This year, probably one of the most challenging ones in my 20+ year career, has been all about shifting, pivoting, and adapting everything we know about education to present lessons on a screen.

Our mission as educators has been to provide high-quality learning experiences to our beloved students, often without ever meeting them in person. As a teacher of dance and physical education, the challenge was immense. My classes are designed for collective learning experiences, group activities and learning from others. The feeling of detachment and isolation in remote education is real and strips both students and teachers of the usual motivation that powers our will to strive and achieve. I made a mental promise early on that I would not allow the challenge to stop me from finding ways to connect with my kids and to keep them attracted to my classroom.

In my search for appropriate lessons to help adolescents learn remotely, I started researching more intently the concept of mindfulness.

I wanted to share with them what mindfulness is, what it does, how everyone can apply it to our everyday lives. It has become such a mental health buzzword of late that I’m sure people without the knowledge and experience of its benefits might pass it off as something “crunchy” and “hippie-freak.” (I’m quite sure I’m dating myself with those terms.)

Ultimately, I think this lesson was one of the most important ones I would teach all year.

Mindfulness training has become a regular part of my personal internal landscape. In recent years, my family and I have endured some significant personal challenges and learning how to apply mindfulness techniques has been extremely helpful in building an effective toolbox of coping strategies. Now, I actively work to apply mindfulness strategies to almost every thought, every potential reaction, and every emotional surge I feel, so that I can have more productive thoughts that SERVE the actions I pursue. I figured, what better way to further understand this, than by trying to teach it to sleepy, exhausted, brain-drained teenagers? I had an audience (willing or not), so I would use my classes to dig a little deeper into this multi-faceted process.

The first time I heard about mindfulness was from the therapists and mental health professionals I have encountered over the years. When you first hear the word, and the concept is described to you, it feels…HARD. To stop and think about your thoughts, to notice, to accept that which you cannot control – it’s just so…HARD. It actually takes lots of practice and a ton of focus. You try to apply a mindfulness strategy, you forget to try, you remember that you forgot, and you get stressed about the fact that you forgot. In the beginning, it can be discombobulating and feel just as frustrating to apply the concepts as it is to deal with the actual challenges in your life.

But over time, and with practice, it can work. It really can. So, I taught what I practice, in the best way I knew how to in remote education – through a Google slideshow, on Google Meet, to a bunch of initials and avatars on a screen. My hope was that behind the avatars, there was a living, breathing adolescent in need of a good life lesson.

One thing I wanted to impress upon them was that mental health issues are not reserved for people who need medication, who see therapists, or are hospitalized.

Mental health, in simple terms, is one’s ability to cope with their environmental stimuli, at any point of any given day. Sometimes we are okay, other times, our cup runneth over and we want to stay in bed with the covers over our head. Everyone gets anxious about something. Everyone feels sad at some point. The mindfulness piece is an important set of skills that can help everyone.

The idea behind mindfulness is to develop mental flexibility, the abandoning of rigid thought, and opening your mind to other ways of perception. We spend so much time thinking that there is one best way to think, to do, to act, when really, there are more shades of gray that might serve us better. When doing a little internet research, I discovered five foundational practices that seemed to sum up the basic facets of mindfulness: awareness, intention, acceptance, compassion, and self-care. Whenever I’d read about something related to mental health, it always seemed to fit into one of these categories. I had also explored these tenets through my own therapeutic interventions, and felt I could pass along the lessons I had learned myself. So, I went with it. As the lesson progressed, it became easy to frame all sorts of situations through the lens of these components.

Awareness: Paying attention to your surroundings, thoughts and feelings. Teens get so involved in the expectations of the world (and of themselves) that they forget to notice things. Shifting their attention inward to notice their breath, how they feel, how others feel, what’s the color of the sky is not a natural practice, since the inward attention is how they are not living up to the world’s expectations. They become so off center and discombobulated that they tend to shut down, get sleepy, and avoid, avoid, avoid the burgeoning stress they feel. Taking a moment to just be peacefully aware of what’s going on inside and outside of themselves can help distract from the emotional onslaught of the bigger picture.

