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.

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

DDS_Home_Dan

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

The Things that Matter

favorite things 1When we think about “things that matter” to us, we have been taught to try to think of those things that don’t hold any monetary value: family, friendship, love, and even time. This morning, I watched Nate Berkus talk about his new book, “The Things that Matter.” While he focuses on the objects in his life that hold meaning, in essence they represent the very things I mentioned above. As I began to scan my own home, which is carefully scattered with important possessions I have gathered along the way, it was easy to pick out those things that were most meaningful to me.

What is it that makes us hold on to things: old pictures, family heirlooms, shells and beach stones? Sometimes it’s the sentiment behind the object; the fact that someone important gave it to you and you couldn’t possibly part with it. More often, what gives objects meaning in our lives are the stories they tell of who we were or who we have become. They make up the layers of our life and, in some cases, are gentle reminders of those intangible things that make life rich and truly meaningful. For me, the “things that matter” are all too often reminders of lessons learned, journeys I have taken, and moments that needed remembering.

favorite things 3When I graduated from university, I was given a memory box. It has my name engraved on the front and it contains many of the things I hold dear. There are old black and white photos of family, my aunt’s small book of poetry about “Hope,” and all the letters and postcards I sent to my family while abroad only to have them given back to me one Christmas tied in ribbon. There is a heart shaped necklace given to me by dear friends when I left my teaching job in Finland. It was never really meant to be worn. Rather, the necklace came with a note attached asking that it serve as a reminder to always hold a space in my heart for the place and people I had grown to love. There is also a leaf, a beach stone, an old coin, a book mark, a few newspaper clippings, and a small glass rosary. None of the latter would mean much to anyone else, but each tells a small part of the story of my life.

favorite things 2In the past, I have had my students reflect on the objects that matter to them. I give them a few days to think about it, eventually asking them to bring their object in. Bringing in their item generally narrows the field down to things that can fit in a backpack, although I did have a student bring in his dog once. Each time I do this activity, I am surprised at the variety of important possessions that come into the classroom. I have seen beach stones, shells, an arrowhead, pieces of jewellery, handmade gifts, photographs, and ornaments of all shapes and sizes. You can tell a great deal about a child by the thing that matters to them. You find out who they care about and the things they value in life. Just like each item in my memory box tells a story, the object in each child’s hand tells a story of significance to them. With our prized possessions, we mindfully look at them and carefully examine the physical attributes not previously seen before. We then draw them, paying attention to the detail, and use our illustrations as the jumping off point for writing about the significance of the item we hold dear. Oftentimes, we then share our stories. Every single “thing that matters” has a story attached.

I encourage you to take a moment to look around at the little things that matter most to you. What is it that makes these simple possessions so important and meaningful? I also encourage you to try this activity with your students or even your own children. No doubt you will find it is not only a revealing look into their lives outside of the classroom but provides you with an opportunity to see beyond simply the object they hold in their hand and into the heart of what really matters most.

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.

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.

mindfulness drawing 3angrymindfulness drawing 2

 

 

 

 

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.

Taming the Palace Guard one Breath at a Time

The amygdala is such a small part of the brain, and yet it plays such a huge role in our ability to function optimally. I was recently at the National Middle Levels Conference in Portland and had the opportunity to hear Shauna King, from UpsideDown Organization, talk about the brain science behind bullying. She talked a lot about the amygdala, and she wisely compared it to a palace guard. I had never heard this comparison drawn; however, it made perfect sense. Like the palace guard, the amygdala’s job is to protect above all else. Information and emotions need to get past the palace guard to get to other parts of the brain. If the palace guard deems it safe or pleasurable, the information is let in. If the palace guard feels it is too dangerous, it will stop information at the gate and prevent it from moving on. Put the palace guard on a state of constant high alert and it is no longer distinguishing between real threats and perceived threats. The gates are closed and nothing is getting by. In addition, you can also send the palace guard into fight, flight, or freeze mode. When you get to this state, your palace guard, or your amygdala, has taken over but at the expense of the frontal lobes where learning, critical thinking, problem solving, and focus take place.

If you have ever had an opportunity to visit London and see the palace guards in action, you will know they lack all emotion. On a past trip to London, I remember watching a child frantically waving his hands and trying to get the attention of one of the guards. I also remember the look of confusion on the face of the child when he was met with no response. This is where the amygdala and the palace guard differ. The amygdala remembers the emotions behind memories.

Take a moment to think about a happy memory. If you are like many of the students and adults I teach, you will find yourself starting to smile and will feel a certain sense of happiness. Your brain has encoded the emotion behind that memory. In the same way you felt happiness at remembering a joyful memory, you also encode the emotions behind memories that are not so happy. In children, the memory may be distant, or even gone, but the emotion behind the memory is still there. For example, a couple of years ago, I had a student who came from a family that was less than kind to him. When another student teased him, he flew into a rage I had never seen in him before. Once he was calm, I asked what had happened. He started by telling me he didn’t know but, as he talked, he related the issue in the class to similar teasing at home by a parent. When the student teased him, he didn’t think about his parent or the teasing that had taken place years ago, instead, his amygdala kicked in and sent him into “fight” mode without him even being aware. The challenging part is that the amygdala is often the dominant part of a child’s brain and “taming it” requires practice.

Students who practice mindful awareness are training the brain to slow down and process sensory data. One of the best ways to practice mindful awareness is through deep belly breathing, or brain breaks, as they are called in the MindUP program. Focusing on the breath helps calm the body by slowing the heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and sharpening focus. When children pay attention to their breath, they are also supporting the strong functioning that takes place in the frontal lobes or prefrontal cortex. Controlled breathing also calms the body and mind and decreases the anxiety that sends our amygdala into flight, fight, or freeze mode. This practice primes the brain to be more reflective and less reactive. Over time, this strengthens neural pathways and connections and mindful awareness moves from being a state to a long-term trait.

For an excellent video on the connection between the brain and deep breathing, check out this fantastic Dan Siegel Video.