EACH AND ALL

Trees and water

Yesterday morning, I led my first “skills of mindfulness” groups at the county jail. (Within the institution, the group meetings are referred to as classes, and I’m considered a teacher; but I think of my role more as that of facilitator, since I’m strictly a volunteer and there to learn from the inmates as well as to relay what I can.) I found the experience so profound that I felt I couldn’t simply return home afterward and instead did something I too rarely do: I went to a park and sat at a picnic table to look at my curriculum and just be with my thoughts under the sun and shifting shade of old trees.

Somehow it surprised me how many other people came to the park and seemed to respect it as a quiet refuge, too. Among them were an older woman, a younger woman, and a boy of perhaps three. They walked down to the edge of the pond and spent a long time there. I was absorbed in my contemplations and didn’t look up all that often, although I noticed the pleasure the boy seemed to take in throwing stones into the water. Finally, I heard them discussing plans to return home, and the boy, with infinite curls, ran ahead of the women. As he passed my picnic table, I offered, “I like your stripes!” He had horizontal stripes on his shirt, vertical stripes on his shorts. He said, “I’m running so fast!” “You are,” I said, “you’re running like the wind!” Up the hill he went, the two women following.

Ten minutes or more later, I glanced up and saw him making his way back down the hill, drawn like a magnet to a utility pole with some fuse boxes on it. He reached up to touch them, and as the women were not yet in sight, I called out, “Hey—you know, I think there’s electricity in those boxes, so it’s probably better not to play with them.” “Oh!” he said, and ran over, directing his curiosity toward the large jar of tea that sat on the table. We had a little chat about my tea, and how much of it there was left to drink, before the women caught up to him, and again they made their way to the water before turning around to head home.

This time, the boy did not run. “You’re walking!” I said. “Before, you were running like the wind. What are you walking like?” He came over and grasped the edge of the table in his small brown hands, seeming to give the matter serious thought. “I walk like a person,” he concluded.

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How does this story relate to mindfulness? It’s the fact that we were both so much in the moment. We shared the present moment together. And because of the way he seemed to let his mind rove through the realm of possibilities, in a manner that I imagine would delight Dr. Ellen Langer, before landing on the one that struck him as true and right. The beauty of his free and open mind reinforced the joy I’d felt that morning, sitting in two different rooms, in two different units at the jail, with men and with women who were choosing to try something new. There they were, and there I was, sharing the present. All of us, each of us, being like persons.

ONE BELL, FIVE BREATHS

In my last post, I proposed a collection of ideas for incorporating mindfulness into the school day. To begin at the beginning, here’s one about breath.

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All the kindergarten teachers I know seem to have bells or meditation chimes to summon students to attention, and it strikes me that these could be appropriate for any age group. (Having sat through some faculty meetings, where order was called vocally, I think a bell would have been much more effective!)

A particular kindergarten teacher of my acquaintance often follows the ringing of her meditation chime with directions given in a library-quiet voice—a strategy for engaging more active listening. The pure tone and near-whisper strike a peaceful chord that seems to benefit everyone. But there may be still more opportunity in those resonant moments. What if every bell were the signal to take five good, deep breaths and then listen to instructions?

An online course in trauma-focused therapy (through the Medical University of South Carolina) takes what I feel is an excellent approach to teaching deep breathing to kids. Children are taught to lay one hand on their chests (in the manner of the Pledge of Allegiance) and the other hand on their bellies so that the pinky lies above their bellybuttons. They are asked to keep the chest still while swelling and deflating the belly.

I find this technique remarkably calming. Having one hand over my heart and one on my abdomen seems to complete a circuit of comfort. I think we are so much more aware of the touch of others—like a hand on a shoulder—that we often don’t realize how powerful the effect of our own can be. I haven’t yet had time to look this up, but if there isn’t research on this already, I hope that there will be. An “intra” variation on the fascinating subject of interpersonal neurobiology.

A natural question here might be, “Why five breaths, and not three?” Three often feels like a magic number, but my inclination is that while three good breaths can connect us to the value of deep breathing, three can also be done expediently, whereas five breaths seem to require a genuine slowing down, which serves to ground the experience. All this is hypothetical on my part…

There is abundant room for variation in the mindful-bell concept, allowing for developmental differences and energetic needs. I have less experience with older kids at this point, for example, and those savvier about preteens and teens might well approach the breathing differently.

My instinct is that with younger kids, such an activity can be part of rapport-building, while with older kids, some rapport might need to come first and through other means? And that with younger kids, the breathing prompt could be signaled as needed, while with older kids, it might need to be more formally a part of beginnings and endings?

Closed eyes might enhance the practice, if the classroom atmosphere supports that. Standing in a circle facing out, away from others, might help as well. A significant aspect of mindfulness is being truly grounded in one’s own reality, and in group situations, that might require some structured support to deal with self-consciousness, comparisons, and other distractions.

