5 Ways to Support Student Success Through Mindfulness Practices

Students’ brains are full.

Stress, indecisiveness, behavior and emotional management, and automatic thoughts all take up space in their minds. 

Higher education professionals see and feel the weight of this fullness as they work with students. Increasing stress on college campuses is no secret. Our counseling and wellness staff work to meet the needs as best they can. 

One tool to help students manage their very full minds is mindfulness. This practice helps keep minds full, but in a different way — a healthy way. 

Greater Good Magazine defines mindfulness as “maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, through a gentle, nurturing lens.” 

If that doesn’t sound challenging enough, try out this definition

“Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.” 

Can you imagine being that still and focused?! Well, it’s possible.  

In 2014, Kate Pickert wrote in Time Magazine about a “Mindful Revolution.” She noted that, in 2003, 52 scientific papers were published on mindfulness. In 2012, that number jumped to 477.

Mindfulness has found its place at Google as an employee perk, is used to treat addictions, and has been promoted by Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan for use with his staff. 

Mindfulness continues to grow as a lifestyle solution to stress management and as a coping skill for anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. More than this though, mindfulness seeks to become simply a way of being. Rather than a lifestyle solution, it asks to be the lifestyle. 

You may know of mindfulness resources on one or two places on your campus, but have you considered bringing the broader benefits of this practice to the student body?

Check out the following five ways you can bring mindfulness to your students to improve their well-being and skills development. 

Athletics

Think yoga is the only physical activity that’s a fit for mindfulness? Think again. Mindfulness has made its way to little leagues, college sports teams, and national sports leagues. 

The goal of mindfulness here isn’t just about better performances on the field, however. Student-athletes can not only struggle with the pressure to perform well in their sport but to also keep up with training schedules and academic expectations of their athletic programs. Plus, they’re still faced with the full academic and personal responsibilities of any student. 

These concerns can put this group at a higher risk for psychological distress than their non-athlete peers. In fact, the 2015 NCAA GOALS study found that 30% of NCAA student-athletes experienced overwhelming distress in the last month — a more than 5% increase since 2010. 

Enter mindfulness. Because team sports come with built-in peer support, individual athletes may especially benefit from mindfulness. Benefits of mindfulness for athletes include an improved ability to focus and avoid distractions, a reduction in performance stress, an easier time adapting to challenges, and more physical efficiency due to a better brain/body connection. In fact, a Denmark study found that mindfulness can make you a better athlete. 

Mindfulness also improves “flow”, which is the official sports psychology name for what many of us refer to as “being in the zone” for peak performance. 

gif of a woman happily lifting weights

Professional athletes like Lebron James, Carli Llyod, and Derek Jeter utilize mindfulness to refine their abilities, but how can you bring this practice to student-athletes? Luckily, it doesn’t require a lot. An NCAA report found mindfulness to be a type of emotional skill-building that is extremely versatile and easy to implement, such as integrating it into a team practice time with a quick activity. 

The skills are relevant on and off the field, can be done in any location, and require little or no equipment. For example, these five meditation exercises are low-maintenance options to bring mindfulness to your student-athletes. Be sure to also check out this resource, which is full of mindfulness activities specifically for athletes. 

Need to create some buy-in with your students? Use this video about peak performance to start the conversation. 

Academics

Although related, mindfulness and meditation are distinctly different

The goal of meditation to create a feeling of deep relaxation and tranquility by calming the mind. The goal of mindfulness is to focus on the present. It’s meant to be a remedy for distractions.

Most college students would probably agree that nobody knows distractions better than they do, especially in an academic setting. Juggling inner thoughts, the temptation of checking social media newsfeeds, and spontaneous food runs with friends can all make it easy for students to lose concentration during a study session. 

Fortunately, mindfulness can bring a sense of calmness and clarity to counter internal and external distractions. Consider how this can increase a student’s ability to be an engaged learner, as opposed to having to re-read a page numerous times. 

Additional academic benefits of mindfulness include improved memory and focus, as well as relief from stress and anxiety. (Better test scores, anyone?) Mindfulness can also be a remedy for procrastination, which, as it turns out, is an “emotion management problem.”

Wondering how to bring mindfulness to students in order to foster academic success? In “Meditation & Mindfulness On Campus: A Student Guide to Going Zen”, you will find mindfulness exercises students can do between classes, before and after study sessions, or before an exam. Suggestions are easy, including: Taking a deep breath before diving into the task, visualizing yourself succeeding, and prioritizing tasks to focus on one thing at a time. 

In addition, check out these five ways to bring mindfulness into the classroom. Even if you simply begin and/or end the class with a “mindful moment” as described, you will give students an opportunity to be fully present for whatever you’re teaching. 

Tutoring centers can also include mindfulness practices. Mindfulness breathing, for example, has been found to effectively decrease test-taking anxiety. Similarly, mindful pause is a 30-second practice that can help ease anxiety in academic settings. 

Role-play and visualization are helpful mindfulness tools as well, as Laurie Grossman, co-founder of Mindful Schools, illustrates here with a sample exercise that academic coaches can use to help students practice taking tests. 

Counseling Services

Your campus counseling center is a natural hub for mindfulness efforts.  Initiatives may include mindfulness outreach or mindfulness groups. Therapists might also include mindfulness work in individual counseling. Plus, many counseling centers include a directory for all things mindfulness, such as online tools, community resources, and research studies. 

