Returning mindfully back to school!
From January until the end of May, 2018, there were 21 school shootings in which individuals were killed or injured. As our children go back to school, it is important to reflect on a failed system of safety in our schools and to be proactive in order to prevent future violence in the coming school year. This awareness of such violence in the school systems is a wake up call that necessitates action. Many of us think of schools as merely a place where students learn academic subjects, take tests, and hopefully graduate and go on to attend either two or four year colleges. If we think about it, during the school year, many children between before school childcare, afterschool childcare and/or sports at the school, attend school more than 50% of their waking hours. Needless to say, school must be more than a pedagogical forum where students merely learn academics.
Schools have the honor and responsibility to create a supportive, welcoming, and nurturing environment that fosters students’ non-cognitive skills such as sense of belonging, autonomy, self-confidence, grit, and resilience. Non-cognitive skills are the by-product of the environment of the child, whether this be at home or daycare or in school. In addition, research has emphasized the importance of early childhood environments (when children are infants-3 years old) as having profound effects on childhood development. “Toxic stress,” which is defined by chronic early stress (numerous stressors such as difficult family relations, chronic neglect, chronic hunger, chronic abuse) disrupts the development of executive function skills controlled by the prefrontal cortex. These executive functions include working memory, self-regulation, cognitive flexibility, along with emotional control functions. Children that grow up with toxic stress and adversity are more likely to have prolonged fight-or-flight responses. Instead of a fight-or-flight response being focused on a situation that is dangerous or high-risk and then shutting off when the risk or danger seems to have passed, children and adults in prolonged stressful situations develop a fight-or-flight response that does not shut off easily. These individuals feel consistently threatened and are hypervigilant. Our bodies and minds are not meant to consistently be on high alert and this constant activation of the stress-response system results in longterm psychological effects and physiological effects such a compromised immune systems, endocrinological problems, and has even been linked to the development of asthma and heart disease.
Numerous studies have shown that schools or classrooms that use methods to increase a child’s sense of belonging, the morale of the classroom or school community, and a child’s autonomy and confidence, even without implementing any interventions to change the academic curriculum of the classroom or school, have resulted in improved behavior and academic accomplishments as measured by GPA and test scores. This is not to say that improvements in academic curriculum are not warranted, but that this should not be the only focus of interventions implemented in schools plagued by violence, children living in adversity and poverty, and failing schools. As mentioned above, it is essential to not only target schools and thus school-age children, but for programs and interventions to target early childhood, 0-3 years old, in order to prevent the development of these altered and prolonged stress responses and to foster the development of a sense of safety, trust, and autonomy within the child’s environment. Below is a series of ideas that can be implemented in the classroom or at home to foster mindfulness and yoga movement in an engaging and fun environment.
Back to school mindfulness and yoga exercises to do at home or in the first several days of school! At home, helping children to feel less tense and anxious about a new academic year. In school and group settings, creating a sense of belonging, confidence, trust, and respect from the start!
Ideas for making mindfulness practices, yoga, and meditations more accessible at home and in the classrooom:
(1)Examples include in early childhood and in early elementary grades read alouds that can incorporate different yoga poses that the class can do together (examples;)
(a)Brown Bear, Brown Bear
(b)The Very Hungry Caterpillar– learn about transformation and spring
(c) If You Give a Mouse a Cookie– learn poses of mouse and snake
(d)Duck on a Bike– animal poses and kids relate to learning how to ride a bike
(e)Lion and the Mouse– lion and mouse poses
(f) I Want my Hat Back– bear and other animal poses
(g)Mouse Count– introducing the concept as quiet as a mouse for svasana
(h)Rumble in the Jungle
(i) The Little Old Lady Who Wasn’t Afraid of Anything– fall theme
(j) My Many Colored Days– feelings themed – younger and older children as well; introduce children to open up and talk about their feelings in a safe community
(k)The Giving Tree
(l) The Rainbow Fish
(m) Commotion in the Ocean– different ocean animals. Works well with an ocean theme unit or workshop
(n)Chicka Chicka Boom Boom– Works well in teaching younger children the alphabet and introducing tree pose to maintain stability, focus, and reinforce self-confidence
(o)From Head to Toe
(p)Koala Lou– Teach children about the importance of unconditional love
(2)Have students create their own story, song, or poem that is filled with different yoga poses and have them enact them
(3)Incorporate yoga into the school curriculum and lesson plans (see example lesson plan at the end of this blog)
(a)Science lessons on anatomy, biology, and physiology work excellent with yoga!
