What I’ve Learned Teaching Mindfulness in Middle School Health Education

Teaching mindfulness emphasizes paying attention to the present moment in an accepting, nonjudgmental manner.

In other words, experiencing the now.

That’s how I define mindfulness for my middle school students: Experiencing life as it’s happening.

Mindfulness can sound confusing or even silly to a 13-year-old — “Wait … how else can we live?” — so background information helps, as well as examples, practice time, feedback … and perhaps a bit of sarcasm. It’s about living in the now, man.

Here are some lessons I’ve learned from infusing mindfulness techniques into mental health lessons in my middle school health ed classroom.

The Rationale

In seeking to provide the best health education experience for our students, it is imperative to offer skill development that will benefit them for years to come.

Health education teachers often use meditation or “quiet time inward” as a reflective process, helping students learn the benefits of slowing down from time to time in order to have clarity with thoughts, feeling and actions.

We teach valuable lessons about analyzing influences from the past and we motivate with goal-setting lessons that look ahead to the future.

I find mindfulness to be useful in the between.

It helps students realize there is a healthy place in the present. A place where we don’t dwell too much on previous events or overthink what’s to come. There are times where it makes sense to live in the past or the future, but there are many moments each day/each week where it’s more important to live “right now.”

With younger children, mindfulness can be taught without needing a definition. Activities can be done without calling it “mindfulness” at all. By middle school, I’ve found that students are in fact ready for a basic description.

With my 7th-grade students, I begin with a full definition but immediately follow that with a simpler explanation, such as “experiencing life as it is happening” or “being aware of the present moment.”

Whatever your choice of wording, mindfulness is a useful life skill that promotes healthy habits of emotional management, of decreasing distress and anxiety, and of increased concentration.

For research studies on the topic, you can read through this database of articles compiled by the American Mindfulness Research Association. I’ve also included additional mindfulness resources at the end of this article.

The Process

Incorporate mindfulness in a way that works best for your classroom and personality. Rarely is any health ed lesson one-size-fits-all, so no mindfulness activity will work perfectly with every age group or every student population.

Choose a style of mindfulness that best suits the needs of your unit, essential learnings, and state/national standards.

  • Hook
    Whether you jump right into an activity or give some background first, you will want to use an activator — or hook — that catches students’ attention.

  • What It Is/What It Isn’t
    Mindfulness doesn’t need to take 20-30 minutes. After all, to be mindful is to be aware. A quick meditating “reset” can be done in 30 seconds, as discussed by Phil Boissiere in his Ted Talk.

    Mindfulness doesn’t need to be meditation. While awareness can utilize a focus on breathing, worry less about forcing students to concentrate but to instead be aware.

    Mindfulness doesn’t require us to sit in any meditation pose. However, drawing awareness to posture can be a useful technique, and having eyes closed can help as well.

  • Practice
    Taking part in regular mindfulness doesn’t have to take up too much class time and certainly does not interfere in anything academic; instead, mindfulness stands on its own as a precursor to concentrated learning.

    Perhaps your mindfulness practice is within a specific unit or skill focus. If you have multiple lessons in a row, they can build on one another.

    Another potential use is to offer a mindfulness activator before one lesson a week. I use both: a multi-day emphasis during a mental health/self-management focus in 7th grade, and then part of “Mindful Mondays,” with a quick activity at the beginning of the period to kick-start the week.

The Wrap-Up

  • Journal
    Often, no reflection is necessary because the time inward can itself help focus the group; you may find the class primed and ready for what’s next with a calm readiness.

    That said, you can always use a journal prompt. This might work well if you are having students assess progress with their approach to mindfulness.

    Q’s: What did you become aware of either within your own body/thoughts/emotions or the nearby environment? Did you notice anything different during this activity compared to previous lessons?
  • Small-Group Reflection
    Mindfulness activities are often silent, but social reflection is still allowed! Use a “turn & talk” method for quick check-ins.

    Q’s: What helped you to focus on the present moment? Was it difficult? Do you feel calmer now? Were you frustrated or bored? What can you improve for next time?
  • Large-Group Reflection
    Give a chance for students to share as a big group as well. This could lead to beneficial conversations and allow you as the teacher an opportunity for feedback (both giving and receiving).

    Q’s: Have you enjoyed our Mindful Mondays so far? Which method of being mindful are you putting to use in your personal life? Have you shared any of this information with family members?

The Examples

Below are quick and simple mindful activities that I’ve found successful in the classroom. Most of these examples are aimed at the middle school level, but the basic concepts could be expanded for high school teens or used with younger students.

Check out the resources from “The Rationale” section above for lots of examples too!

Introductions

  • Just a Minute
    Students close their eyes or put their head down and the teacher starts an online stopwatch. Students quietly look up when they think one minute has passed. The goal is to get the closest to exactly one minute without cheating. Yes, this is more of a mental “game,” but it allows students to understand how to focus on the current moment and can lead into more discussions or activities. Discuss what senses felt heightened; what thoughts of the past/future were abandoned for the present moment; how this can apply to other life scenarios.