Again, there is room here to experiment. Creativity has an important role to play in mindfulness activities, especially with younger kids. I would only encourage attentiveness to whether a particular creative idea truly supports the desired outcome. If there’s a metaphor involved, is it apt? I recognize the visual appeal of the prompt to children to “smell flowers and blow out candles,” which Jenna mentioned in our interview and which is commonly taught, but I don’t use it because I feel some concern that the direction to smell flowers encourages a fairly shallow form of upper-chest breathing. When I smell things, the action doesn’t tend to reach all the way to my belly, and depth of breath impacts its value.

In closing, thinking about proposing a bell-prompt reminded me of classical conditioning, and I wondered whether more independent-minded thinkers might object to the Pavlovian notion of that. It seems to me that informal conditioning occurs in our lives all the time, however, and that peaceful feelings and enhanced self-regulation are gifts we can give to children that will not only allow for, but also encourage, greater freedom and autonomy.

 

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P.S. It seems there are computer programs and applications that can be programmed to ring a bell periodically. For those who have lots of computer work to do, that might be a nice tool for remembering to take breaks, rest the eyes, and breathe.

MINDFULNESS, A LA CARTE?

When I was dreaming up this project, with the many demands on teachers in mind, I felt I would need to present the case for mindfulness both compellingly and approachably. It would need to be clear to anyone lacking prior familiarity with the subject, who might happen upon this forum, that there are simple ways to fit mindfulness into the school day.

While academic studies rely on specific curricula designed to maximize benefits, the inability to enact every piece of a curriculum should never be a barrier to the practice of something so centering for both teacher and class as being in the present moment. But I’m not suggesting a hit-or-miss, one-off approach!

The value of consistency has been much written about. I intend here to mean something more like “reliability” than like “sameness.” I believe that consistency in the classroom is supported by a teacher’s own mindfulness practice. The teacher sets the tone, embodies the mindset. The benefits of mindfulness to teachers specifically are actively being explored, and I’ll do my best to keep up with that research and share it here. (This should be easier when I’ve finished my degree.)

What I mean by fitting mindfulness into the day, is not that I consider it to be some sort of menu item ordered à la carte; working from that metaphor, mindfulness would be more aptly compared to a full repast. I recognize, however, that teachers may not be able to accommodate entire programs in their schedules, especially if mindfulness is more of a personal experiment than an institutional mandate.

In consideration of that, I would like to begin collecting ideas in a “How To” folder, which teachers can draw on and take inspiration from, in finding a place for mindfulness in their classrooms. I would recommend choosing at least one meaningful activity to become a daily practice, and finding ways to work in others as possible. Of course, teachers who practice mindfulness can and do, in that way, share it with their students all the time. Stay tuned for suggestions to come…

WITH LIBERTY AND RESILIENCE FOR ALL

As a graduate student of social work, certain terms I’ve encountered in my studies have come to have a galvanizing meaning for me. One such term is “risks and resiliencies,” the balance of factors that undermine or support a person’s well-being. How does this term apply to the project at hand?

Many teachers know a great deal about their students’ lives in a general sense, and children who come to school in distress may relate the specific reasons to those who’ll listen. Still, in a classroom of, say, twenty-five kids, there are twenty-five complex and ever-evolving sets of life circumstances with the potential to impact learning—twenty-six, if you count the teacher’s.

One of my inspirations for this site was an article I read last year titled “Mindfulness in School Psychology: Applications for Intervention and Professional Practice” (see below for attribution), wherein the authors posit mindfulness as an intervention with three tiers of application: universal, targeted group, and intensive. This conceptualization is similar to the Response to Intervention (RTI) model that will be familiar to American educators and possibly others.

During my internship, I drew on mindfulness in my individual (i.e., Tier 3) counseling work with several young clients. Some of that I’ll likely describe on another occasion, as my memories of that work count among my happiest, but the main purpose of this site is to consider what can happen when mindfulness is made accessible to all—and to inspire readers who are new to it to try it.

Therapists of various stripes are in the privileged position of making active listening their work; but not even the most trusted listener can ever know all the risks and all the resiliencies in a child’s life. No one can ever tell the whole of a life, and especially not a child, who is so much in the midst of things.

What children can tell about themselves is powerful, however, and can make the crucial difference for them—if they have the chance to be heard. But guidance personnel in schools are even more outnumbered than teachers, and as my supervisor often lamented, there are too many kids not getting the time that they need.

This brings me to the beauty of the Tier 1 intervention, and the use of mindfulness in the general classroom setting. With the ability to strengthen executive function and reduce anxiety, among other beneficial effects—more on these in future posts—mindfulness can foster resilience in students and possibly “catch” those who need catching before their (often unknown) needs and troubles escalate.

Mindfulness activities are not a replacement for counseling when it’s needed, but the physiological effects on a child, I believe, can be similarly helpful and even profound.

 

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“Mindfulness in School Psychology: Applications for Intervention and Professional Practice,” by Joshua C. Felver, Erin Doerner, Jeremy Jones, Nicole C. Kaye, and Kenneth W. Merrell, in Psychology in the Schools, Vol. 50(6), 2013. doi: 10.1002/pits.21695