How to Teach Tolerance and Compassion in the Classroom With Contemplative Practices

How to Teach Tolerance and Compassion in the Classroom With Contemplative Practices
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A Deep Breath

Teaching students to use deep breathing to center their thoughts is an example how contemplative practices enhancing learning.

Students who learn to take the time to breathe deeply before tests or during stressful situations are more capable of maintaining their emotional center. In addition, deep breathing stimulates blood flow, which has a very positive effect on the processes of the brain. Students actually do better scholastically when they learn to breathe deeply.

Try this in your class.

  • Gather the students into a circle - have them get comfortable. Note - if room allows, they can lie down rather than sit.
  • Have the students close their eyes, listening to your instructions.
  • Give instructions slowly and clearly.
  • Tell the students to breathe in slowly. Have them put their hand over their diaphragm so that they can feel it fill with air. Then, ask them to exhale slowly. It is helpful to count to ten as they do this.
  • Repeat this slow breathing in and out for five or six more times.
  • Ask student to sit quietly for a few moments, reflecting on how they feel after the deep breathing.

Taking the time to do five or six deep breaths in and out can defuse the tensest situations. A guided meditation can also be given, which helps the students reflect on positive affirmations. In addition, positive affirmations increase self-esteem, acceptance, compassion, and confidence.

Mindful Writing

Older students will find the use of reflective journals to be a great aid to learning because they allow students to evaluation situations or ideas; decide on a course of action; and finally, reflect on what was learned. Reflective journals can have prompts assigned by the classroom teacher based on situations within the classroom dynamics, such as, “When you heard of the death of your classmate’s parent, what thoughts came to you?” or, “What is your reaction to learning that art classes have been canceled?” Prompts can also ask students to write mindfully about a certain subject they are studying. (i.e., “Who, to you, was the most interesting character in Shakespeare’s Othello?") Finally, reflective journals can be used by the students to record their own ideas, thoughts, questions and epiphanies.

Classroom teachers should allow students the freedom to express themselves within the reflective journals without the worry of producing text that is correct in punctuation, grammar and/or spelling. Comments to the students should be positive, for example, “This is a very astute observation,” or, “I enjoyed your description of this event.”

By being allowed time to reflect and write, students learn to stop, look at what is going on around them, assess the situation, and make plans on what to do. (Give students fifteen minutes during class to write in their journals, or assign this as homework.) This develops skills that will last a lifetime. Additionally, students who keep reflective journals are better able to express frustrations. Less frustration in the classroom allows acceptance and compassion to grow.

Take Five

Educators in active elementary classes will find that taking five minutes for a contemplative practice helps students to become calmer and more attentive. Classroom teachers have found great success in teaching easy yoga poses to their students. During the “Take Five” time, one or two students can be asked to lead the poses. Several easy poses are the cobra, the downward dog, the stork, and the sunrise, sunset.

In addition to contributing to classroom unity, simple yoga poses enhance balance, circulation and flexibility. Furthermore, students with learning differences or special needs can participate with a little modification during “Take Five” time. The classroom teacher may want to brainstorm some easy positions for students with special needs with the physical education teacher or, if there is one in the school, the physical therapist.

It Works!

In addition to teaching tolerance, contemplative practices, when followed regularly, allow the practitioner to develop habits that enable them to find balance or to center, decrease stress and think mindfully, which leads to compassionate, tolerant living. In today’s busy classrooms that are overstressed by standardize testing demands and canned curriculum, five to fifteen minutes of reflection, deep breathing or yoga can make the difference in a classroom that excels or one that must constantly be managed.

References and Resources


Content from author’s own experience


  • Bothmer, Sandy, Creating the Peacable Classroom: Techniques to Calm, Uplift and Focus Teachers and Students, Zepher Press, 2003
  • hooks, bell, Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope. Rutledge, 2008
  • Kessler, Rachael,The Soul of Education: Helping Students Find Connection, Compassion and Character at School, ASCD, 2000