Holiday Awesomes… A Lesson in Gratitude

n663712323_744211_2285Meister Eckhart once said, “If the only prayer you ever said in life was thank you, that would suffice.” Gratitude is a powerful thing and the simple act of giving thanks is one of the best ways to increase happiness and joy in children and adults when practiced regularly. Studies have shown that the simple act of being grateful has the enormous capacity to increase joy, reduce stress and depression, increase optimism, and improve resiliency. The feelings we get when we are grateful also do wonders for calming our nervous system and increasing levels of dopamine that stimulate our prefrontal cortex, that part of the brain where reasoning and logic take place. It’s not surprising that practicing gratitude has such a powerful impact, after all, to be grateful for at least one thing a day forces even the most pessimistic of people to take a moment to find the silver lining.

In MindUp, we introduce the concept of gratitude by passing a gratitude stone. Each student takes a moment to give thanks for something in their lives. While students sometimes start off by giving thanks for things like their toys, they quickly begin to look for other meaningful things to be grateful for such as a friend or family member, an act of kindness, or a special moment.

I also introduce a gratitude journal. In past years, students have written their gratitude of the day in their agendas or in special journals they decorated and personalized. The act of keeping a gratitude journal can profoundly change the way you see the world. In university, I went travelling for four months in Europe. I was given a journal and, for some reason, decided that I would only focus on the positive aspects of my trip. Despite bumps in the road, I religiously focused on the aspects of my day that were positive and the experiences I was grateful for. It didn’t mean I didn’t address the bumps along the way, but instead I looked for the humour and opportunity in those situations. The simple act of giving thanks and focusing on the positive shaped the way I saw the world for those four months. I looked at it through more optimistic eyes, I focused on the small aspects of life that made me happy, and I learned to be far more resilient in the face of challenges. Isn’t that what we want for our students?

awesomesEveryone handles teaching gratitude in different ways. One of the amazing teachers at my school, Ms. Kurylo, used Neil Pasricha’s   “Book of Awesome” to teach her class about the power of gratitude and the importance of seeing the many awesomes in the world. I love Pasricha’s books because he focuses on the little things we tend to miss each day: comfortable silences, finding money in your pocket, a great teacher. Ms. Kurylo had her class keep their own “Book of Awesomes” and, at the start of the year, they created their own “Awesome” bulletin board.

51ra1ifRr8L__SL500_AA300_When I saw Pasricha’s “Book of Holiday Awesome,” I decided to give awesomes a try. Reading the Christmas section of his book made me smile throughout. Yes, flipping through channels and finding your favorite Christmas special, awesome. Sitting in a room with the only lights being that of the Christmas tree, awesome. Listening to the beautiful silence that comes with a snowfall, definitely awesome. After reading a few awesomes, I had my students come up with their own. They thought of holiday or winter traditions or seasonal things that made them happy. Some took favorite holiday memories and turned them into awesomes. For example, one of my students remembered being woken by her grandfather at 2:00 a.m. to go and play in freshly fallen snow with her cousin. Because they were personal, their descriptions of their awesomes were richly sensorial and beautifully written. Just a few of my favorites were:

Watching a movie with your family on Christmas Eve while picking away at the family gingerbread house. Awesome

Feeling the fresh snow beneath my snowboard on that very first trip down the slopes. Awesome

The taste of snowflakes on your tongue. Awesome

Deciding which Christmas decoration will be the first on the tree. Awesome

It seems that at this time of the year, many of us take time to give thanks. We might give thanks for the generous gifts we receive, for the meal we share with family or friends, or simply for the many blessings we have received throughout the year. I have many holiday awesomes, but one of my favorites is hanging a special picture on my Christmas tree every year, the same picture at the top of this post. It is of my siblings and I sitting on my great uncle’s lap the year he decided, long after retiring from the post office, to be a mall Santa. He loved Christmas and being with family more than anyone else I knew. He also embodied what it really meant to be grateful. He lived each day of his life feeling blessed and, even though he has passed, hanging this picture on my tree reminds me of the person he was and the life he lived. He was awesome in every sense of the word.

This is the season to be grateful but my wish for you is that you will carry the spirit of gratitude with you long after the snow has melted and the Christmas tree has been packed away. My hope is that each day you will take the time to reflect and be grateful for some aspect of your life, however big or small. The more you look the more you will realize just how awesome this world we live in really is.

