Like so many around our country and around the world, I am horribly saddened by the events in Orlando this weekend. While watching the coverage of the event on TV it made me think about mindfulness, my students, and my own children. I wonder what kind of world my children and students will live in. I wonder if there is anything that can truly be done to stop this senseless violence. I also wonder if mindfulness was practiced by everyone, if it would help to eliminate the horrible decisions that people make.
Today was my last Mindful Monday with my students for this school year. We will start final exams at the end of this week. I had wanted to save this exercise on loving kindness for the end of our sessions because I found it to be such a good one. It ended up being quite timely with all of the events of the weekend as well.
For this exercise, we began talking about what makes us feel positively about another person and what happens when we are angry or disappointed in someone. We talked at length in some of my classes about what this feels like and how we can sometimes take out our negative feelings about ourselves on other who have done nothing wrong. We then had a really great conversation about how we thought what we have done with mindfulness could be so beneficial to everyone in the world. What if everyone took one, two or even five minutes every day to stop and focus on sending positivity out to those we love, those we see on the street, and those who have disappointed us in some way? If everyone tried to mindful and focused on kindness, would we be angry and so violent in our actions? It is amazing to hear the logic that 11 and 12 year olds have when it comes to this. We did not talk about the events of this weekend at all in our conversation because I did not think that it was beneficial to scare them. Instead, we talked about how we feel when we take time to focus on the positives and how we treat others when we have a good mindset.
The activity that we used was from the Calm app. I LOVE this app for so many reasons. I have talked about it in previous posts. It has so many great features not just for adults, but now for kids too. Calm is also promoting using their app in classrooms. Teachers can apply to get the subscription waived so that you can use it in your classrooms. I used the guided meditation called loving kindness with my students today. It walked them through thinking positive thoughts about themselves (something every middle school student needs to be reminded of) and others in their lives. It had them focus on sending kindness to those they love and those they may find difficult. When we were done with the meditation, we talked about how we felt and how this activity could be helpful in our lives.
I am not sure what parts of mindfulness my students will take with them this year. Some have expressed to me that they love what they have learned and how it has helped them. They have told me about how they use mindfulness when they are stressed. Others have said that they really do not like it and find it hard to concentrate and focus. However, if my students take even one thing away from our work with mindfulness, I hope that it is today’s lesson. I hope that when they are struggling with others or feelings of negativity about themselves, they will remember what they learned today and take just a few minutes to refocus on the positive and send out feelings of loving kindness.
For my middle school students, getting them to be “mindful” about how mindful they are is a bit of a challenge. Since I have started using mindfulness in my classroom, I have worked hard to get them to see how their brains work and how their brains affect so much of what they do. This activity helped them to determine just how mindful they are and really helped to point out how many thoughts can be traveling through their heads in a short amount of time.
For this activity, I have the students use a sheet of paper and a pencil. I tell them that I am going to put on a timer for 3 minutes. For that 3 minutes, they are to write down (I tell them to dot and jot for the sake of time) all of the thoughts that come to mind. I have them sit in various places throughout the room with clipboards so that they are not worried about anyone looking at their papers. I let them know that these lists are for their eyes only so they should feel comfortable to be honest with the exercise.
After the 3 minute time period is up, I have them review their lists and decide if each of the thoughts is a past thought (something that happened prior to coming to class, whether it was minutes before, hours or days before) present thoughts, or future thoughts. Past thoughts would be about anything that happened prior to coming to class and doing this activity. It could be minutes, hours, days or years prior to that activity. Present thoughts are anything that has to do with the activity that they are doing (for instance, “I wonder what Joey is writing about” or “why in the world is she making us do this?”) Future thoughts would be thoughts about anything that will happen after we do this activity. The thought might be about a test in the next class period, a friend they hope to see after class or a worry about what next year will be like. Once they have decided where each of their thoughts fall, they must put a “P” next to all past thoughts, an “N” next to any present or “now” thoughts, and an “F” next to any future thoughts.
Once they have identified where each thought fits, I ask the students to tally up their past, present, and future thoughts. If they are truly mindful, they will have more present thoughts than any other thoughts. If their other two categories prove to have greater numbers, it is a good visual to see how they can benefit from our mindfulness exercises.
