The Pause that Refreshes – Ideas for mindfully beginning the school year

The Pause that Refreshes – Ideas for mindfully beginning the school year

It’s summer. Kids are out playing, or at camp or daycare, or on vacation with family. There are a few of precious days of relaxed schedules and potential adventure awaiting the students who will fill our classrooms next month.

Unless you happen to be a teacher, particularly a newly minted one.

Welcome to August. While much of the world is still focused on fun, teachers and other caring adults in schools are already busy.

Let’s see—paperwork, network access, certification completion, paperwork, shopping for classroom supplies, reading up on incoming students, integrating whole-class schedules with specialist time for kids on IEPs (individual education plans), paperwork, curriculum planning, and meetings, meetings, meetings. The list is long and the time is suddenly short. If you are an itinerant provider, such as a physical, occupational, or speech therapist who travels from school to school, the challenge can be even greater. Does this scenario feel familiar to you? You’re deep in your thinking brain.

Getting to know your “feeling brain”

If so, take a moment to stop and check in with your body. Without judging or telling yourself the story of “why”, what can you notice about the signals it may be sending? Is your breathing fast or slow? Shallow or deep? What’s happening with your stomach? Your neck and shoulders? The muscles in your face? Perhaps you noticed that your stomach is growling, your shoulders feel tight, and your jaw is clenched a little as you simultaneously set up your room and try to tease out a solution to a new issue that cropped up in today’s planning meeting.

You’ve just made a quick inventory of sensation that mindfulness practitioners call a “body scan”.

Now imagine what it would be like to begin your teaching day with these sensations present. How would your relationships with students and colleagues be affected? How would your classroom environment be shaped? Come the mid-winter, when cold keeps kids stuck inside for days and the liveliest organisms are the cold germs zipping through the building, how will you dredge up the enthusiasm and energy that you felt in those first weeks of school? How do we take care of ourselves, so that we can take care of our school family? There is a reason that preflight instructions on planes tell us to put oxygen masks on ourselves before helping others.

Viennese neurologist Viktor Frankel wrote, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space, is our power to choose our response. In that response lies our growth and our freedom.” Mindfulness can play a part in creating and sustaining the kind of atmosphere and community that frees us to teach and offers kids the freedom to learn.

By switching to our ‘feeling brain”, we tap into a channel that we often push so far into the background of our consciousness that we learn not to acknowledge it at all. The practice of noticing what is happening in the moment and responding with non-judgmental friendliness is a resource to keep in your “toolbox” of pedagogy and classroom management techniques. Maria Usewick, in her excellent guided meditation in week five of Mindful Summer (insert link), led participants through a body scan and showed how a short period of friendly attention to our physical sensations can help us to deal with discomfort, even pain.

Checking in throughout the day

When we practice checking in with our sensations throughout the day, we allow ourselves time to choose a response to whatever is arising in our feeling brains by bringing our attention to what is happening in the moment.

That brief interlude to take inventory of our sensations and emotions is a mindful moment. A little chance to re-boot if we find things are heading off in an unskilled or unhelpful direction. As a person of a certain age, this practice reminds me of the tagline in a vintage magazine ad for cola from the forties: The pause that refreshes. When we employ those brief moments of awareness, repeated throughout the day, we bring ourselves back to what is happening in the present.

So, if we necessarily spend time in our thinking brains, and we practice checking in with our feeling brains, how do we keep our school day running? Can we just stop and be still with closed eyes in the middle of presenting a lesson on exponential growth? Of course not, unless we want to run the risk of encountering a live example of disruptive behavior during our own math period! It may seem counter-intuitive, but we have to plan. And like a football coach with a newly formed team, we have to practice making the plays. To create a mindful classroom, we must have a mindful grounding of our own.

Here are 6 ideas for creating a mindful classroom, with yourself as the guiding participant.

If you were a part of Mindful Summer, you had a chance to learn about mindfulness itself, and about ways to practice. If you already have some familiarity with mindfulness, you may know that establishing a regular practice is key to implementing mindfulness in your life, inside and outside your work environment. Here are some ways to bring mindfulness into your classroom and your teaching life. I hope you’ll find them helpful and even fun!

1) Establish a regular practice.
To create a mindful classroom, it is important to be anchored in your own mindfulness practice. Find a few moments each day to sit quietly and focus on your breath. First thing in the morning can be wonderful, but the best time is the time that works for you.

If you’re brand new to mindful breathing, try this. Find a spot where you won’t be disturbed. Sit with feet flat on the floor, and with a relaxed upright back and head. Place your hands in your lap on your thighs. Close your eyes or lower your gaze to a spot on the floor in front of you. Breathe regularly through your nose, paying attention to each in-breath and out-breath. Thoughts may arise; plans, worries, ideas, ruminations or stories. When they do, just gently let them go and return to focusing on each breath.

