ONCE UPON A TIME (PART FOUR)

 

What follows is (the 4th and final part of) a story about stories and the wisdom of a six-year-old girl. (Click to catch up on Parts 1, 2, and 3.) I chose to tell this story in parts not just to make the length more manageable, but also because it held several climactic points for me. There are two remaining.

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The meeting with Sarah, her teacher, and my supervisor fell—as mentioned in the prior installment—quite near the end of my internship. Daily I busied myself, preparing for “good goodbyes,” making memory books and hosting last lunches with kids. With only two days a week there, I wasn’t present for the sharing of Sarah’s stories with her class, but Sarah’s teacher said the other children were quiet and attentive as she read aloud the chapters that Sarah had written with me. (I can picture Sarah among them, listening with her whole being.) When it was over, according to Sarah’s teacher, various classmates shared their reactions, all of them kind. One child asked the gorgeously mature and sensitive question, “Do you really feel lonely?”

“Sometimes,” Sarah said.

Sarah had claimed her loneliness again—and this time publicly, among peers. How many of us are able to do that? How many of us “gwownups” are so undaunted, to name what we feel and admit to others what we crave? How often, moreover, are we heard? Properly acknowledged, problems have a tendency to shrink. In addition to admiration for Sarah, her class, and her teacher, I felt hope: she had said “Sometimes,” rather than “Yes.” Could it be that loneliness was gliding away from a total eclipse of her heart?

I returned to the school a week or two after my last day, to give a short presentation at a faculty meeting and turn in my keys. Unbeknownst to me, my supervisor had made a memory book for me, with messages from the kids that I had worked with. I wish I could share the photo, but Sarah is in it, standing before a whiteboard portrait of us, side by side and smiling wide, arms outstretched, fingertips almost touching. It looks like we’re embracing the world. Her message beneath the photo concludes this way: “I had fun visiting you with my friends at school.”

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A gentleman in New Zealand, with whom I’m loosely acquainted via online forums such as this, told a story once about his granddaughter, who had been taught baby sign language from birth:

“My daughter would sign every time she spoke to her daughter. My granddaughter was able to communicate quite effectively well before she could be expected to start talking. I can remember her telling me about what for her was a very traumatic experience when she was around 18 months old. She had seen their cat catch and injure a bird. The bird had been rescued, but it died shortly after. She signed the entire story, much of which I could understand. Some needed to be translated by her mother as I wasn’t fully fluent in their “baby sign,” but it was so heartbreaking to watch her little face as [she] told how the bird had died and they carefully buried it in the garden.”

We are made of stories and need to tell them. Children often need (and always deserve) our support in this. If we say, “Once upon a time,” what enlightening tales might follow?

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Out of respect for client privacy, names are always changed. Barry’s sign language story can be found in the comments of this Musings of an Aspie post. Other text and image copyrights herein held by me. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it. To subscribe and receive future posts, please look to the upper right on your computer screen, or scroll to the bottom of the page on your mobile device. Thank you for reading.

ONCE UPON A TIME (PART THREE)

 

What follows is (Part 3 of) a story about stories and the wisdom of a six-year-old girl, written back when I was working my first of two internships for my master’s degree. (Click to catch up on Parts 1 and 2.)

When I read back the last line of their story, Sarah and Addie looked so delighted that I thought they might start jumping up and down. I felt, myself, like doing so. At the beginning of the lunch experiment, I’d had a dream in which I saw solitary Sarah playing outside with a friend. Could that dream finally be near to coming true?

“Read it again!” said the girls. So I did. Then, wanting to fortify their newfound camaraderie, I asked if they might like to have their story read aloud to the rest of their class.

Yes, said Sarah—“and the other chapters.”

She seemed determined to share her experience of kindergarten isolation, and it dawned on me that there might be a kind of “greater vision” to her fixation—certainly greater than I alone could perceive—so as a next step, with Sarah’s permission, I invited her teacher and my supervisor to join us for a private sharing of both stories.

Picture a wide-eyed little girl, seated among three adult women: I felt we were surrounding her with care, and I felt that she felt it, too. For the first time since I’d met her, it was as if I could see the whole child—not at a remove, no feint of silliness, but present, visible, and wanting love.

I was again the reader, as Sarah watched her audience of listeners: the vivacious school social worker who greeted her in the hallway every morning, and the kind teacher so clearly valuing the rare chance to give Sarah her undivided attention.

When I reached the end of the last chapter, there was silence. I’d known silence in dyads, but I think that was the first time I’d experienced a therapeutic silence within a small-group setting, and I didn’t recognize and respect it for what it was. Instead, I felt self-conscious, like the hostess of a party that had ground to a halt; I quickly offered to read the other, shorter story.

Thankfully, Sarah’s teacher and my supervisor asked if they could first express what they were feeling. They felt sad and worried, they said. Like me, they wanted to know what they could do to help. Sarah asked, again, if the story could be read to her class.