After doing this exercise, we talked a lot about how not being mindful and in the moment can affect what we are doing. We identified how it can hurt relationships if we are not present in a conversation with friends. We talked about how it can affect our school work and learning if we are too busy day dreaming or worrying about what is going to happen in our next class. We also talked about how being mindful is so beneficial in allowing us to fully experience moments and how it helps us to be able to do our best in school and other areas or our lives.
This exercise brought about a lot of “aha moments” for my students. For those who had not fully bought in to the idea of mindfulness, they began to see it in a realistic way. For those who had bought into mindfulness, they told me that they either saw how their brain was being trained to think about the now and really saw the exercises making a difference for them.
Today I taught my students how to do a body scan as a relaxation technique. It is an excellent way to become aware of stress that you may not even realize that you have as well as a great way to relax. Through a body scan, you focus on each individual part of the body. Through a guided body scan, you focus on each body part and become aware of how each part feels. You can see where you hold your stress whether it be in your shoulders, your jaw or in your back. This allows you to become aware of your stress and gives you the chance to try to relax the muscles that are the most stressed.
This is a perfect time of year for the students to learn this exercise. For my students, they are heading into exam week soon and this is all very new for them. Many have expressed their stress and concern for how they will do. As their teachers, we are working on teaching them how to study and prepare for these assessments. I hope that they will also use what they have learned to help them relax and focus on their tests.
After we did the guided body scan, I asked the students to write about what they learned about themselves by doing the activity. Was their body more stressed than they thought? Where did they find themselves holding their stress? How did they feel after the body scan? Many of the students were surprised to see that they were tense in their jaws or other parts of their body that they did not really realize. Some also expressed how relaxed they felt and how they plan to use this technique to help them to fall asleep at night. One of my students even talked about how she could not believe how tense she was in her jaw and wondered if that had anything to do with the frequent headaches that she got. She said that she may try this technique the next time she felt a headache come on.
When I decided to add mindfulness to my classroom, I knew that it was not going to be something that all kids would immediately buy into. My students are 11 and 12 years old. Getting them to buy into bringing a pencil each day is a chore. I knew that no matter how well I explained to the students how their brains worked and why this was beneficial, I was going to have to be creative in my approach to really get them in to it.
One of the activities that I shared with the students was one where my objective was to get them to focus on something other than their breathing. Prior to this lesson, we had done a number of breathing meditations that many had written to me to tell me how it they had been using them before big games, concerts or just to fall asleep. Others had written to me to tell me that they just could not focus on their breathing and turn off their minds. I could see it in the way that they could not sit still or how they could keep their eyes focused low or shut. They were the students that were trying to get others to giggle or talk while we did our activities. I wanted to reach them as well and thought that this activity was the way to do it!
For this activity, I gave each student a Starburst (note..I did not for a second take into consideration how many students have braces in middle school. I chose Starbursts because I knew it was something that was somewhat allergy friendly. You may choose to use hard candy or at least have it as an option for those with braces.). I asked the students to observe the candy in its wrapper. They held the candy in their hand and felt the wax of the paper. I then had them carefully unwrap the candy fold by fold. They were to think about how it was packaged and how they would have to fold each side to get it to be this way. Then, I asked the students to smell the candy and think about if it reminded them of anything. From there, I told the students that they were to put the candy in their mouth and focus on the taste. They were not to bite the candy, but instead just hold it in the mouth. They were to focus on how their mouth was changing and how the taste changed over time. During this time, they were simply to focus on the taste of the candy and nothing else. Students were to just sit with the candy as long as they could without chewing it. After a few minutes, the students were allowed to chew the candy and focus on how it felt and how the taste changed. I asked them to chew as long as they could and not to take only a few bites and swallow.
Now, in the real world, most of us do not take this long to eat a piece of candy. However, what if we did? I then talk to the students about the experience. We talk about how we really made the eating of the Starburst an event. We took the time to really enjoy the candy and savor the experience. We talk about how during that time of focusing on what we are eating, we are also no worrying about the past or the future. We are in the present which is exactly what we are aiming for with mindfulness.
