It Really Does Make a Difference

makeadifferenceIt has been almost three months since my Teen Leadership course ended where I introduced my students to a few mindfulness practices.  I had been wondering if the learning had really “stuck” or if in their very busy lives my students had forgotten their experience.

As an instructional coach I visit classrooms weekly and a couple of weeks ago I was in a colleague’s room where her students were working on individual projects.  As I walked around and visited with students, one of them who also had taken my Teen Leadership class talked about her frustration with a computer program she was trying to use that kept messing up.  She spoke of how she just wanted to throw the computer, but then she went to the anchor breathing technique from Teen Leadership and described how she used it to regain control of her emotions.

Needless to say I was excited to hear that she was using mindfulness techniques and they were helping her.  But then another student in the room said, “Yeah, I use the deep breathing you taught us most nights to be able to go to sleep.”  This got me thinking, “Is this an isolated incident or is the mindfulness experience so positive that students are choosing to implement the practices into their lives?”  I decided to send an email out to my former students and the response was encouraging.  After three months this is what a few of them had to say:

“The anchored breathing and deep relaxation have helped me when I’m stressed about homework and when I have to talk in front of a large group of people.”

 “Deep breathing helped when I wanted to yell at my siblings because they really frustrate me and when I want to talk back to my mom.  I just take a deep breath and then I don’t.”

“I use the gratitude reflection. Although I don’t do this every day, at least twice a week I journal and write down some of the things that I am grateful for. It reminds me of all of the good in my life that I am thankful for and even the bad that I am thankful for as well.”

“I used to get anywhere from 12 hours of sleep on the weekends to 2 hours of sleep minimum on a school night. Currently, I’ve been able to sleep roughly 8 hours a night (using the deep relaxation technique), which has noticeably increased my health.”

One of the reasons teaching isn’t an easy job is that the hard work we put into what we do often does not bear fruit until long after the students have left our classrooms.  This is not so with mindfulness.  My experience has shown me how quickly we can have an impact.  I attended a national conference two weeks ago and one of the sessions I went to was led by Tim Elmore.  He is an author and international speaker on Generation Z (those born 2001 or later).  He gave us a crash course on this generation and included the fact that Generation Z faces unprecedented mental health issues.  His presentation was very good and made me think, how can we not feel obligated to equip them with healthy strategies to deal with stress and help them to be more gentle with themselves?

I’ve decided to end each blog with a challenge to my readers.  This week’s challenge: as you interact with students (or others) over the next week, what behaviors do you notice that tell you they are undergoing a lot of stress? If you asked your students how much stress they experience in a day or how often they’re stressed during a week, what would they say?  Their answers might shock you. And they also might prompt you to make a difference where you can.

And the Movement Begins

A couple of blogs ago I talked about presenting my learning on mindfulness in the classroom to my colleagues.  Shortly after that I had one of those colleagues, Jennifer, who is teaching her students about executive functions (paying attention, organizing and planning, initiating tasks and staying focused, regulating emotions, and self-monitoring) approach me about visiting her classroom to share a mindfulness exercise.  I can’t tell you how excited I was when she asked!  She was currently working with students on regulating emotions and felt, based on what I had shared, that mindfulness would be a good fit.

We set up a time to collaborate.  Collaboration is such a great thing, people share their knowledge with each other to create something greater than if you were to do it alone.  I was learning from Jennifer and she was learning from me.  The product would be one that could empower our students.  Awesome!  We decided that I would do a small piece on brain education and then I would explain what mindfulness was followed by providing an experience called anchor breathing.  While I knew it was a good exercise after having done it with my own class I was a little nervous because these were not “my” students.  I had not spent a semester building relational capacity with them.  Would Jennifer’s students be open to the experience?

After creating a plan which included some of the new material from my Mindfulness Fundamentals course, meeting again with Jennifer for feedback, and running through the lesson in my head multiple times the day arrived.  Honestly, I was kind of nervous but Jennifer’s students trusted me and became a receptive audience (pictured below is me leading the mindfulness session).  After the lesson I asked students to reflect individually on the experience and how they could see themselves using anchor breathing outside of the class.  Later that week Jennifer shared the students’ responses with me.  Here are a few things they said:

“Anchor breathing would be great to use before a test, a competition like wrestling, or before a job interview. It will help you relax and focus. The most important thing I learned from the  mindfulness activity was how to do anchor breathing, I just used it during a test today and it worked great.”