Additional Resources for Guided Practices
There are many fine online sources for guided mindfulness practice:

2) Set intentions (prime the pump).
Most of the time, our curriculum and lesson plans tell us what we’re going to teach. Setting an intention widens the focus to consider how we want to teach. An intention is a statement of how you want to be in this next period. Think about your goals for the way you want the experience to feel and how best to facilitate the skills you are helping your students to master.

An intention might be a general one, such as keeping things moving calmly in the days before a high stakes test, or it might be as specific as responding to a challenging student or group with equanimity instead of going directly to control. It can be simple (but not necessarily easy) like, ‘I want to be fully present.’

In his wonderful book The Mindful Brain, Dr. Dan Siegel writes “Intentions create an integrated state of priming, a gearing up of our neural system to be in the mode of that specific intention: we can be readying to receive, to sense, to focus, to behave in a certain manner.”

Mindful Schools Executive Director Robert Thomas talked about this in Mindful Schools’ Back to School series on August 13th.

3) Check on the environment.
Some of the best teachers I know begin the day with a short sit in the classroom. There is something wonderful about starting off together in silence, and even kindergarten kids enjoy it. Students in middle and high school often protest that they’re not interested in this quiet few moments, but in my experience are the most vocal about insisting on the morning sit if it has been forgotten. Some classes find that just after lunch or the end of the day is the best time for a few mindful moments. Experiment to find what works for you and your group(s).

After a brief (two to five minutes) sit, it can be helpful to get a short report from each student about how they’re feeling. Popular metaphors for these reports include a one-word “weather report” (sunny, stormy, rainy, etc.), thumbs up, down or sideways, even sports analogies for the oldest students. The littlest ones can make an animal sound or hold up a colored piece to represent their mood (see Zones of Regulation for more on this). Don’t forget to include yourself and any other adults in the room!

These environmental check-ins allow the entire group to get a general idea of the overall ‘climate’ in the room in that moment. This is great information for each person. As the group leader, you may decide to adjust or even completely change the next activity, based on what the reports tell you.

The students also see each others’ responses, which informs them about how others may wish to be treated. A sweet surprise can happen in the form of one or more kids expressing heartfulness* for a classmate who has given a negative report. This is usually most immediate in younger grades but often happens away from the gaze of adults in middle and high school aged cohorts.

4) Mindfulness objects.
Many classrooms have a signal of some kind used to bring everyone together or to focus busy minds in preparation for a lesson. A singing bowl is ideal for this purpose. When I teach mindfulness in schools, the students eventually take over ringing the bell and watching as the class focuses on the sound and comes into stillness.

Another favorite is a Mind Jar or Brain Jar. This tangible metaphor for how our mood goes from agitation to calm. You can easily make one with a plastic or glass jar, some water, glycerin, and glitter or glitter glue. There are lots of how-to articles on the web, but here’s a good one.

5) Sound Check.
Sometimes it can be challenging to get back into our bodies, especially after vigorous social activity. To help integrate brain and body, you can use a bell, rainstick or another reverberating object.

  • Invite students to sit quietly with eyes closed or gazing at the floor, and listen to the sound of the object as you activate it.
  • Ask them to raise a hand when they can no longer hear the sound.
  • When all hands are up, invite them to notice how they are feeling.

Don’t forget to notice your own state of integration. It may be helpful to do another sound check if the class still seems unfocused.

6) Gratitude practice.
Millions of years ago when humans lived in the wild, our brains evolved to be alert to danger. Despite the fact that most of us no longer face the existential threat of wild animal attack, our brain still maintains that ‘early warning system’. We are really expert at remembering the bad stuff, but not so hot a recalling the good. Dr. Rick Hanson defines this ‘negativity bias’ as Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones. Gratitude practice helps us embody the emotions and sensations associated with positive experience. It can guide us toward equanimity by balancing out our overall perception of what has occurred during a certain period, be it math class, the school day, or a particular event.

Gratitude practice is a simple way to share and to remind ourselves and others about the things that matter. It can be a lovely way to end the day, sitting in a circle and each sharing something we’re grateful for. This practice can be surprisingly informative. Don’t forget to include yourself in the circle.

Incidentally, these ideas shouldn’t be limited to your classroom. Employing mindful approaches to your relationships with your colleagues can bring great rewards and may even help change the culture in your school community. At a school where I worked for a number of years, we set an intention to treat one another in specific ways as a matter of course. Visitors frequently commented on how it felt to first enter the building and experience the authentic interactions among students and adults.

Going beyond the classroom

These techniques and practices can assist you in beginning (and continuing) the school year with authenticity, equanimity, and dare I say it—even joy. By employing them, we can expand beyond ‘thinking’ and ‘doing’, to ‘being’ as we create and sustain our learning community with intention, focus, heartfulness, and gratitude. May you be curious. May you find wonder in each day with your children. May you be peaceful.

Betsy Caruso is a mindfulness teacher an academic tutor in Boston. She is a 2016 graduate of the Mindful Schools teacher training program and has had a personal mindfulness practice since 2008.

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