  • Change Something
    Students pair up and face each other, about 5 feet apart. Have one partner turn around for 30 seconds and close their eyes while the other student changes something — anything — about themselves. Examples: take off an earring, switch shoes, or put hair behind an ear. Then the first partner turns around to quietly try to identify what has changed. Switch roles and carry on for a few rounds each. Discuss how this can lead to solo mindful walks or meditations.

  • Ted Talk
    Why Aren’t We Teaching You Mindfulness?” from Anne Marie Rossi. Aimed at adolescents, this can be used as an excellent intro to mindfulness concepts. Discuss your use in the class afterward, or link this to your first mindfulness practice.

Mindfulness doesn’t need categories, of course, but it just seemed natural as I aligned our work to the National Health Education Standards. For clarity in mindfulness activities, I often connect what I call the 3 I’s: impermanenceinterdependence, and what I call insight.

Impermanence

The concept of impermanence is that physical and mental events come into and out of being. Life is a transient and continuous change of condition; much of our reality is in a state of flux.

Potential health education units: Analyzing Influences (NHES #2); Decision Making (NHES #5); and/or Self-Management (NHES #7).

  • The Bell Tolls (Mindful Listening)
    Students close their eyes or put their heads down. Ring a bell or use this YouTube video. Students quietly open eyes when they think the bell has stopped ringing. Discuss what students noticed about when people stop hearing sound vibrations at different points; people sat up early/later; relate static in video as it can represent distractions in life.

  • Head in the Clouds (Mindful Seeing)
    On a cloudy day, have students lay on the grass face up and watch the clouds for a set amount of time (maximum five minutes). Have them notice the movement of the cloud patterns and which direction and speed the clouds are traveling. Can we see the beginning or the end of the line of travel? Or, does it dissolve into and out of existing within our sight?

Interdependence

Interdependence refers to our state of human connectedness. It is the connection of nature and life, of all things and of all situations. We are all linked in some way, with our presence made possible by many factors and by many people affecting each other.

Potential health education units: Analyzing Influences (NHES #2);  Accessing Valid Info (NHES #3); Interpersonal Communication (NHES #4); and/or Advocacy (NHES #8).

  • My Favorite Things (Mindful Thinking)
    Ask students to think of an item of their choice — a favorite possession — either at school or at home. This can be a book, a piece of technology, an article of clothing, etc. Have them think about how that item got into their possession. Who had an impact? Was it created? How was the item made? Who had an influence, whether it was on the tools, machines, or other resources? Have students become aware that some of our favorite things exist only because of others. Ask students to consider the many steps it took to get the item of their choice into existence.

  • The Origin of Food (Mindful Eating)
    A tricky one for school, but perhaps linked to an upcoming or previous lunch period. Before/while/after eating, take a minute or more to quietly be mindful of what factors influenced the meal. Where did the food come from? What had to happen in order for it to get into your possession? Who made it possible for you to eat this meal? What allowed them to prepare/process/manufacture each item involved? How far back can you trace the origin of your food?

Insight

This concept involves gaining in-the-moment awareness and feedback, so we can be responsive. Reaction is involuntary, albeit healthy depending on the scenario. Being responsive to our senses and our surroundings allows mindful concentration and process time.

Potential health education units: Interpersonal Communication (NHES #4); Decision Making (NHES #5); and/or Self-Management (NHES #7).

  • Hidden in Plain Sight (Mindful Seeing)
    Hide a toy or maybe a common/well-known prop in the classroom, but somewhere in plain sight. Tell the students the item is there and that their job is to quietly find it, noticing where it is in comparison to its usual spot. Follow up mindful prompts from there.

  • Pass the Cup (Mindful Teamwork)
    This easily works for interdependence as well. Fill small cups of water about 1 inch from the rim. Ask students to form groups of 4-6. Paying close attention, and trying not to spill, have them silently pass the cup of water back and forth through the line/circle. Have them focus on the purposeful movement of cup, hands and arms. If it’s a trustworthy group, you can even have them try to pass the cup with their eyes closed, while still being silent. Maybe combine groups for a larger activity. Discuss what senses were heightened; could they hear the rustling of clothing or feel each other’s hands as they worked to pass the cup?

Reflection Questions for Teachers

  • What are your favorite mindfulness activities?
  • Is there a specific skill or unit that best lends itself toward mindfulness practice, or do you interweave it throughout the course of the quarter/semester/year?
  • Have you found success, or failure, in a certain type of set-up versus another? Will you share any ideas or examples?

Additional Resources

Teacher Resources:

Reading:

Apps & Podcasts:

  • CALM — This app provides free access for teachers
  • Insight Timer — The largest app for providing meditation exercises
  • Pocket Mindfulness — “Start here” blog and app with tips for beginners
  • Aura — Daily three-minute meditation prompt
  • NPR — List of mindfulness podcasts
  • Developing Good Habits — Another list of mindfulness podcasts

Scott Todnem
Scott Todnem

Scott Todnem has been teaching health education since 2001 in Naperville, IL. In 2019, he was named SHAPE America National Health Education Teacher of the Year. Scott has been on social diversity teams, led educational trips, and served as team-building coordinator and strength and conditioning coach. He is the author of “Growing Up Great!”— a puberty book for boys.