like yoga and meditation could benefit people who experience a pain so persistent that conventional medical therapies could not alleviate it. Since then, the word “mindfulness” has become a common word indicating an approach to situations that is aware and attentive. This method has already been incorporating into educational environments from kindergarten to college. This article is a version of a presentation given during the Teaching & Learning Conference on August 19, 2015. In the presentation, I discussed how mindfulness and contemplative practices in general can support a positive classroom environment.

How does it support a positive classroom?

It helps the instructor establish his/her own mood of calmness, clarity, and openness. Mindfulness is just one in a set of Contemplative Practices.


The Neuroscience of Mindfulness

An fMRI study with college students (Creswell, Way, Eisenberger, and Lieberman, 2007) found that those higher in MAAS-measured dispositional mindfulness showed less reactivity to emotionally threatening visual stimuli, as indexed by lower amygdala activation, as well as stronger prefrontal cortical (PFC) activation, suggestive of better executive control. More mindful students also showed a stronger inhibitory association between PFC and amygdala, suggesting better regulation of emotional reactions. Other recent research has shown that induced mindful states can produce a quicker recovery from negative mood states, in comparison to other, common regulatory strategies like distraction and rumination (Broderick, 2005).

[Source: “Toward the Integration of Meditation into Higher Education: A Review of Research Evidence” published Contemplative Mind in Society (2008), republished under same title in Teachers’ College Record 113. 3 (2011): 493-528]

Benefits of Meditation for Attention
  • Improves attentional performance.
  • Increased efficiency of networks recruited during the attention and impulse control.
  • Meditation may change brain morphology and function, particularly in areas related to attention and response selection.

[Source:  “Meditation training increases brain efficiency in an attention task,” Neuroimage 59 (2012): 745-9]


Short video summary of the neuroscience of mindfulness and the brain.

The Instructor’s State

In a moment of stress, notice your state first before you act.


The Role of Empathy, Compassion, and Deep Listening

“Listening brings people closer; not listening creates fragmentation.” –Contemplative Practices in Higher Education, p. 145

Exercises to Cultivate Listening in Instructor and Student

  1. Ambient Sound (for student and instructor)
    • Try to sit stable and still, like a mountain. Be relaxed and alert. Close your eyes.
    • Listen to the sounds as they occur. Do not imagine, name, or analyze the sounds. As names arise, release them, and return to listening.
    • Just listen with wide-open awareness.
    • Notice how the sounds arise and fall away.
  2. Listening to a Partner (classroom application)
    • Everyone finds a partner. One person speaks; the other listens. The listener listens as carefully as possible, letting go of interpretations, judgments, and reactions, as well as irrelevant thoughts, memories, plans. When the speaker finishes, the listener repeats as closely as possible what the speaker said, until the speaker feels truly heard.
Demonstration of a Classroom Practice


Take a few minutes to describe a challenge or obstacle that you experienced in your own educational or career path.

  1. Instruction to both partners: One partner will spend 3-5 minutes speaking about [some aspect of course content].
  2. Instruction to listener: Listen without judgment. Listen in silence. Give your full attention to the speaker. Don’t ask questions. You may acknowledge with facial expressions or by nodding your head. Do not coach or lead. Let the speaker use his/her own words. If the speaker runs out of things to say, give the speaker silence to reflect or stop.
  3. Instruction to the listener: Now repeat the story the speaker just told. Don’t worry about memorizing—paraphrase. Have the speaker correct you or ask for clarification or correction.
  4. To the speaker: Give the listener feedback. Did you feel heard?
  5. Now, switch roles using a different prompt or course content.

[Adapted from Barzebat and Bush,  Contemplative Practices in Higher Education (2014)]



  • Students become responsible for “re-telling” the story.
  • Students develop attention, memory, and listening.
  • Students encounter the course content through another medium other than lecture, textbook, or digital media.
Deep Listening and Conflict: The Instructor's Experience

Another exercise that promotes positive relationships between teachers/students and students/students is deep listening. Deep listening is an exercise in listening and directs each person to pay attention not only to the person speaking, but also to the state of the awareness of the listener.

“When we attune with others we allow our own internal state to shift, to come to resonate with the inner world of another. This resonance is at the heart of the important sense of ‘feeling felt’ that emerges in close relationships. Children need attunement to feel secure and to develop well, and throughout our lives we need attunement to feel close and connected.” -Daniel Siegel, Mindsight (2010).

Daniel Siegel, a neurobiologist, points to the benefit of ‘feeling felt’ by children in the early stages of development, but this also applies to a student in the classroom who has experienced a ‘compassionate’ instructor. Using the research by Tania Singer (2004) on empathy vs. compassion, Siegel argues that there is distinct difference between empathy which leads to burnout and compassion which imagines a plan for carrying out a solution. From the neuroscience perspective, empathy uses the same neural network that experiences physical pain (inferior parietal/ventral premotor cortices), while compassion uses a completely different network that creates love and affiliation (precuneus, posterior cingulate cortex).

[Sources: Neuroimage (Feb 2011); Mindsight (201); Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences (April 2009).]

Assessment: Seeking Student Feedback

Blackboard can be used to do short surveys of the contemplative practices employed. Sample questions:

  • What is your opinion about the short focusing periods we have been doing at the beginning of our class meetings?
  • How do you feel during those two minute breaks?
  • Would you want them longer, shorter, or not at all?

Administered as an add-on to a quiz in Blackboard.

Results of Assessment

“I had 23 students respond-everyone in the section- and the responses were generally very good. 21/23 liked the brief ‘chill time’ periods, but they were mixed in terms of wanting them longer. I would guess there were 6-7 who wanted the time increased to five minutes or more. No student thought they should be shorter than the two minutes. Of the two folks who didn’t see any benefit, one thought it was a waste of time and the other was completely neutral.”

– Jon Brammer, Three Rivers Community College, CT

  • Mindfulness in education does not treat the student as an object, but cultivates the qualities desired in the student in the instructor, too. Our own ability to be present, aware, and compassionate is important to cultivating those same qualities in students.
  • The positive outcomes of mindfulness (greater attention, focus, compassion, positive feelings) are cultivated through the frequent and regular application of mindfulness and contemplative practices.
  • Contemplative practice is more than just mindfulness and includes journaling, walking, storytelling, and other practices that cultivate the brain’s abilities to focus, to attend, and to be compassionate.
Closing Mindfulness Exercise: Compassion

Continuing to breathe in and out, use either of these traditional phrases or ones you choose yourself. Say or think them several times.

May I be free from inner and outer harm and danger. May I be safe and protected.
May I be free of mental suffering or distress.
May I be happy.
May I be free of physical pain and suffering.
May I be healthy and strong.
May I be able to live in this world happily, peacefully, joyfully, with ease.

Full instructions at


Compassion is not an innate (either you have it or you don’t) quality. It can be cultivated through silent recitation of certain phrases which engage parts of the brain that employ empathy. In this way, we can learn to develop patience with a person who frustrates and thereby ameliorate the stress which comes from those interactions.

Mindfulness and contemplative practices are an ideal complement to the creation of a classroom environment that honors and respects each individual. It models non-judgment and attention as qualities that can be cultivated and valued. Finally, we can acquire these habits of awareness at any point in our lives, whether we are the student or the teacher.

Interested in Mindfulness? Stop by a weekly Mindfulness Sitting. Learn more.