Outreach on mindfulness often consists of one-time presentations or a full program series created by counseling staff. 

John Hopkins University, for example, offers a four-week Mindful Living Workshop. The University of Utah houses a Mindfulness Center in its counseling center. It’s a focused effort built around three mindfulness workshops: Social Justice Mindfulness, Mindful Work/Life Balance, and Feel Better Now. This initiative also features a relaxation corner, massage chairs, and a drop-in meditation space. This is an excellent example of bundling efforts for impact. 

gif of two cartoon people and a cat breathing deeply together

Many institutions, though, either through their counseling centers or via an interdisciplinary effort, offer the Koru Mindfulness program. Koru Mindfulness is described as “evidence-based meditation and mindfulness for college-aged adults.” 

Co-founded by Duke University staff, The Center for Koru Mindfulness offers certification in their curriculum. There are over 300 certified Koru teachers in the US and many of them are higher education professionals.

Similarly, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MSBR) is an eight-week course taught by certified instructors, some of whom are higher education professionals. Developed at the University of Massachusetts Medical School by Jon Kabat-Zinn, MBSR has become the main type of mindfulness outreach at many institutions. Hubs for MBSR may vary, from the counseling center to campus recreation to even the school of medicine. 

Group therapy is also an effective and resourceful option that many counseling centers are relying upon to serve more students. Mindfulness group therapy can be a competitive choice to individual counseling in terms of results. 

Mindfulness groups in this regard are listed with other group counseling options and often follow a similar intake/sign-up process.

Student Development

“Busy” can be a student leader lifestyle brand. Multi-tasking, thinking ahead to the next item on their to-do lists, operating on auto-pilot, saying “yes” to everything, and chasing a work/life balance can leave students feeling out of touch with themselves and their needs.

These students also often serve in roles to lead, mentor, or guide their peers. Working on an empty (emotional) gas tank can create burnout and decrease the quality of support they can provide. It also sets a poor example for future student leaders.

So, it’s key to demonstrate that mindfulness is not something to do just because you “should” or “to be healthy”; rather, the benefits enable students to become more effective leaders who can fully enjoy their lives. Consider collaborating with your mindfulness campus partners to bring programming into your space, tailored for your population.

Or, invest in training for your staff so they can learn about mindfulness practices. This will enable them to model mindfulness practices for students and share effective strategies in retreats, programs, and other leadership events. 

What’s an excellent resource for exploring how to bring mindfulness to your student leaders? Check out The Institute for Mindful Leadership. The organization was founded by Janice Marturano, a former vice president at General Mills who took her passion for corporate mindfulness to start her own organization.

Use pieces like this one (about how mindful leaders develop better companies and happier employees) or this article (on mindful leadership) to tailor mindfulness conversations with your student leaders. 

However, mindfulness isn’t always a checklist. Huffington Post Contributor Bill George said he asked the Dalai Lama how to develop more mindful leaders. The reply? “Develop a daily habit of introspection.”

Additional Opportunities

Mindfulness does not have to belong to just one department nor be contained to one presentation. Just as well-being is becoming an institutional value with broad application, mindfulness can become more infused into a student’s skill development and college experience when it is a shared interest across all of campus. 

An interdisciplinary example of this is Mindful Elon at Elon University. This initiative involves collaboration among religious and spiritual life, counseling services, campus recreation, and wellness professionals. Together, they offer weekly events and a four-week workshop. 

The Mindful University Project from the University of Rochester is another collective impact approach to mindfulness, with its hub in the health promotion department. 

Institutions with veteran centers can also incorporate mindfulness resources into their work. In fact, the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs includes education about mindfulness practices in its Whole Health for Life initiative, including considerations for veterans who are dealing with PTSD or who may need additional support from healthcare professionals. 

Of course, campus recreation and health promotion departments can be goldmines for mindfulness programming. A campus recreation approach might incorporate mindfulness through group fitness yoga classes, as the University of Kentucky does with its Mind Body Group Fitness Specialty Class

Health promotion staff can add mindfulness to their arsenal of programming through educational presentations, tabling and other student outreach, marketing campaigns, online resources, and other content creation. For example, Recreation & Wellness at Purdue offers a Mindfulness Series and a Mindfulness Eating Series. 

Academic courses can bring mindfulness to the student population in a different, often more in-depth, way. For example, Resilience through Mindfulness is a one-credit semester-long course at the University of Connecticut. Course developer and instructor Lynn Papacostas Ginolfi brings a student support approach to mindfulness.

Creating a class like this had been a desire of hers for quite some time to help students “become more available for the learning process.” 

“It’s not that they aren’t capable,” she told me. “It’s that life gets in the way, and it’s hard to manage that stress with academics.” 

This syllabus for Mindful-Based Health Promotion at the University of Vermont shows what a course like this can entail. 

deep breathing gif

How does your campus bring mindfulness practices to students? Are you inspired by any ideas here? Let us know by tweeting us at @PriyaThomas757 or @HelloPresence

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Priya Thomas

About the author: Priya Thomas is a wellness and leadership development director and consultant, with 15 years of experience in Student Affairs. She is the former Director of Prevention & Wellness at Florida Gulf Coast University and actively volunteers with Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity. Her expertise includes wellness, mental health, student leadership and involvement, and fraternity and sorority life. Learn how we can help get your students involved.

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