“Use it before tests, I think that because some tests get you so stressed out that just breathing and clearing your mind could help you.  I felt a little relieved (after the exercise) and had time to think about what I was going to do for the week and catch up on things. Thanks for showing me something so simple, it works.”
“The most important thing I learned from the mindfulness activity was to let thoughts come but then let them disappear on a leaf in a river kind of form so you don’t stress about something or think about something too long.  Thank you for showing me this because I will resort back to it in times of need like I did then.”
“I think that this was a great activity and that we should try and incorporate it before big major tests in all our classes.”
If you have read my previous blogs are you starting to see a trend?!  Mindfulness works and it doesn’t take long to realize it!  I met with Jennifer at the end of the week to get her feedback.  We talked about what she thought went really well and she suggested a few changes for the next time I might do this piece.  I asked her how she felt about the experience and she responded, “It was truly empowering to see what the executive function awareness of emotional control and the mindfulness information and strategy can do for all our students.  We will definitely put this into my academic classes at the end of April/early May.”
In my next blog I will share how students continue to use mindfulness months after learning about it in my class!

 

teachingmindfulness

Start With Yourself

I have always been a person who believes in walking your talk so if I was really going to embrace teaching mindfulness then I had to fully embrace doing mindfulness.  Two weeks ago I began a course on mindfulness fundamentals through mindfulschools.org.  This has been an eye opening experience.  Mindful practice takes A LOT of practice but the rewards are exponential.  It is not easy to sit for five minutes trying to rid yourself of thought and just be.  However, what I have learned is to not judge myself when thoughts do enter and to be gentle with myself.  In my work with both students and staff I think we are innately hard on ourselves, often not even being realistic or fair.  I am learning to be a little less harsh with myself and I am realizing that if this is difficult for a 40+ year old woman then it is going to be a challenge for a teenager.  I am starting to understand the importance of not just leading students and/or staff through mindfulness exercises but coaching them to a higher level of experience.

In this fast paced world that has every distraction from one’s reality available it is no wonder that we are dealing with an increase in depression, drug addiction, and suicide attempts.  People are often avoiding their feelings for as long as possible and when they can’t avoid any longer they do not have the coping mechanisms to deal with them.  What if we equipped people with healthy coping strategies?  Viktor Frankl is credited for saying, “Between stimulus and response there is a space.  In that space is our power to choose our response.  In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”  Practicing mindfulness helps us grow that space.  It can help one to better realize what they are feeling, name it, and learn to understand the emotion rather than the emotion controlling oneself.

I have set two goals for myself over the next month.  The first is to make time to practice mindfulness each day formally for at least five minutes.  Secondly, I want to increase my ability to be informally mindful whether that is while I am walking down the school hallway or doing a daily task like brushing my teeth.  I desire to better understand the challenges of mindfulness in order to authentically coach others.  I will keep you up to date on how it goes!

 

How did everyone respond?

Have you ever tried to do something and it didn’t turn out as planned?  Well, my implementation didn’t go exactly as planned either…. it went even better!  I don’t know if it was because I spent a lot of time planning, the fact that I did this toward the end of the semester when we had built relational capacity, just a new experience for my students, or a combination of all of these but it was pretty great.

I followed my plan with a TEDTalk as the attention getter followed by a short instructional piece on mindfulness.  Days 2-4 each had a different mindfulness exercise followed by individual reflection time.  I sat at the front of the room reading each exercise and would occasionally look up to see almost all of my students in meditative posture (chairs pushed away from the table, both feet firmly planted on the floor, eyes closed, faces relaxed).  There were a couple of students who did not fully participate but they respected me and their fellow classmates by remaining quiet and bothering no one.  It all was quite wonderful.  On day 5 I had the students anonymously evaluate the experience.  Here were the results:

Did you benefit from learning/practicing mindfulness?

Yes: 81% No: 19%

After experiencing the mindfulness exercises, do you believe mindfulness should be taught in schools?

Yes: 85.7% No: 14.3%

A few ways students said they had used what they had learned outside of class…

“Before a wrestling match, I would go crazy and just get nervous as heck, but with the practices, I was able to relax and I end up winning. So thank you for teaching us these practices.”

“I have used it every night since to go to bed, and I have seriously never felt better about my sleep pattern. I wake up to my first alarm every day and that usually doesn’t happen!”

“So the focusing exercise helped me to learn how to focus better on whatever it is that I am doing. I have had to use this a lot this week because of all the finals and schoolwork that I have to get done.”

“I was super angry the other night after thinking about things that had happened and things that hadn’t happened yet, and I stopped what I was doing, and sat there and breathed deeply for a solid 3 minutes. It helped me incredibly, especially since I was angry, it calmed me down and I think that I will definitely do it a few more times in the future.”

This positive of a response from my students after an initial experience of mindfulness got me pretty excited.  It also made me ask myself, “Why are we not teaching mindfulness in schools?”  I was determined that if mindfulness education wasn’t happening in every classroom, it was definitely going to be happening in mine.  In my next post I will share what has happened since introducing my students to the practice of mindfulness.  Momentum is growing!

Ready, Set, Implement!