(4)Incorporate yoga and mindfulness into PE, health, or even try to set aside some times throughout the week to have a special mindfulness or yoga class (many private schools and preschools now have incorporated mindfulness and yoga specials into their daily schedules)
(5)Have books on yoga, a yoga deck, and mindfulness decks and books on easily accessibly bookshelves for students to browse and sign out (if not possible to have in each classroom have an accessible section in the school’s library in addition to the town’s public library)
(6)Class outing to do a mindfulness-based walk including a journaling period after the walk. For students who can write have the child write about there experiences. For younger students give the option of them drawing their experiences. Bring attention to students’ awareness of their different senses
(7)If students eat in the classroom – have snack or part of lunch silently asking the students to practice mindful eating (works well with raisens, blueberries, or even as a special treat m&ms – noting a lot with texture and taste as the thin shell melts in students mouth). This teaches students to self-control (not to just immediately bite into the food), to be focused and attentive to their senses, along with practicing mindfulness.
(8)Begin each day by asking a student to pull a mindfulness exercise and a yoga pose from a mindfulness deck and a yoga deck. This can be listed in the jobs/responsibilities for the week for students. Starting the day with a little mindfulness and movement sets the tone for a more productive day.
(9)Display throughout the classroom different yoga poses and breathing techniques such as elephant breathing, lion breathing (helps to release tension and frustration), bunny breathing (invigorating – nice opening to the day), downward dog (stabilizing), tree (regains students’ focus, etc. throughout the classroom. Change poses and breathing weekly or monthly and if the class needs a break, call out “everyone by the bunny” and practice bunny breathing or everyone by the downward dog and practice downward dog. Build an arsenal of yoga poses and breath techniques in a short period of time to help with classroom management and instruct students to self-soothe and teach frustration tolerance.
SAMPLE LESSON PLAN:
Topic: Stress reduction and mindfulness
Grade: Elementary School
Time Period: Forty-five minutes.
Size and type of class: Works well with any size group.
Aim: The aim of this lesson is for students to learn several yoga poses, which provide healthy modes of stress reduction and mental well-being. A long term goal would be for the student to incorporate mind and body to help attain a healthy perspective on living and body image with an awareness of when the mind and body is under stress, identification of stress sensations, and practice of yoga to assuage such feelings.
· To describe what the practice of yoga means to the student and to give at least one benefit of practicing yoga on a daily basis.
· To be able to use the yoga cards provided in the materials of the lesson plan and to engage in two yoga poses with the ability to analyze how the pose has positively affected their sense of well being.
· To incorporate into their home routine a simple yoga practice.
· (optional) yoga mats, one for each group to work on as they assemble their routines.
· Yoga deck– Yoga Pretzels or any other (Tara Guber and Leah Kalish, introduced by Baron Baptiste, illustrated by Sophie Fatus)
· Light on Yoga – book for teacher to read
· Pen and paper or student journal
· Homework guideline handout
· There will be ten minutes of interactive time in the beginning of the lesson plan spent in the community meeting area with the teacher reading aloud and children being called on to answering didactic like questions in order to assess initial knowledge of subject matter. The teacher will read a brief introduction from the Light on Yoga book in order for students to get an overview of the practice and origins of yoga.
o “The word Yoga is derived from the Sanskrit root yuj meaning to bind, join, attach, to direct and concentrate one’s attention on, to use and apply. It also means union.”
o “Om – connects energy into the class”
o “We are going to use yoga as a breathing and meditative process.” The teacher opens up the discussion as to what meditation is and how breathing is important in a yoga practice and asks how it may be important in other areas of the students’ lives.