This activity is one that any child could do during a time of anxiety. I talk to the students about using this type of mindful activity when they are stressed in a situation. They can do it with any type of candy or gum. For some kids, this works better in a stressful situation than a breathing activity. Obviously, using candy frequently lends itself to some health issues, but it is a great way to get kids to practice the skill of being mindful. This exercise also is a great lead in to teaching kids about mindful eating (the act of taking your time to savor your food and to concentrate on putting healthy foods into your body). I do talk to the students about how beneficial listening to your body when you eat and being mindful or when you are hungry and when you are full can be. Also, we talk about how much more enjoyable it is to be mindful while eating our favorite food so that we actually remember the experience of eating it rather than mindlessly eating something and not even remember tasting it (like how I have no problem eating an entire bag of M&M’s without even thinking about it!)
What I love about this activity is that so many students told me ways that they thought that they could use this activity. For some, they said that every time they ate a Starburst or had a piece of gum, it was going to be a reminder to be mindful. Ultimately, that is what I want. I want them to find ways to make mindfulness a habit, but until that is possible, I want them to find little ways to infuse mindfulness into their days.
For those who know me, patience has not always been my strongest trait. It is the one thing that I find myself praying for on a regular basis. Since starting my journey of mindfulness, I was not only determined to add it to my classroom, but also to my own life. I wanted to make sure that my own children learned this amazing tool. However, I knew that they needed to see me using it in order for them to buy in. There have been many days where they have walked in on me meditating. At first they thought I was a little strange, but I think that they are now more understanding of what it is.
The best ways that I have learned to practice mindfulness with my children is to really be mindful during the times when we have the opportunity to be doing things together. As I have mentioned in earlier posts, mindfulness is being mindful of what you are doing in the here and the now. Recently, my five-year old asked to go to the playground. It was finally a nice spring afternoon, so we decided to walk to the playground from our house. I started off the walk being mindful and reminding myself to really be in the moment with my daughter. Often times, because we are so busy and so rushed, I feel as if I have hurried her along and then as we walk, made that list of everything else that I felt I needed to do that day. As we walked, I listened to all of the things that she had to say. It was fascinating how insightful they can be at such a young age. I played pretend with her as we imagined that we were in the forest on a hunt. The walk probably took twice as long as it usually does, but we enjoyed every minute. I did not worry about how many times she got on and off of her bike or how many times we had to stop to pick a flower or look at a bug. Now I know that to some, this experience comes easy. You may be reading this and thinking, “how dare you not treat all of your experiences with your children this way!” Well, judge if you will, but I have admitted to being like so many parents who get easily distracted by all aspects of life and that is why I have embarked on this journey.
What I also discovered is the art of mindfulness seems to be something that our little ones have as part of them. This is what I hope to get back for those of my students who have lost their way and have been taken over by the busyness of life like we adults have. At 5, my daughter instinctively stops to “smell the flowers” and take in all of the sights and sounds of our simple walk. I never want her to lose that and want to be able to go back to enjoying things like that for myself.
Another interesting thing happened when we got the playground. When we arrived, I noticed that there were a number of other parents and children there. Many of the parents were face down in their cell phones and not paying a bit of attention to what was going on. I will admit, I have been guilty of this too. Your child is playing and you feel like you have a free few minutes to check email or stroll through social media. I am not criticizing these parents for a second, but instead mention it as an observation that I had. In an attempt to be more mindful, I left my phone in my pocket the entire time and really played with my daughter. I went down the slide and swung on the swings. In that moment, I felt like a kid and felt such a connection with my child.
I know that this is what we are supposed to do all of the time with our kids. The time is too short and we need to savor every second. I am trying and I am learning. I am being more mindful each day to be sure that I give them the attention that they deserve when I am talking to them or listening to the them. I am no longer video taping every second or trying to capture every second with a photo, but instead just trying to be in the moment.
For those of you who have struggled with this like I have for so long, I suggest taking baby steps. I am still taking baby steps and yes I still lose my patience. Start by just trying harder to be more mindful when your kids talk to you. Stop whatever you are doing (if you can) and look them in the eye and let them know you are really listening. This will go such a long way with them and you will feel like you made a step in the right direction.
When I decided to start the journey of mindfulness with my students, I knew that I needed to do more than tell them about it. I knew that it was going to be important to incorporate it into our every day. Since I teach middle school, I see my students for a 40 minute class and then they move on to other classes. I quickly realized from my reading that an ideal situation would be to get other teachers involved to give the students exposure to mindfulness throughout their entire day and not just in my room. That is now my project for next year.
