- April 2013
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During 2012, over 80 Primary School Teachers from 15 North Coast NSW Primary Schools have attended our one-day training in Mindfulness skills for the classroom. This is the story of the mindfulness programs in 2 schools and the ways it benefits students and staff.
Blakebrook School students practicing mindful breathing
If a pin drops on the floor, the 45 children in the K-2 class at Blakebrook want to hear it. Eyes closed,listening intently for the ‘secret sound’, many of the children know instantlywhether their teacher has dropped a pin, a pen or something else.
The ‘secret sound’ listening game is part of the Mindfulness program recently adopted at Blakebrook School, outside Lismore on the NSW North Coast.
Teachers, Louise Tate and Lois Skorjenko,have received training in ‘Mindfulness for Primary Teachers’ training program earlier this year, developed and led by myself, Bobbi Allan, and my colleague Shakti Burke from Mindfulness in Education, www.mindfuleducation.com.auThe training included an introduction to the ‘MindUp Curriculum’ for classes from K-8,developed by the US-based Hawn Foundation.
Louise had invited Shakti and I to visit the K-2 class to observe a 40 minute ‘Mindful Listening’ lesson Afterwards she talked to us about the school’s Mindfulness program.
“We started by introducing Mindfulness in small ways”, said Louise. “The children responded very positively, so in Term 3 we started to implement the MindUP curriculum in K-2 and 5-6 classes. Now it’s being implemented across the school, with the support of our new Principal, Allan Duroux.”
“Even the littlies are interested in learning about how their brains function.We have the brain charts [from the back of the MindUp Curriculum books] on the classroom wall. We’ve made up our own special names for three parts of our brains: the amygdala (fight / flight / freeze)the hippocampus (stores emotional responses to fears and threats, and converts short-term to long-term memory) the pre-frontal cortex (reasoning, executive functioning, learning, emotional regulation).”
“They can now say ‘my green pickle (hippocampus) isn’t working so well today’ when their emotional states get in the way of remembering lessons.”
“Mindfulness asks teachers to shift behaviour from trying to quash negative behaviour to helping students prepare to learn. At really exciting times, times when it’s difficult for them to settle, I can say ‘let’s calm ourselves’ and the kids know what to do. Or I can say ‘let’s have a moment of silence’ and it works!
“The Core Mindfulness practice is to begin with attentive listening to a gentle bell or chime rung by the teacher, followed by a minute or two of calm, focused breathing which quickly settles anxiety, over-excitement and other emotional states, thus preparing the mind for learning. We repeat the Core practice several times each school day. Students learn that these practices help them to be ‘the boss of their own brain’.”
Louise said: “About half the children took to the breathing practice straight away, and the others have had to work at it, but are gradually coming to like it more and more. At first it was hard for some of them to understand ‘doing nothing’, but now they all like to get down and lie on the floor and relax their bodies.”
The Year 5/6 children give Mindfulness the thumbs up too. “In the beginning it felt a little weird practising the relaxation, but after a couple of times I realised how relaxed I was feeling” said one boy. “Yes” said a girl, “It’s peaceful and afterwards I’m able to concentrate on my work without being distracted easily.” Louise added, “They love the conversation we have afterwards about what’s going on in their minds.”
“I’m very enthusiastic about the program and the results I can already see with the children”, Louise said. “’Mindfulness’ is now in the vocabulary of the whole school….the teachers, support and admin staff as well as the students. The 5-6 class have really taken to the breathing practice, and love the conversation that follows – about what’s going on inside them. ”You can ask a child if they are being mindful of how they are inter-acting with another child, and you can see them pause and reflect on what they’re doing. As they start to accept their own minds, they’re becoming more empathic. They’re more aware of when other people are having a bad day.”
“For the past few weeks we’ve been working with mindful listening and the kids are starting to understand how that helps us be mindful of noise and quiet”, said Louise.
“The students can be as noisy as they like out in the playground, but when the bell rings they are learning to become quieter and quieter as they get closer to the classrooms, and to listen to whether their voice is louder than others. We are getting them in from recess and lunch a few minutes earlier, to allow time for the listening and breathing practice; this helps them settle and prepare their minds for learning – it’s a great transition tool. There is a bus stop outside our school where students from a lot of different schools wait; I have noticed that our children are now quieter than those from other schools. Even the teachers are becoming quieter – not yelling over the top of the children so much.”
“When we started getting them to watch bubbles, as part of the Mindful Seeing lesson, most of the boys wanted to burst the bubbles. Now they’re letting the bubbles land on the carpet and really noticing the colours and the shapes. We’re finding that the boys who can be a bit aggressive are settling down well after watching the bubbles.”
“We have one focus per week – e.g. mindful seeing, mindful listening, mindful smelling. The kids love engaging with their senses this way and it helps them to focus, observe details, to notice differences and to expand their vocabulary. Focusing on the senses is also calming. We talk about each week’s lesson at the Friday afternoon assembly and put it in the school newsletter, so the parents can talk about it and practice it with their children.”
Blakebrook PS students take it in turns to practice ‘mindful smelling’
“Children are even teaching their parents about taking a few mindful breaths to calm down! Even the teachers who were most sceptical about mindfulness are now seeing the benefits.” Louise concluded.
Meanwhile, at Broadwater Public School south of Ballina, K-2 teacher, Sandra Williams has begun introducing mindfulness to her 36 pupils. “We’re doing the breathing practice every morning before our literacy lesson”, she said. “I vary it a bit for them. Sometimes they place a puppet on their bellies and give the puppet a ride as their bellies move up and down. Sometimes they might visualise something positive in their lives. When they use the puppets, I sometimes get the puppets to talk for them about how they feel afterwards. They say things like ‘relaxed’, ‘ready to work’, ‘not upset’.”
One of the primary ironies ofmodern education is that weask students to “pay attention”dozens of times a day, yet wenever teach them how. Thepractice of mindfulnessteaches students how to payattention, and this way ofpaying attention enhancesboth academic and socialemotional learning.
(Amy Saltzman, 2011)
“They like the brain science”, Sandra says. “When they do something silly, I ask them ‘what part of your brain were you using just now?’, and they say something like ‘Yeah, I know, I need to use my PFC (Pre-Frontal Cortex).’ They are starting to learn that they can choose to connect their PFC to the reactive emotional parts of their brain by doing the breathing, and that calms them down.”
Blakebrook students relax their bodies and minds to prepare for learning
“We did a play at assembly for the parents and other teachers. The kids dressed up as different parts of the brain and they explained to their parents what each part did.”
Linda Wythes, the teacher-librarian at Broadwater PS, says she is finding the K-2 kids more focused this term. “They even seem to focus better than kids in the older classes. I have taught mindful breathing a few times in the older classes, and some kids really like it and have asked to do it again, she said.”
Sandra and Linda, who both attended our 6-week training, ‘Mindfulness for Teacher Wellbeing and Student Engagement’, said they were both a lot more mindful, and more self-accepting. “I don’t beat myself up when I make a mistake”, said Sandra. “I find I can just re-focus and get on with things.”
Broadwater Public School students with their ‘breathing buddies’