Bringing an Attitude of Gratitude Into the Classroom

If you can bring any aspect of mindfulness into the classroom, introducing your students to the concept of “Gratitude,” and finding opportunities to engage in gratitude daily, can be one of the most beneficial practices for students. A number of studies have shown that even a small dose of daily gratitude can increase optimism, decrease negative feelings, enhance school connectedness, and improve over all attitudes towards school and learning. Dr. Alex Korb, in his article “The Grateful Brain,” also argues that practicing gratitude increases activity in the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that is responsible for eating, sleeping, metabolism, and stress. A regular gratitude practice also increases dopamine, the neurotransmitter responsible for happiness and joy. This is likely why people who regularly practice gratitude often report greater levels of happiness.

Bringing gratitude into the classroom does not have to be difficult. The internet is full of great ideas and activities. I have included just 10, although the possibilities are endless. If you need a reminder of just how much there is to be grateful for, take a moment to watch “Moving Art”. It is a wonderful reminder that every minute of every day holds the opportunity to express gratitude and that gratitude is all around us if we only take a moment to look.

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Kindness Matters: One Simple Act at a Time

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As in filling a vessel drop by drop, there is at last a drop which makes it run over; so in a series of kindness there is at last one which makes the heart run over. ~ Samuel Johnson

It really can be the smallest of kind acts that can make your heart run over. At the end of last year, stuck to one of our school walls, I came across the small post-it note pictured above. It was a simple concept, offering up a smile to anyone needing one. I have no idea how long it had been there, or where it had come from, but seeing all of these little happy faces grinning back at me warmed my heart and made me smile. Determined to find out who was responsible for this random act of kindness (RAK), I sent a picture out to staff. However, since sometimes the best part of a random act of kindness is in the mystery, no one took ownership. Wanting to share the smile, I sent it to friends and colleagues. From this tiny post-it note, the concept spread. Some staff planned their own RAK and some colleagues followed suit with carefully posted notes in their own schools. The greatest part of a RAK is that it is hard to know how far the ripples of kindness will extend.

Rakphoto1Over the years, I have been on the receiving end of many wonderful acts of kindness. Last year, one of the secondary schools in my district planned a mass RAK for every student in my school with the purpose of simply spreading a message of love and kindness. With the effort of many, it happened over the weekend. When students and staff returned Monday morning to find the lockers, doors, and walls pasted with pink and red hearts it created a sense of happiness and joy that was palpable. The building felt alive and there was a lightness in the school that is hard to put into words.

Over the years, I have also had the opportunity to see the impact participating in a kind act can have on students and adults alike. The research behind the benefits of participating in acts of kindness is abundant. Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, argues that one of the key factors to happiness is participating in acts of kindness. The benefits of performing acts of kindness are undeniable. Performing kind acts cultivates shared happiness, builds relationships, and connects us to the larger world. In a recent study out of the University of British Columbia entitled Kindness Counts, a group of researchers studying 19 classrooms of students ages 9 to 11 found that students who performed three acts of kindness were happier and also experienced greater levels of peer acceptance at the end of the study. Performing acts of kindness also fosters a sense of empathy and compassion that is at the root of establishing basic emotional intelligence. The more a child practices acts of kindness, the more likely they are to recognize and act on situations when others are in need. In addition, they are also better able to recognize the impact of their actions on those around them. Looking at the brain science, practicing kindness also strengthens the neural pathways necessary for detecting emotions and releases dopamine, that happy chemical in our body.

rakphoto2Performing acts of kindness in your classroom can be as simple as a post-it note on a locker or require a bit more organization like creating a “Thank You Tree” for your local library or some little care packages for your local elementary school; a couple of kind acts that students in my school participated in this year. There is also an abundance of great lessons, activities, and picture books that introduce the concept of kindness and get ideas flowing.