I want to pause here, creating the smallest delay in your reading, slowing down time the way it slowed for me, to register my astonishment at what my six-year-old client then attested with utter clarity.

“People need to know,” she said.

Sarah’s teacher agreed immediately, and I felt tremendous relief. What was sought would be provided, in a context that would make sense. Stories are expected in a kindergarten classroom; indeed, they possess a ritual importance. Sarah’s teacher, with decades of experience, would know what to do.

That was my cue to move on to the light-hearted tale of mischief, which everyone seemed to enjoy, with broad smiles all around. Then, because I would be leaving my internship soon, we agreed together on a plan for my supervisor to take over the act of transcription: lunches with classmates would continue, and the story project would, too. I would have one more turn with it, meeting a serious-minded Brian the Bear before regretfully ceding the magical binder and clearing out the stash of penciled drafts in my desk.

To Be Continued.

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Out of respect for client privacy, names are always changed. Text and image copyrights held by me. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it. To subscribe and receive future posts, please look to the upper right on your computer screen, or scroll to the bottom of the page on your mobile device. Thank you for reading.

ONCE UPON A TIME (PART TWO)

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What follows is (Part 2 of) a story about stories and the wisdom of a six-year-old girl, written back when I was working my first of two internships for my master’s degree. To catch up on Part 1, click here.

The day that “Sarah the Cat” laid claim to her human loneliness, I formulated a plan: she could invite one classmate each week to have lunch with us in the guidance room, which for kindergarteners holds no stigma and instead represents a treat. Sarah might gain some status among her peers, and lunch might naturally segue into companionship at recess.

The boy she chose for her first guest was shy and sweet but not the best bet for an aide-de-camp in the project, accompanied by a paraprofessional in case he felt overwhelmed. Sarah’s teacher suggested the next invitee, a girl whose confidence proved unhelpful, with a domineering quality that crowded out the native empathy she might have possessed. Our third guest seemed like a Goldilocks choice—generous, polite, just right!—but nothing came of it.

Not socially gifted myself, in vain I struggled to make small talk that would help the kids learn about each other; like an awkward matchmaker, I even asked about favorite playground games. Sarah gave me a look at one point, and I wondered if I was being too obvious. Despite my efforts on her behalf, there was no sign of a shift—she still floated through her days disconnected.

Meanwhile, Sarah and I kept our Monday morning meetings. The day before our fourth Tuesday lunch, I had brought in all her chapters, typed from my longhand transcriptions and organized in their own slim binder. My internship at the school would be ending relatively soon, and creating books with and for kids was part of the process of saying goodbye. The chapters looked impressively official, dressed up thus. Sarah asked that I reread them to her; she seemed to enjoy hearing even the hardest parts.

The next day I walked down to rendezvous with Sarah and Addie, aka Guest Number 4. We gathered lunch trays, straws, utensils, and assorted condiments, and climbed the stairs, the kindergarteners’ knees bobbing high to accommodate the rise of each step, their trays held carefully aloft. So far, so familiar—but Sarah cast me into the unknown the moment we entered the office. “Could you please get my book and wead it?” she asked, the lost r tugging my heartstrings, while Addie preceded us to the table. “You want me to read it—out loud?” I clarified, hoping I’d misunderstood. “Yes, please,” she said.

What was I going to do? I looked over at Addie, concentrating on her carton of milk, plucking her straw from its cellophane wrapper. How could I subject that curly-headed naïf so unexpectedly to a tale of unremitting loneliness? Over pizza sticks and a small heap of syrupy fruit, no less? I was not thinking fast enough and grasped at a fib. “I’m not sure I have it with me,” I said, pretending to search my backpack. “No, I’m sorry, I don’t have it.” I felt conflicted about the now-outright lie—but there it was.

She persisted, asking me in that case to say it from memory. Again, I demurred. Then came the flash, the genuine inspiration. “What if we write a new chapter today? To a different story?” One thought led to the next. “Maybe Addie can help—if she wants.”

My enthusiasm for the idea was initially unshared. “Okay,” Sarah said. “But can you bring it next time? It’s important.” It’s important. “Alright,” I said. I’d bought myself a little time, but I knew I couldn’t ignore those words. I seated myself across from the girls, pencil at the ready. First we established our new character. Who would Addie like to be? She chose readily.

“Once upon a time, Sarah the Cat and Addie the Easter Bunny…” It was lovely to see both girls giggle at that. Sarah led off from there, but Addie caught right up. As they built their story detail by detail, they looked at each other for affirmation, grinning as they dreamed up mischief.

The plot unfolded as follows: They were at a picnic but wandered away from their blanket, landing them in hot water with their parents, who followed their trail, found them, and condemned them to their rooms with no dinner. Confining myself to prompts up till then, I volunteered a last line: “What a terrible way for a picnic to end!” The girls, together, approved.

To Be Continued.