Intention: Teacher are desperate for students to follow a plan, whether it be a set of instructions, a study guide, setting aside time for homework, etc. As adults, we know the importance of having a plan or objective for one’s actions. Teenagers are usually pretty terrible at practicing these skills related to executive function. Making plans, being proactive and organizing are NOT in their natural wheelhouse, especially when they are distracted by the increasing demands being placed upon them. It’s almost too much for their brains to process at once. Maybe putting the load into the framework of setting a simpler intention – “What do I want?” and “How do I get that?” Maybe these are questions they can ask themselves when the rumination starts and keeps them up at night. Maybe they can learn to make a list to check off, create a vision board, use the calendar or set a reminder to pursue the answers. Teaching them to develop concrete steps to follow to replace the awful “what if” questions can help their brains rest because they have the power to develop their own plan of action.

Acceptance: Acknowledging what is, without judgment, especially when it is out of your control. Teens not judging? Impossible. It’s what they do, most naturally. This is probably the most difficult of the mindfulness components for them to process – embracing that they must accept that which is out of their control. They can perceive something and NOT pass judgment over it. Instead, they can decide to act or not to act, and their response to the thing they observe is what determines their level of stress and anxiety moving forward.

Compassion: Responding to things constructively, not destructively, is a concept that I think they might have the toughest time absorbing. The typical adolescent is fundamentally passionate and often reactive. It is part of their development, and the ability for them to think outside of their own feelings is particularly tough. Having compassion for others who cause them hurt feels counterintuitive. Having compassion for themselves seems almost impossible. When I asked my students, “how many of you have said ‘I’m so stupid’ today?” they all raised their hands. It felt good to actually tell them that when you forgive others, and you forgive yourself for the perceived imperfections we all have as human beings, you can lighten the emotional load. I was trying to give them permission to think differently.

Self-Care: If I’ve learned anything, it is the need to find ways to stop and take care of yourself. But what is self-care to a teenager? How should they manage their emotional and physical resources? What ARE emotional and physical resources? What they do understand is burnout. They feel it. What they don’t often connect to is the idea that they need to find time and space to do something that gives them joy, comfort, and peace – even if it for a few minutes at a time. Like adults do, they need to make time to rest, reflect, and disconnect from the madness to recharge their tanks.

Early in the lesson, I asked them to post something that they ruminate about – something that might keep them up for hours at night. Invariably, the same responses popped up – grades, college, adulting, tests, the current political landscape. Every. Single. Time. Clearly, their concerns are specific and ubiquitous. Once one response popped up in the chat, many more followed.

Then, I ask them to look at their post and think of ONE way that they think of their problem in a more mindful way, based on the five tenets we just studied. This usually took a little longer for them to respond to, because it presented an awkward shift in their thinking. Invariably, a few came through. Here’s a few of their responses…

On Grades: If I keep asking for help and take some time to understand the lesson instead of complaining and giving up, I would probably understand it much more.

On Remote Education: Instead of focusing on the negatives about online school I can look at the bright side. For example I get to stay home and see my dog (who I love very much). I can also stay in my pjs if I wanted to and I don’t have to look presentable!

On the political landscape: Getting off my phone more often to avoid social media negativities.

On college applications: I want to begin outlining any writing responses I need for college applications so my mind doesn’t constantly run through ideas of how to answer them; put my thoughts to paper.

On life: Spending more time on relaxing and/or being productive rather than stressing and doing nothing.

On negative self-image: Praising myself for what I’ve accomplished, knowing I did the best I could do.

These responses were all from different kids, sitting by themselves behind their computer in their room. The funny thing is, the answers were within them the whole time. To unlock them so they could access these thoughts – that’s the part of my job that I take very seriously. Aside from content, a large part of what I do is to help train teenagers to become successful adults. Through the academic content and technical skill-building, I must weave these mindfulness practices through the “teachable moments” in class so they learn how to recognize when to apply them in a practical way so they can avoid the emotional overload.

In the middle of the teaching cycle of this lesson (I have 10 sections of classes), a friend of mine posted a picture on Facebook. It was a coffee shop blackboard with the quote “OPTIMIST: Someone who figures that taking a step backward after taking a step forward is not a disaster, it’s more like a cha-cha.” It was the perfect connection between mindfulness and dance. I loved sharing it with the rest of my classes. Of course, the one thing missing in the picture is the idea that after the step back, you may have to take a few steps in place. But no matter what, you must continue to take the next step forward, even when you are doubting yourself, or your place in life. Do the Cha Cha, or the Tango – whatever you choose, don’t stop moving forward – mindfully!

Guest Author: Stacey Tirro, Educator at Spring Valley High School in Rockland County, NY.