Some simple suggestions include:

  • Read The Kindness Quilt by Nancy Wallace and have students brainstorm what kindness looks like, feels like, and sounds like.
  • Create “Kindness is…” posters and display them around the school.
  • Read The Important Book and have students create a class book entitled “The important thing about kindness.” By using the format of the book, students focus on what kindness is and what kindness is not.
  • Read Ordinary Mary’s Extraordinary Deed and create a flow chart that outlines the chain of events that resulted from one kind deed.
  • Read Ms. Rumphius and have students brainstorm a list of kind acts they could perform for others, for themselves, and for the world. Have students select and perform one of their kind acts and report back.
  • Read Have You Filled a Bucket Today. There are so many activities you can do with this book. My favorite included having students make their own paper buckets. They then wrote down a simple gratitude for each person in the class and placed it in that student’s bucket. This book lends itself to great conversations about what it means to both fill and dip into the metaphorical happiness buckets of others through our actions and our words.
  • Write and deliver thank you letters.
  • Have students research and report out on someone whose kindness made the world a better place.
  • Have students use their list of possible kind acts to create a kindness wordle like the one below (www.wordle.net). Post their wordles around the school to inspire others.

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As this week is officially Random Acts of Kindness week, I challenge you to try three things over the course of the week. First, I challenge you to perform one kind act of your own and then reflect on how it made you feel. It can be something as simple as emailing an expression of gratitude to a colleague. Second, I challenge you to take acts of kindness into your classroom. Give students ownership over planning and performing their act of kindness. Let them be creative and think with their heads and their hearts, and then give them the time needed to reflect on the experience afterwards. Lastly, I encourage you to let kindness spread. It can be hard to turn over the reigns of control to our students but the value gained from one kind act either given or received can have an immeasurable impact on the life of a child. After all, as Eric Hoffer stated, it is only through practice and experience that people discover, “That kindness can become its own motive [and that] we become kind by being kind.”

How Children Succeed: A Reflection on Adversity, Resiliency and the Hidden Power of Character

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In my job, each day I am given the opportunity to work with amazing kids. For a few short years, I have the opportunity to watch their successes and their struggles, to see them persevere against the challenges of middle school, and to see them strive to figure out who they are and where they fit in. As I watched our recent group of Grade 8 students walk across the stage at this year’s middle school leaving ceremony, I couldn’t help but wonder where life’s path would take them. I have little worries about some. Even at a young age, they seem to have a resiliency and sense of purpose that assures me they will find their way. For others, I know the road will be harder, there will be more bumps and obstacles in their way, and I am left hoping that they have the grit and determination to persevere and come out the other side stronger and more self-assured.

What it is that makes some children more resilient than others? What is it that causes some to thrive and some to lose their way in life? And what can be done to foster the resiliency needed to succeed?

As I was trying to figure out the answers to these questions, I had the opportunity to hear Paul Tough speak about his book, “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character,” at the Heart and Mind Conference in Vancouver. I bought his book and placed it in the pile with all the other summer reading. On a recent trip, I took it on the airplane and spent the next few days looking for any opportunity to read. What he was saying made a lot of sense and began to shed a bit of light on what is a very complex topic. Some of the key takeaways were:

Stress, Adversity, and the Teenage Brain: No surprise that studies have shown that early adversity puts stress on the brain making it harder to concentrate, sit still, follow directions and bounce back. However, while the brain and body are more susceptible to the impact of stress in early childhood, in adolescence the damage stress leaves can cause more serious and long lasting problems. When something is out of balance in the adolescent brain it is more prone to making poor or impulsive decisions. This stress or trauma comes out in two ways. It is either turned inward and manifests into fear, anxiety, sadness, insecurity, and self-destructive actions or it is turned outwards and manifests itself in behaviour. As educators, it is easy to pick out those who manifest stress in a way that is impossible not to notice. Where it gets tricky is identifying those students who survive by turning inwards.