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Out of respect for client privacy, names are always changed. Text and image copyrights held by me. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it. To subscribe and receive future posts, please look to the upper right on your computer screen, or scroll to the bottom of the page on your mobile device. Thank you for reading.

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…

ENERGY SHIFT

I’d like, on this site, to relay research that excites me and ideas that have me in thrall; but I’d also like to include, from the beginning, the voices of others: researchers themselves; former students who have memories of experiencing mindfulness in the classroom, as well as those who wish they’d had the chance; other persons in the helping profession who share this passion; and educators, who have a unique opportunity to connect with large numbers of kids.

To that end, if you feel you have more than a comment’s worth to say on the subject, let me know so that we can work out an interview or guest post. Also, if there are specific issues or questions you’d like to see explored, you are welcome to email me at presentmomentlearning@gmail.com.

Starting the conversation, here’s a brief Q and A* with Jenna Howard, who is lead teacher in the Choices Program at Lebanon Elementary School in Lebanon, Maine. Jenna works with students who experience behavioral and emotional challenges at school. As a flowering of her own spiritual path, Jenna sought ways to improve the experience of her students and in August 2013 attended a weekend workshop on mindfulness in educational settings, at the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in Rhinebeck, NY.

Q: First of all, how do you, Jenna, define mindfulness?

A: I define mindfulness as being aware of everything in the present moment. I know some people don’t like to use the word “aware” with mindfulness, but that’s the best way I can describe it.

Q: Can you offer a synopsis of the workshop you attended?

A: It was led by a variety of people, including psychologists, teachers, administrators, and professors and several people who are well known in the mindfulness education / social and emotional learning fields: Daniel Rechtschaffen, Linda Lantieri, and Dan Siegel.

There were different lectures, mini-workshops, and breakout sessions to choose from throughout the weekend. Topics covered included: what mindfulness is and looks like; implementing mindfulness in schools; practices and programs that support social and emotional learning; mindfulness practice with at-risk youth; and using evidence from neurobiology to support the practice of mindfulness.

Q: What did you find most helpful and inspiring?

A: I found it most helpful to learn about different practices that work in other educational settings. It was also important to me to gain more knowledge about the science behind mindfulness, so that other people can understand it better from a scientific, factual perspective. I enjoyed learning about mindfulness work and its results with at-risk youth, and was able to connect it to my students.

Q: I often see the recommendation that those who want to teach or share mindfulness, practice it themselves. I’m guessing you may have heard something like that at Omega.

A: Yes, there was a definite mention of the importance of practicing personal mindfulness. They felt that in order for the students to buy into it, it had to be something that the teacher believed in or practiced regularly. Almost like a ripple effect. Something was said to the effect of, if anything, personal mindfulness practice would help the student climate because modeling and the energy that is put off by the teacher greatly affects the classroom environment. So in a way, start with yourself and build slowly into them.

Q: Can you offer a sense for what an average day in your classroom is like without mindfulness activities?

A: As a special education teacher in a self-contained classroom for students with behavioral and emotional challenges, an average day can be very stressful. Every day is different, depending on the circumstances and what emotional states the students are in. We encounter many behavioral / emotional “meltdowns” that can include aggressiveness. We teach a lot of social skills and academics, depending on what individual kids need most.

Q: Please share one or more examples of ways you have used principles of mindfulness in the classroom.

A: Twice a day, we incorporate an activity called Quiet Time. During this time, the lights are shut off and relaxing music is played. Students can choose to sit in a bean bag and relax or draw to get themselves centered. The students are aware that this activity is meant to help them refocus, calm their bodies and minds, and bring the energy of the room to a neutral place. They are aware that these activities help them perform and focus on their academic and social tasks throughout the day.

Also, we teach students different mindfulness practices to use when they are experiencing, or before an increase in, anxiety and aggression, in order to get them to develop their own coping skills in highly stressful situations.

Q: Dealing with anxiety and aggression! Can you give an example of that?

A: We show them how to take deep breaths properly and tell them to “smell the flowers and blow out the candles” ten times. It’s very simple but can work very well as they focus on their breathing and how it affects the way they feel.

Q: What do you notice in your students during and after the use of mindfulness-based activities?

A: We notice a change in the energy of the classroom. The energy of the students and classroom becomes calmer, more peaceful, more focused and productive. The students’ energy and anxiety levels often go to a more neutral place, rather than really high or really low.

Q: Have you had direct feedback about it from the students?

A: Students give feedback through their actions and with their words. Some students have said that they like it because it calms them down and the quiet helps them relax.

Q: What advice would you give to other teachers who might like to pursue this?

A: Start out small and at a slow pace. See what works and what doesn’t work. Adjust different activities to the needs of the students.

Q: What are your “next steps,” if any?

A: I’d like to learn more about more activities that worked for students who have similar challenges as my students. It would also be nice to touch base with other educators who are incorporating this work into their classrooms.

 

*This interview was lightly edited, with Jenna’s approval.