Implementing something new in your classroom is such an interesting process.  So many questions run through your head.  Will it go well since it is the first time doing this?  What will be the reception by my students?  Am I the only one who thinks this is a cool idea?  What if it totally bombs?!  I think that last question is especially difficult and keeps a lot of teachers, who are known for wanting to do it “right” the first time, from trying new things.  How do I know this?  Because I used to think that way.

I was hesitant to try something new because what I was doing was going well.  Why risk failure when you have a good thing going?  I don’t know if it was turning forty or having a boss that really challenged my thinking but my mind has changed.  You may have a good thing going but if you don’t keep trying new things and growing yourself you don’t have the BEST thing going!

So back to this journey of implementing mindfulness in my classroom.  I had met with one of the instructional coaches in my building to help me process my purpose for wanting to implement mindfulness, what I would share with my students, and how I would go about it.  Next I put together my plan.  This would be a mini module as I had only formally worked with mindfulness for three months and I wanted to do a test run to see if students felt it to be valuable.  I would use a twenty minute portion of a teaching period for four consecutive days.  The day before we started in class work students would watch a video link outside class to grab their attention and give them a little background on mindfulness.  The video I chose was Why Aren’t We Teaching You Mindfulness (Anne Marie Rossi).  It was the right choice because it peeked my students’ interest.  Then on Day 1 I did a 10 minute piece entitled Mindfulness 101.  This gave my students background on what mindfulness is and how it can help them.  I also included some famous people who practice mindfulness because I didn’t think it would hurt!

The next three days I provided opportunities for them to experience different types of mindfulness meditations:  physical literacy of mindfulness through deep relaxation, mental literacy through anchor breathing, and emotional literacy through a gratitude exercise.

In my next blog I will share my experience as the teacher and the response of my students.

 

So it all started when…

As an educator in my district you are to have an individual career development plan for professional growth each year.  I knew I really wanted to do mindfulness but I didn’t know if it would “fit” into a plan.  Typically, plans focus on content specific materials, instructional strategies, implementation of technology, district initiatives, etc.  I went to my administrator and pitched my idea sharing how research shows a connection between mindfulness practices and an increase in physical, mental, and emotional health.  I also was teaching a Teen Leadership course and thought that mindfulness education would naturally fit into the curriculum.  Fortunately, I have an open minded administrator who supported the idea.  And so, the journey began.

Our district offers its educators a professionally driven model for growth called Climbing the Mountain.  The first step in climbing the mountain is to research.  Well, lets just say there is a lot of stuff floating around about mindfulness so I really had to sift through it.  Following are a few sources that I found to help get me started:

These resources helped me better understand the benefits of mindfulness, the art of practicing it, and actual exercises I could do with my students.  Now I had the materials I needed to start planning implementation in the classroom.  A conversation with one of our instructional coaches was the next step.

Our conversation led me to be very clear in my purpose of introducing mindfulness to my students.

“As an educator I believe that it is important to care for the whole child.  The skills my students can develop through mindfulness practices transcend the classroom and will lead to their better health and well-being.  This in turn will help them to realize more of their potential.”

With a very focused purpose I began planning for implementation.  In my next post I will share how it came together.

 

So I Took The Plunge!

I’ve been an educator for 20 years and I have seen A LOT of changes in the world of education.  However, I believe the greatest change has been in my students and the world in which they are growing up.  Many of my students are very stressed whether it be due to their crazy after school activity schedules, needing to have a job or two, a greater level of competition due to our global society, or family relationships that are in desperate need of repair.  What students need from me as their teacher has also changed.  They no longer need me to be just a font of content knowledge (they can now get a lot of this from the internet) but now they also need me to help them gain skills to navigate the lives they lead in a healthy way.

Our school district began looking at SEL (social-emotional learning) a couple of years ago.  As I learned more about it, I realized that it just made sense!  How can a student learn math if they are completely overwhelmed with the emotions of a parent leaving the family and have no skill set to help regulate those emotions?  How do we expect a graduate to do well at a job if they don’t know how to express their thoughts and feelings respectfully?  Alan E. Beck once said, “You can’t do the Bloom stuff until you do the Maslow stuff.”

While working with our elementary guidance counselor around SEL I was introduced to the concept of mindfulness and how they tied together.  It peaked my curiosity so I began researching.  While I know the research is relatively new, it is quite promising.  Here are just a few findings:

  • Mindfulness has been shown to be effective in reducing pain and high blood pressure.
  • Neuroscience research is showing that it can improve sustained attention, working memory, and concentration.
  • Mindfulness research has been shown to promote the ability to make meaningful relationships, manage difficult feelings, be calm, resilient, compassionate, and empathic.
  • It is proving effective in addressing stress, anxiety, and improving sleep.

                     -The Way of Mindful Education by Daniel Rechtschaffen

I want all these things for my students so I was sold!  Thus began the quest to bring mindfulness to my classroom.  In the next few blogs I will share the process I went through , integration into the classroom, students’ response, and future plans.  I hope you will come along on the journey!

With gratitude,

Meg