I started by explaining to the students how their brains work. I gave them some of the facts from brain research. I also polled them through their journals to find out if they categorized themselves as “stressed” or “anxious”. It amazed me to read the results. So many of the students that I would label as stressed or those whose parents had told us stories of their child’s meltdowns didn’t always identify themselves as stressed. However, so many other students who seem to have things together day in and day out confessed to being ridden with stress and anxiety for various reasons. This exercise just solidified the need for this work in my classroom.
After explaining how the brain works and why we tend to feel anxious in different situations, I had them think about situations they have been in where stress and anxiety has taken over. We identified how our body reacts (how we feel, how we look, etc). Many students had no problem coming up with the typical symptoms of their heart racing, sweating, shaking, etc. I then told them that I was going to give them a tool to help them in situations of high stress, but also a tool that will just help to give their brains a break throughout the day. It is called our “Mindful Minute”. My goal for the class is to work up to a full minute, but at first a full minute is hard for the students to complete.
There are many websites and apps that you can use to teach meditation to children. I particularly like the guided meditations. My favorite site and the one that I chose to use with my students in the beginning is http://annakaharris.com/mindfulness-for-children/. It has a number of guided meditations both longer and shorter in length. They do a great job of walking the students through concentrating on their breathing and building up their abilities to do it longer and longer. Remember, mindfulness is the marathon and activities like meditations are the training for the marathon.
Once we have practiced the guided meditations a few times, I tell the students that we are going to do this every day to start class. Once the bell rings for class to begin, I have the expectation that students be in their seats and ready for our “Mindful Minute”. Since we do this every day, I have started using an app called Insight Timer . You can set the timer on the app for one minute (or however long you would like). You have a choice of different bells or sounds. Due to the fact that many of my students have a hard time being still for even a few seconds, I have set a few ground rules. One, they have to try their best to be as still as they can for the minute. They are not allowed to distract anyone else. Second, they do not have to close their eyes, but can instead just focus downward if they are uncomfortable (for some the act of closing their eyes creates anxiety). Third, they should focus on the sound of the bell for the entire length of its tone and then focus on their breathing. Once the bell rings for the second time, they should focus on the tone for its entire length before opening their eyes or looking up.
Now there are many days where it works so well. I have seen a real change in my students and their ability to get settled after changing classes and to be focused on what we are doing in class. For years teachers have been giving bell work to get students settled and ready to work. However, it is not often that teachers give students a break to rest their brains and focus. Then there are the days that I have kids who giggle and try to make one another laugh or who cannot sit still to save their lives. It is not always going to be perfect and that is OK. However, I know that it works and that a majority of the students are benefiting from it because if there is a day where for whatever reason we must skip our mindful minute (believe me it does not happen often!) they will collectively moan and ask why?! I have also had many students request to do a mindful minute before tests and quizzes. When writing in their daily journals, students have told me how they look forward to my class because that minute is the only time during the day that they get a change to relax.
Recently, I asked my students to write about the times that they have used the mindful minute outside of class. Many wrote about doing it on their own before a big hockey game or dance recital. Others have said that they actually focus on their breathing to help them fall asleep at night. Still others told me about how they try to do it as soon as they feel anxious about something. I cannot tell you how happy that made me to hear that they were actually applying this skill outside of the classroom. After all, that is what it is all about!
“The highest function of education is to bring about an integrated individual who is capable of dealing with life as a whole.” – Krishnamurti
If you were to google mindfulness it states that it is a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique. For me, mindfulness is learning to live in the present moment and take things one thing at a time. It is a tool that helps myself and my students to deal with the anxieties that we deal with on a daily basis. It is a reminder to be grateful for the things that I have and the things that are going right in my life. For my reading students, it is a tool to help them calm themselves at the beginning of every class period and through our “Mindful Monday” practices, it helps them to train their brains to focus on tasks (something that has helped some of my most struggling readers).
Many believe that mindfulness is meditation. What I have found through my reading and research is that mindfulness is like the marathon that you train for and meditation is the training that you do for that marathon. Through meditations, you are able to train your brain to be aware of when you are “off task” and tune back into the moment that you are in. Being in tune with the present helps us to be more productive, helps us to enjoy the things that we do more, and helps us to deal with our stresses by not worrying about the past or the future.