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Self-Regulation one breath at a time

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Amy Saltzman, a researcher of mindfulness education, stated that, “One of the primary ironies of modern education is that we ask students to “pay attention” dozens of times a day, yet we never teach them how.” In the MindUP program, students participate daily in deep belly breathing, or “brain breaks,” as we call them, in order to slowly learn how to focus their attention.

Studies of the impact of deep belly breathing have been done on everyone from stressed out medical students, to hardened criminals sitting in maximum security prisons, to kids with ADD and ADHD. The results are generally the same. Not only does it increase focus and attention, it improves pro-social behaviour, enhances daily happiness, and increases levels of calm while decreasing stress and anxiety. From a neurological or physiological perspective, deep belly breathing slows the heart rate, lowers blood pressure, and sharpens the minds ability to focus and learn by slowing down the amygdala and supporting the higher brain function taking place in the frontal lobes.

One of the other benefits of deep belly breathing is the control it gives participants over their emotions, their learning, and their own lives. When I completed my own research on mindfulness education as part of my Masters degree, one of the surprising outcomes of my research was discovering that my students were using deep breathing in other aspects of their lives. While I had not discussed applying deep breathing to anything outside of the classroom, I discovered that they were applying this calming strategy to dozens of life experiences outside the classroom including diffusing conflicts with parents, calming anxiety before a big game, helping with sleep, and managing homework. In addition, they were teaching their families what they were learning. Below are some of my favourite pictures that came from a journal entry on ways students had used deep breathing in their own lives.

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In my class, I start students off by reading a script that helps them focus on their breath. To start, we aim for about 1-2 minutes, depending on the age of the children. In my class, I ring a resonating tone bar which, when repeated each day, signals the brain to focus. As they become better able to focus on their own I slowly reduce the amount I say until I eventually say nothing at all.

Here is the script I follow:

  • Please sit comfortably in your chair, sitting tall so the air can fill your lungs.
  • I invite you to close your eyes.
  • When I ring the chime, listen for as long as you can. When you can’t hear it anymore, slowly begin your deep belly breathing.
  • As you take a deep breath and fill your lungs, feel your stomach rise and then fall again as you breathe out. (wait for 30 seconds before moving on with instructions)
  • If your mind wanders, that’s okay, just focus your attention on your breath.
  • When I ring the chime again, keep breathing calmly. When you can’t hear the sound anymore slowly open your eyes but stay still and quiet.

Deep Belly Breathing takes practice. Here are a few ways students can begin to understand and practice deep belly breathing.

Deep Belly Breathing Techniques

HobermanHobermann Sphere: Have students slowly inhale while you slowly expand the Hoberman sphere and then exhale as you slowly shrink the sphere back to its original size. This is also a great way to demonstrate the expansion of the lungs.

Bubbles: Have students practice a deep inhale and then slowly exhale as they blow bubbles.

Back to Back: Have students sit on the floor back to back. One student begins by inhaling deeply. The other partner should feel the expansion in their partners back as they breathe deeply. Take turns back and forth.

Korea_CG_Art_design_rainbow_pinwheelPinwheels: Have students practice deeply inhaling and then using the exhale to control the speed of the pinwheel.

Objects on the stomach: Have students place a small stuffed animal or object on their stomachs. As they breathe deeply, they should feel the stuffed animals or objects rise and then fall when they exhale. For younger students, you can tell them their job is to rock the stuffed animal to sleep using the rise and fall of their stomachs.

Flower and Candle Breathing: Have students clench their fist as if they are holding a flower. Have students pretend to smell the flower by deeply inhaling. Students then pretend they are holding a candle and slowly exhale to blow out the flame.

cottonballsCotton Balls: This game doesn’t mimic deep breathing but demonstrates that breathing takes practice, controlled breathing, and focus. Students get into partners standing a good arms length apart. Students begin by blowing the cotton ball at their partner. The goal is to hit their partner with the cotton ball using only their breath. When done, students stand with their feet apart. They then take turns trying to score a goal by blowing the cotton ball through their partner’s feet. Finally, each individual student places their cotton ball on the palm of their hand. Their challenge is to slowly blow the cotton ball to the tip of their index finger without blowing it off the hand.