TEACHING STUDENTS TO USE THEIR ATTENTION SKILLFULLY
By Dave Mochel
“We did the whole mindfulness thing.” This was an assurance from an educator that I met at a national conference. She went on to tell me about how they had had people come in and teach them how to have kids sit quietly to reduce stress. She said that many of her colleagues and students weren’t into it. I am a mindfulness, well-being, and leadership coach and consultant. I help individuals and organizations use their attention more skillfully. This is not the first time I have heard a school mindfulness initiative described this way. Many schools are scrambling for strategies to navigate and support an increasingly stressed, anxious, and depressed student population — mindfulness programs are one way they have tried to address the issue. Mindfulness is not a quick fix for uncomfortable or challenging human feelings. Mindfulness is a practice for the skillful use of attention. I have heard plenty of arguments against practicing mindfulness in schools, but I have never heard an argument against helping students use their attention more skillfully. One of the biggest myths about mindfulness practice is that it is relaxing. Many people find that they relax as they sit quietly, but many do not. Relaxation is not the point. When you practice mindfulness, you observe how things are – including emotional discomfort. Once you see how things are, then you have choices about how to respond. Perhaps you might release some tension in your shoulders or breathe more deeply into your belly. Attention is a limited resource – we are not designed to pay attention to everything. Attention wanders – we are not designed to keep our attention in one place for long periods of time. We can, however, get quite skilled at noticing when our attention has wandered, choosing where to aim it, and bringing some acceptance to internal experiences such as stress and anxiety. Despite these realities about the human attentional system and the potential of becoming more skilled. , the only instruction on this topic that we have offered students for centuries is “pay attention!” If we taught the skill of mathematical problem-solving this way, then our best instruction would be “solve it!” Mindfulness is a foundation for self-regulation. Self-regulation is the skill of making purposeful choices about how to respond to whatever shows up (internally and externally) by focusing your attention and energy on goals, commitments, and relationships that you value. The skill of self-regulation is connected to just about every well-being and performance outcome that can be measured. Attentional self-regulation facilitates emotional self-regulation, which in turn, facilitates behavioral self-regulation. All of the above is why I teach the practice of mindfulness – not so that people will feel better (although that often happens), but so that they can work more skillfully with whatever they feel and whatever situation they face. Offering this to students might look like a class once a week or a few minutes of practice at the beginning of their classes. However, if this is the only time we reference how students use their attention, then it will have limited effect. We could begin to think about all of this a bit differently, we could integrate attentional practice more intentionally into their school experience. Below is an example of what it might look like to make a classroom a more seamless opportunity to practice. At the beginning of class, the teacher might begin with: “As you know from the times we have practiced mindfulness, attention wanders. Feelings and impulses show up. This is normal. One of the things we can work on is noticing when our attention wanders, when we are daydreaming, or thinking about something other than what we are working on. We can notice when we feel like talking instead of listening, when we feel like interrupting, or disturbing the person next to us. Again, all of this is normal. When we are aware of it, we have more opportunity to choose consciously what we do next. To help you practice, I will remind you of this during our time together today.” During the class, the teacher might use one or more of the following: “Who notices that their attention is on something other than what we are working on?” Students raise their hands. “Thanks for noticing, practice returning your attention.” “Notice if your attention has wandered. If it has, just bring it back.” “Notice if you are reacting to urges or impulses that are distracting and practice letting them pass.” “Take a moment to notice what is going on in your body.” This could be one of the most useful skills we teach our students. If you are hoping that your students will go out into the world and be able to self-regulate – to focus on what really matters when they are surrounded by shiny distractions, and to work peacefully and powerfully with the urges and impulses that will bombard them daily – then consider giving them the chance to practice before they leave you. Dave Mochel was a classroom teacher for more than twenty years before founding Applied Attention Coaching and Consulting. He helps executives, athletes, educators, parents, and students focus attention and energy where it matters most. A two-time cancer survivor, Dave has served as a lecturer at Stanford’s School of Health and Human Performance and is the author of Good Life Practice: A Quick Start Guide to Mindful Self-Regulation. His clients have included Bank of America, The Federal Reserve Bank, Subaru, Cottage Health, and The University of Wisconsin. Dave has degrees in biology and geology from Williams College, a Master’s in Humanistic and Multicultural Education from SUNY New Paltz, and he has completed a clinical internship in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. Dave has been instrumental in helping The Knox School of Santa Barbara create its mindfulness and social-emotional programs.