The whole concept of mindfulness really resonated with me after hearing about it at the workshop earlier this year. I am a self-confessed worry wart. I have always been. Anxiety and the need to please have burdened me all of my life. Add on the role of being a mother and the anxiety and mommy guilt has been enough to put me over the edge! However, when I started to read the journals that I ask my students to keep daily, I began to realize that my anxiety at age 40 was nothing in comparison to what some of these 11 and 12-year-old boys and girls are dealing. I could not believe how anxious they were and how so many of them were desperate to find some tool to help them. It made me really start to think about what may happen to some of them if they did not learn to handle the stresses that they are feeling at this point in their life.
As a teacher and a mom, I worry about what kids are doing to relieve stress. We hear all of the time about drug abuse, bullying, and suicide. It all scares me to death. While it seems that every generation has their new and different things that stress them out, it seems to me like a tool like mindfulness is exactly what all generations could use to help them to relieve anxiety and live a happier life.
With the age of less and less recess in schools and technology distracting us from everything, I truly believe that mindfulness is a tool that everyone needs to learn, especially our children. It used to be a badge of honor to be able to say you could multi-task like no one else. However, there is more and more research to say that our brains are not meant to multi-task. The part of our brain that was meant to activate for fight or flight for a short amount of time is now activating for longer and longer periods of time with no rest. None of this is good!
As I mentioned in my first post, my goal is to simply share what I am doing to introduce mindfulness to my students and how it is helping me in my own life. In a very short time, I have seen such an amazing change in some of my students. Some have even written me letters to tell me how much it has helped them and how they have seen it help their friends as well. I truly believe that mindfulness needs to be woven into every classroom!
I am a middle school teacher. I teach reading to 11 and 12 year old boys and girls. Often when I tell people what age level I work with, they say the same thing…”ugh, what a terrible age”. The truth is, sometimes it is a tough age to work with. The students that I have are starting a new chapter in their lives (middle school) and they usually enter as babies and within a few months start acting like teenagers. They fluctuate between wanting independence and wanting their mom. They are full of hormones and anxiety.
What I have noticed the most in the last 16 years at this level is the ever increasing amount of anxiety that my students have. I know that kids this age have always been worried about friends, homework, sports, etc. However, when I talk to my students now, they are full of all kinds of anxieties that I thought were saved for adults. I have students who cannot even make it to school on a regular basis because their fears and stresses prevent them from even getting out of bed. During parent conferences, I have had more and more parents burst into tears because they do not know what to do to help their anxiety ridden children. They talk of sleepless nights and meltdowns that rival a toddler. It has been more than eye opening to see how this trend is getting worse and worse.
Not only do I see students with anxiety on a daily basis, but I am surrounded by colleagues and friends that are more stressed than ever. At work, my colleagues are dealing with everything that we have always dealt with as teachers, but are now juggling APPR, new state regulations, more data collection than ever, and the media scrutiny that blames us for the demise of society.
Enter Mindfulness! Earlier this year, I attended a workshop that was promoted as something that would help me to help my students who suffer from anxiety. I was very interested in the topic and was thrilled to be getting to leave the classroom to learn something new (we don’t get these opportunities often anymore). What I got out of the workshop was so much more than I could have expected. Not only did I leave with many activities and ideas for activities with my students, I left with many ways to better myself. I began reading every book I could get my hands on regarding mindfulness. I also downloaded every app, looked for every class, and researched whatever I could find.
I immediately began incorporating mindfulness into my classroom even before I had done all of the reading and research. This was very new for me since I tend to be someone who is very thorough and overthinks everything before I start anything. Most importantly, I began incorporating mindfulness into my everyday life. Within the first week, my husband was already complimenting me on the changes that it was making in me as a wife and mother. You know how things happen for a reason and happen at a specific time for a reason, well this is one of those things for me. It has happened at the perfect time for me!
I have started this blog to document the ways that I am sharing mindfulness with my students as well as how I am using it in my day to day life. I am NOT an expert and will never claim to be. Instead, I am learning about mindfulness every day and finding ways to share it with everyone that I can. For me it has been life changing. I don’t know if anyone will read what I have to say, but I hope if someone does, they will see the great benefits of mindfulness and look to add it to their life as well!