The Role of Parents: Dozens of studies have shown that children with a secure attachment with a parent are often more socially competent and better able to manoeuvre their way through the teen years. With that said, studies have also shown that you don’t need to be a super parent. Instead, just being helpful and attentive to your child’s needs and emotions can make a dramatic difference in a child’s life. For students lacking this secure attachment, schools play an even bigger role in trying to fill these shoes.

The Brain is Malleable: Tough argues that the brain is malleable which means teens have the capacity to rethink or remake their lives in a way that young children don’t. Tough argues that to be a good teacher, you have to fundamentally believe that both intelligence and character are malleable and that children can change the way they think and act. There can be enormous growth when a child believes this too and Tough’s book is riddled with success stories that are both compelling and heart-warming.

7 Key Character Traits for Success: Smarts are not enough. If it was, Tough argues that we wouldn’t be seeing an epidemic of our smartest kids failing to thrive when faced with challenge. Instead, he argues that the key to success are the following 7 character traits which can very much be taught to children and build a foundation for resiliency:

Grit
Curiosity
Self-control
Social intelligence
Zest
Optimism
Gratitude

The Importance of Failure: As important as teaching the character traits is teaching students that failure is a crucial part of the learning process. While it is in our biological makeup to want to protect our children, what they need is some struggle, some challenge, and the opportunity to overcome even if just to prove to themselves that they can do it. In order to succeed, sometimes you first have to learn how to fail.

The Importance of Mental Contrasting: Middle school is the key age to transform pessimism into optimism but it is not enough to just teach students how to be optimistic. In contrast, students need to actively learn how to concentrate on a positive outcome while focusing on the obstacles they will need to overcome. By doing so, this creates a strong link between the future and an action plan needed to overcome the challenges most likely faced along the way.

Student Management: As educators, Tough argues that it is crucial that we look at how we approach discipline. In a school run on a compliance based system, a student’s own ability to make decisions is often suppressed. Effectively working with students requires more conversations, bigger questions, and an emphasis on really hearing and respecting student voice. Students will make mistakes and they will fail, but they need to look their choices in the eye, see where they messed up, and believe they can do better next time.

As educators, our greatest hope for all our students is that each will develop the resiliency, the grit, and the determination to overcome adversity and to find their purpose and passion in life. The reality is we know that some have a long and hard road ahead of them. With that said, I have the opportunity to see resiliency thrive on a daily basis. So many of our students, no matter where you teach, have been dealt a tough hand, yet something in them drives them forward and pushes them in a positive direction. Perhaps it is something innate inside them or perhaps, as Tough says, it is the people in their lives who have helped them up the ladder.

What I do know is that in a month new students will walk through the door and familiar faces will come back having been shaped by the summer. What I know is that we will be met with a mix of students and that, as educators, we will need to meet them all where they are at. My hope is that we can begin to look at better ways to build character and to pave a way towards a greater understanding of adversity and resiliency in the hope that more students, as Tough states, will be able to tell themselves, “I can rise above this little situation. I am okay. Tomorrow is a new day.”

Two Days with Dan Siegel: Lessons on the Whole-Brain Child

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A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to spend a couple of days learning from Dan Siegel when he came to Coquitlam as the keynote presenter for our district’s professional development day. With a colleague, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to collect him from his Vancouver hotel and bring him back to Coquitlam to present that evening to our district parent community.

To me, Dan Siegel is the rock star of the mindfulness education world so, not surprisingly, I saw this as a pretty amazing opportunity. So much so, that I made the effort to slip a mention of my afternoon excursion into as many conversations as I could. While my enthusiasm was lost on some, it was most certainly felt by others. As the day wore on, my shameless name dropping had somehow unexpectedly landed me with a list of “must asks”. Some questions were around how to foster resiliency, others were on specific aspects of the MindUP program, and one, from my educator cousin, was on the values of transpersonal psychology. How exactly do you slip transpersonal psychology into a typical conversation?