· The teacher will guide the discussion in order to make it interactive and get input from the students as to their own individual experiences with yoga and what their preconceptions of yoga are. The teacher will introduce the pocket yoga cards, which illustrate several yoga poses that the students will be asked to choose from in order to practice in small groups and then to teach the general class. The teacher will conclude the initial meeting with the bunny breath. Students will be asked to sit on the carpet on their shins and to close their eyes. Students will then be instructed to remain alert, like a bunny, and to take three sniffs through their nose and then to exhale in a long release. This process will then be repeated five times. The benefits of this exercise will be explained to the students that it is a cleansing breath and promotes the student to feel clear, alert, and relaxed, and, thus, ready to split into groups and to commence their small group assignments.
· The students will then break up into heterogeneous groups for a group activity at different tables of approximately four children to each table along with ample space alongside the table for students to move around. The group will be divided based on the teacher’s prior organization. The group time will last approximately twenty minutes at which time the students will then come back to the community meeting area and share their projects. During the group period, the teacher will walk around the room to facilitate discussion about the various poses and make suggestions to the students.
· When the students return to the designated meeting area, each group will take turns demonstrating their poses that they have chosen from the stack of yoga pretzel cards and discussing with the larger group how they feel the pose can be of benefit. Each group will present and model two poses to the class.
· At the end of the final group meeting, the teacher will ask the students to lie down on the carpet for savasana or corpse pose. The teacher will guide them into a state of relaxation by playing soft music. After three-five minutes the students will be asked to wiggle their fingers and their toes and to gently roll onto their right side into fetal position and slowly bring themselves up to a cross-legged seated position where they will bring their hands to their hearts center and bow their heads and say, “Namaste.” This will conclude the in-class portion of the yoga for relaxation lesson.
· The students will then be assigned a homework assignment, which will reinforce what they have learned in the day’s activities in addition to requiring the student to further research one aspect of the day’s lesson in depth and share with the class. This homework assignment will include student’s choice of further deepening their practice by taking an in depth look at two yoga poses, practicing them every night, and writing or drawing a “before the pose entry” on subjective well-being and an entry “after” the student has at least dedicated five minutes to practicing the pose. The students will be permitted to take home two cards from the yoga pretzels deck in order to aid in their practice. For parental or guardian involvement, the student will then be asked to teach their parent(s) or guardian(s) both of the poses and to describe what the effects of the pose were for them and then the parent(s)/guardian(s) will describe the effects of the pose on them. This will hopefully open up discussion at home about yoga and its benefits.
· Objective one: To describe what the practice of yoga means to the student and to give at least one benefit of practicing yoga on a daily basis.
· Assessment one: The student will write or draw in a journal the night after the lesson plan as part of a homework assignment what the practice of yoga means to the student. In addition, the student will identify one benefit or positive feeling or emotion that he/she has felt from practicing yoga on a daily basis.
· Objective two: To be able to use the yoga cards provided in the materials of the lesson plan and to engage in two yoga poses with the ability to analyze how the pose has positively affected their sense of wellbeing.
· Assessment two: This will be done in the class when the groups reconvene. Each student will be required to select two poses from the yoga pretzels cards, which also state on the back of the card the benefits of the pose. The students instruct the members of the class from the front of the classroom how to get into the yoga pose and demonstrate the pose. The student will state what they believe to be the benefits of the pose and explain why they chose to teach their two poses. The student during this period will act like a yoga instructor. In addition to the in class assessment of this second objective, students will have the opportunity to reinforce their level of understanding of two chosen yoga poses and its effect on them through their homework assignment as described in the last step of the procedure and in the homework listed below.
· Objective three: To incorporate into their home routine a simple yoga practice.
· Assessment three: This will be a take home assignment. The students will be asked to learn two poses that are different from the ones online research with the assistance of parents/guardians by scanning through the literary source section provided at the end of this lesson plan, reflect on their feelings before practicing the pose and reflect on their feelings after practicing the pose. They will enlist those in their household and teach them the poses. The hope is that the student will become familiar with some yoga poses and want to learn more, gradually building an arsenal of yoga poses into a home practice.