Mindfulness in the Classroom: How I Overcome My Slumps

It’s not a secret to anybody who knows me that I get distracted very frequently. If I’m in the zone, you couldn’t shake me out of it with a tuba next to my ear, but very often, my brain is buzzing around a little too much to sit still, without me getting the fidgets.

This is doubly hard in classrooms. Being distracted in classrooms worked in a majority of high school and undergraduate classes, but I always felt supremely annoyed at my brain’s inability to focus on what was going on in front of me. Graduate school, with its more rigorous classes and my newly developed habit of eating a heavy lunch (hello, afternoon slump!), meant that zoning out was both a lot easier and caused me a greater degree of harm.

Funnily enough, I learned to focus and be mindful of what was being said while sitting in my seat through several office internships. Since the ‘outside’ is a maze of corridors away, rather than a simple door leading into a hallway and there were no breaks to switch classrooms or see a change of pace, I had to learn how to focus while sitting at my desk for longer stretches of time, taking a short break once every two to three hours to run up a flight of stairs or perform jumping jacks in the emergency exit hallway.

Several office stretches call for standing up, raising your arms, perhaps even toe touches. As an intern, this was super awkward and as a student taking fast and furious notes, I couldn't imagine getting up in the middle of class to extend my arms over my head. So I tried to develop mindful techniques that helped me shake off the fidgets, the sleepiness and my clouded concentration in a class in a way that’s super sneaky.

(This really should be one of those 1-minute Instagram videos, where I go through the stretches and the tips, but I cannot imagine asking someone to take a video of me and saying something like ‘Oh, make sure you can see my legs under the desk.’ What even. No.)

Before Class:

  1. Utilize transition times:

Whenever you enter a new classroom for a class, recognize your entry into a new mode of thinking. Maybe you’re switching from Managerial Ventures to Cybersecurity Programs. Recognize that this will require a different part of you and will bring it into sharp relief. Take a fresh breath when you enter class and sit in your seat.

2. Set an Intention

Before the class officially begins, set an intention for the next 90 minutes or however long the class is. It can be anything from one word (a favorite I like to use is ‘see’. Just see what’s happening in class, really happening) to a full on sentence. Another idea is to have an action of mindfulness before every class. Send a text to someone you love or think about one (1) item on your to-do list that’s bothering you. Then set phone and thought aside.

During Class:

This is where a lot of the stretches come in. I am a huge fan of heart openers here. My body runs a little cold most of the time, so I often find myself curling into myself. (like a cat. Or a snake.) This unfortunately also results in my back rounding and some decreased attention in the class, just because I’m so burrowed in and that’s not a pose conducive to absorbing new knowledge.

  1. Lower Body Stretches

Stretch One: Plant your feet a few inches apart and parallel, almost like if you stood, they’d be hip width apart. Feel your soles and toes touch the floor, then place your left ankle on your right thigh so that your thigh and calf are now at 90 degrees. Flex both your feet and sit straight and long. Repeat on the other side.

Stretch Two: If you have the space, stretch your legs in front of you, at least at a low angle and flex your feet. Keep taking your notes for class.

2. Upper Body Stretches

Stretch One: If you have a moment when you’re only listening to your professor, take your palms underneath your thighs and stretch your shoulders to your ears. 

Stretch Two: Very subtly, put your hand on the opposite side of the back of your chair. Then turn around to look over your shoulder and at that hand. (my favorite time to do this is when we have to pass out handouts. Sometimes I pretend I dropped something behind me.) If that’s awkward, just keep your arm diagonally in front of you and look over the opposing shoulder.

Stretch Three: Stretch your arms out on your desk space. Interlace your fingers and then stretch your arms outwards. Arch your back. Flip your wrists and this time, round your back.

Stretch Four: Touch all your fingers to your thumb, hand by hand. I’m left handed, so I usually do this for my right hand only. If you can do it for both, great!

Anytime Mindfulness:

Bring your palms together in a Namaste position and touch them to your heart. My mind is conditioned to think that Namaste is only done in formal situations, so it acts as a slight reminder to ‘straighten up and tuck in your shirt’ (eh, basically). But nevertheless, most people I know report that it does feel very grounding and calming for them.

Broaden your temples. Feel them expand and with that, feel your thoughts expand outwards into the classroom and towards the board/classroom discussion.

Take a deep breath and reset your intention.

After Class:

Shake it off! Walk to your next class with a clear head.

And that’s all I have for now! I hope that these are helpful. Do you have any tips or tricks you use to focus?