On the long drive back in Vancouver rush hour traffic, I had the opportunity to speak one-on-one with Dan on everything from education, to politics, to B.C. culture and travel. I also managed to touch on a couple of the “must-asks,” although transpersonal psychology did not make the cut. The car ride was just the launching point for two enriching Dan Siegel filled days. In addition to attending the DPAC parent talk that night, over 1000 Coquitlam teachers heard Dan Siegel’s keynote the following day, and a few, including myself, had the opportunity to ask questions in a smaller setting after the keynote address was finished.

With pages of notes and the rest and time that comes with Spring Break, I have finally had the opportunity to weed through all the information I had collected in order to make sense of it all. I took a lot away from Dan Siegel’s visit but, in no particular order, the following nuggets of wisdom stood out:

* Be open to who a child is and let go of who you want them to be because when we don’t accept children for who they are we are actively telling them they aren’t good enough: This was a big one for me. As educators and parents, we have dreams for our children. Recognizing that these dreams may be “ours” and not “theirs” is a key to understanding children for who they are. The potential of a child is infinite; don’t limit a child by our vision of what they could or should become.

* It is not a child’s temperament that determines success but rather how parents and adults respond to that temperament: As educators, we all know that some temperaments are easier to deal with than others. Trying to see the strengths and opportunities behind the temperaments that don’t always make our lives easier can be a worthy challenge.

* A survive moment is also a thrive moment: As a teacher, and administrator, helping some students and parents understand this one can be challenging. It is only natural to want to protect your child from life’s difficulties. Yet when we do this, we send children the message that they aren’t capable of solving their own “child-sized” problems. We can also hinder the accountability that is so necessary as they move through life, as accepting accountability for actions and trying to right our own wrongs is key to learning and making better choices in the future. This doesn’t mean we leave children entirely to their own devices. What it does mean is rather than sheltering them from life’s difficulties, as parents and educators, we need to help them understand these experiences and learn from them.

* The 3 new R’s of Education should be Reflection, Relationships and Resilience: When children are interconnected, in tune with others, and have the capacity to be reflective, it increases empathy and understanding for the self and others. The ability to be reflective and to understand the self and others is what builds resiliency.

* Education should strive to integrate the left and right sides of the brain: As educators, we tend to teach to the logical left brain and ignore the emotional right brain. Creating an interconnectedness between the two can be a challenge but is an important key to creating a whole-brain child.

Dan Siegel Brain

* We are not a singular noun but a plural verb: I love this! As educators, we need to capitalize on the brain’s built-in capacity for social interaction and create positive mental models of relationships. The “me” discovers meaning and happiness in life by belonging to a “we.” Check out one of my absolute favorite documentaries “I Am” for more on this subject. You can watch the full documentary on ITunes.

* Feelings are not facts: Students need to understand that feelings come and go. They are temporary states of mind that are ever changing. By developing mindsight, or the ability to look inside your own mind as well as the minds’ of others, students are better able to deal with ever-changing emotions. If you want to understand more about how this is done, reading Dan Siegel’s new book “The Whole-Brain Child,” is a great place to start.

* The Healthy Mind Platter: Similar to our food guidelines, which are designed to keep our bodies healthy, the Healthy Mind Platter is a great reminder of the simple things we need each day to stay mentally healthy. I heard of one teacher who labelled classroom activities based on where they fell on the healthy mind platter. This is a brilliant idea and a constant reminder to children that a healthy mind is as important as a healthy body.

HealthyMindPlatter

The list of takeaways above are really just a few of the key gems I took away from hearing Dan Siegel speak. With that said, it hopefully gives you a bit of a flavour for who he is and will hopefully inspire you to learn more about nurturing the whole-brain child. If you are interested in exploring the topic further, here are a couple of great starting points.

Whole_Brain_ChildDan Siegel’s book “The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind”

The Dan Siegel Website: Full of great resources, including more on the healthy mind platter, videos, and audio of his wheel of awareness and breathing practices.

Video Series: 6 steps to Build Kindness and Resilience in Children with Dan Siegel