According to the Washington Post, over 4 million students experienced lockdown drills last year as a part of their educational experience in American schools. While these drills are becoming a standard in school safety protocols, we also know that they produce fear and anxiety for many young people. What can mindfulness practices offer to students and teachers for whom lockdown drills are an educational reality?
One of our instructors, Kerry, recently shared that a lockdown drill alarm sounded while she was teaching one of her 3rd grade classes at the William D’Abate School in Providence. She got down onto the floor with the students, head away from the door, and signaled for them to start a mindfulness practice we call palm breathing. The whole class began tracing their hand while following the pattern of their inhale, tracing up from the center of their palm to the tip of a finger, and exhale, tracing back down to the center of their palm. This simple mindful breath activity keeps one focused on the present rather than spiraling into the past ‘replay’ or the future ‘rehearse’ patterns where anxiety lives.
Mindfulness can help reduce anxiety, but only if you practice it. It is not an effective tool when introduced for the first time in the height of, or threat of, a crisis. Kerry’s students have been practicing various mindfulness techniques every day since the first week of school. So when she whispered to everyone to begin something they already knew, it made these practices concrete. Tracing your palm doesn’t do anything to address the potentially real danger, but as a practice of staying focused on the present moment while doing one’s best to stay out of fight-or-flight with deep, regulated breathing is a skill that, as part of a whole practice can generally help you cope during adversity.
Practicing mindfulness and having a comprehensive social and emotional learning (SEL) curriculum embedded into school culture does not make a lockdown drill any less scary. That being said, these skills build resilience and better equip students and teachers to process the threat of an active shooter during a drill. Self-awareness and communication student-to-student, student-to-teacher and teacher-to-student will also be improved, allowing space for dialogue and conversation prior to the drill, and authentic and heartfelt debriefing afterward.
Integrating these two disciplines can provide a comprehensive approach to educating the whole student, and perhaps a small step toward supporting the mental health needs of our next generation.