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Back to school: proceed with mindfulness

cars lined up on a road with text back to school proceed with mindfulness

As the new school year approaches, it’s completely normal for both parents and children experience a rush of emotions. Sadness that the carefree days of summer are ending. Anticipation of seeing friends and learning new things. Curiosity at what new opportunities the new year will bring. Excitement of new schedules, new routines, new friends. And perhaps, joy…. that the kids are finally out of the house!

As we consider this upcoming school year, perhaps an additional set of emotions rises to the top. If children have been in remote or hybrid learning environments for the past school year, returning to more normal routines may bring about some anxiety and stress. Even when we consider a typical school year, stress over a new school, new teachers, new friends, and new challenges can leave us feeling overwhelmed and filled with worry. When we add in concerns over the on-going pandemic and the health and safety of our children, teachers, and other school professionals, we may be downright dreading the 2021-2022 school year.

As I reflect on all the changes our children, teachers, and schools have endured over the past year, I not-so-fondly recall my main school related stressor from a few years ago – the school drop off line. To me, it was the bane of each school day.

That school year, as I was dropping off my children, I began to take note as to why the drop off process was so stressful. Getting in line. Waiting in line. The rush to get them out of the car quickly – “Go. Go. Go. GOOOOO.” – almost as if they’re paratroopers jumping into a war zone. And then the endless waiting to be let back into the line to exit. As countless cars would go by me without allowing me in, I grew GRUMPY. Frustrated. Stressed. Every. Single. Day. Soon, I realized that this was no way to start my (or my kids!) day.

I then decided it was time to take charge of my emotional state and start our day off on a better foot with a dose of mindfulness.

Understanding Mindfulness

Mindfulness, as a practice, is becoming ever popular in today’s culture. One well-known researcher, Jon Kabat-Zinn, says that mindfulness is “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.” In other words, paying attention! It also includes an openness to new ways of looking at things and willingness to change based upon new perceptions. Obviously, it is more complicated than that, but it begins there.

In times of stress, practicing mindfulness can be helpful as it can help our attention and focus, provide us with a better appreciation for life, and can help us with managing our emotions. Even in the school drop off line or as we navigate back to in-person learning!

How to Add Mindfulness to Your Day

There are many ways to incorporate mindfulness into your daily life – mindful breathing, mindful meditation, mindful eating, and even mindful walking. A helpful way that I’ve found to incorporate mindfulness into my daily life is the 5-3-1 practice.

Developed by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Health Minds, the 5-3-1 practice is easy to implement in even the busiest of lives. The practice encourages 5 minutes of meditation every day. This can be as simple as focusing on your breathing for a total of five minutes or even just taking a five-minute break from the busyness of daily life. The idea here is to take this time to calm yourself to enhance your overall well-being. The next step in the practice is to write down 3 good things that happened each day. Research shows that cultivating an attitude of gratitude is equated with a higher sense of well-being. The final step of the practice is to extend at least 1 act of kindness each day. Generosity is not only good for the person you are kind to, but is also good for you! The key to this practice is to do it with intentionality – noticing and recognizing when you are completing the practice.

The great news about mindfulness is that you can apply it to just almost anything you do in life. Taking some of my own advice, I set my mind to practicing mindfulness to manage school-related stress.

Six Easy Ways I Apply Mindfulness in the Drop Off Lane

  1. Taking three deep breaths as I enter the lane. Intentionally noting how these breaths feel in my body. This practice is known as mindful breathing.
  2. Turning my attention to my words and tone. Even if I want to say unkind things when someone cuts me off or won’t let me in, my kids notice that energy and it increases the stress level for all of us. Paying attention to what I say and how I say it in those times of frustration models how to mindfully address and deal with emotions.
  3. Speaking of emotions, another way to practice mindfulness in the moment is to accept, non-judgmentally, the emotion I am feeling. I am frustrated in the drop off lane. It’s okay and does not make me a bad person. Once I’ve accepted these emotions, I can turn my attention to how to manage the emotion effectively.
  4. Practicing gratitude, even in the drop off line. When I feel my stress level rise, I intentionally look for three things that I am grateful for in the moment. Sometimes, I even say these things aloud. I’ve even included my kids in this practice and have them share three things they are grateful for. It’s been fun to hear my children practice gratitude and sets the tone for the rest of our day.
  5. Being in the moment when it’s time to say goodbye. Instead of the stressful rush out of the car door, taking a moment to intentionally say goodbye, give a hug, and wish my children a good day is a much better start for us all. By connecting intentionally with the moment, we can focus our attention on the present, which helps to tune out the stressful event around us.
  6. Practicing kindness by being the change I wish to see in the drop off line. Before I leave the property, I must let at least one car, if not more, in line in front of me. Even if I am in a rush, I extend kindness and let someone in.

As mindfulness can be beneficial in many life experiences, I encourage you to think of times during your day where you can intentionally practice mindfulness. Maybe it’s at the dinner table. Perhaps it’s the first five minutes when everyone arrives home. Maybe it’s even when you arrive at your workplace. Mindfulness strategies can be implemented in all these settings (and more!) and can enhance your daily experiences.

While practicing mindfulness isn’t a silver bullet that makes everything sunshine and roses that sends your children to happily skip off into their day, it is a powerful tool you have at your disposal to help you remedy the stresses of life as we return to the new normal this school year. With a little mindfulness, you can live more intentionally and perhaps even find joy in the school drop off line.

Meet the Author

Karla Belzer is a family life educator serving in northwest Illinois since 2015. Prior to her work with Extension, she worked in health and human services for over 20 years. She specializes in mindfulness, social-emotional development, aging well throughout the lifespan, and educator professional development. She is passionate about helping people of all ages live their best life.