Mindfulness meditation nurtures the brain by decoupling regions that have tended to function together… and generally not very helpfully.
Mindfulness meditation, regularly practiced for a just a few minutes a day, create new neural connections and change how different regions of the physical brain relate to one another… most specifically the amygdala (the center for fear, anger, and ‘knee jerk’ emotional reactions) and the pre-frontal cortex (the center for logic, reason, executive function responses).
Teachers don’t have to figure it out on their own
There are so many quality resources for bringing mindfulness into the classroom – even for very young students. Consider Thich Nhat Hanh’s many clean and concise offerings.
Circle Time Discussions for 4-year old’s Social-Emotional Learning
By the age of 4, kids are ready to discuss and share with peers, in circle time, how much they know and how self-sufficiently they can choose behaviors that work best for everyone! They just need (and want) to be respectfully and appropriately challenged!
Kids also want and need to be acknowledged for what they understand, what they perceive as real, true and valid … and they need to express what they understand with their own words … with a group of peers … in neutral peer group discussions – facilitated by adults who, just during these peer group discussions, do not have the intention to be teaching, but instead have the intention to give all of their attention.
How many times have you read or heard about children ‘just behaving this way or that for attention?’ As if their efforts to gain your attention were a negative. Turns out that the more we learn about all the elements of healthy early childhood development, the more we come to appreciate the value of honoring children’s basic instincts, such as their natural need for quality attention.
Validating Proof from History and Human Biology
After World War II, orphans living in a clean, hygienic and basically attentive facility did not thrive. In fact, almost half of infants died, despite apparently having all basic needs met. It turned out that the infants needed at least one meaningful relationship with a caring, and involved adult in order to survive, grow and thrive. Since then, we have learned that Human Growth Hormone (HGH) is released in a manner directly proportional to the amount of caring attention the child receives.
Quality of Teacher’s Attention Matters
It is now clearly understood that the quality of the attention children receive from their educators more often than not gives rise to repeated behaviors, as compared to ignored or unnoticed behaviors. Sooooo … if we are giving our attention – yes, just simply our undivided attention – when kids are thinking together about positive and constructive outcomes to which they can all relate, surely it should come as no surprise that those solutions rapidly translate into more positive and constructive behaviors by the children who – together – gave voice to those solutions.
Young children, even very young children, need consistent opportunities to wrestle with age-appropriate challenges, conundrums, complications, obstacles, issues and “big fat botherations.”
BEWARE: Obvious answer ahead… because life is full of problems (always has been ~ always will be) and resisting them, complaining about them, or running away from them is just no way to live.
What kinds of problems do children need to solve?
SHARING & INCLUDING, for starters: Kids don’t always want to share. They don’t always want to include others, either… BUT kids do always want others to share with them, and they do always want to be included. How do we, their teachers, put those two seemingly irreconcilable opposites together?
ANSWER: We enable children to discover their own solutions by asking them the kinds of questions that get them thinking, together, in fresh ways (with fresh perspectives) about old familiar problems.
If we’re going to really succeed at supporting our students in resolving their own challenges, then we must view our role from a big-picture point of view, rather than attempting to implement immediate ‘fixes’ or behavior modifications. Kids need help with honestly exploring their own and others’ feelings about challenging situations that are oh-so-familiar. Children need gentle *guidance(where to look, but not what to see) in order to understand that all kids in their group feel pretty much the same when it comes to sharing. (*Guidance is best achieved with the right kinds of questions that invite kids, within peer group discussions, to safely express themselves and listen to each other, in a non-judgmental setting.)
The more kids learn and experience how much they genuinely share feelings and understanding, related to a variety of situations, the less alone/shy/isolated they’ll feel, and the stronger will be their sense of belonging to, and being part of, the group. Sharing is easier in that kind of environment. And if not sharing, then shared understanding about why “it’s just too hard to share that last cookie with someone else.”
Communication is key for real problem solving to occur.
When students feel successful, educators feel successful. To arrive at success, we educators must acknowledge the neurobiological fact that all brains are wired to process experiences through feelings before they’re ever able to think, reason and actually learn.
Brain science of FEELINGS BEFORE LEARNING
Amygdalae, small almond-shaped areas of the brain located deep within the limbic system, receive all incoming signals from the environment in about 20 milliseconds. The pre-frontal cortex, where logic and self-regulation reside, receive those same signals about 280 milliseconds after the amygdalae… The pre-frontal cortex of our young students’ brains will not be fully formed until their early 20’s. Meantime, their amygdalae, formed at birth, are continually engaged – scanning for feelings of safety and security.
Feeling undervalued = Emotional HIJACK
When children don’t feel safe, which can include feelings of not being ‘seen’ or respected or acknowledged, they’re highly susceptible to amygdala hijacking, which most commonly presents as lack of engagement / cooperation, resistance, defiance, hot tempers, insecurities, and isolation.
All attempts at reasoning are futile! We all know it… yet how many times have we tried to force our way past that hard and immutable fact? When young children’s prefrontal cortex has been overwhelmed by their amygdala’s reaction to whatever it is in their environment that makes them feel undervalued, no progress can be achieved until that underlying trigger has been genuinely, collaboratively and constructively addressed.
Fear and stress look like anger when …
… negative experiences cause emotional responses that prioritize – though granted, not very efficiently: self-preservation, however that is personally defined (and protected) by each child. Along with the amygdalae going into overdrive, blood pressure, heart rate, respiration, cortisol and adrenaline contribute to the mix.
Making best use of this physiology lesson
Hopefully, this information can help us separate outward behavior from negative judgements about, and reactions toward, our students. Hopefully, this information can motivate us to identify and implement real, and truly nurturing solutions that, with consistency, provide positive experiences that help to make our students feel genuinely safe and valued… if for no other reason than the fact that we all need, want and deserve to feel safe and valued… and, oh yes: a whole lot more learning will happen during the school year.
Build belonging for learning to happen
One very powerful way to build an authentic sense of belonging for our students is to provide them with consistent opportunities to preemptively experience shared values with their peers. This is not achieved, in any deep and life-altering way, with lectures, songs, posters, or puppets – SORRY.
It is, though, achieved with facilitated peer group discussions based on an approach that honors a Socratic method of engaging students’ creative and collaborative problem-solving abilities around challenges that are relevant to all of them. Discovering shared values, insights, concerns, feelings and solutions goes a long, long way towards building belonging – a need that, when satisfied, to whatever degree – counter-balances the fear, anger and stress that short circuit students’ ability and willingness to engage in learning.
We need to support (engage and vigorously exercise) children’s natural-born abilities to think, to reason, to distinguish truth from lies. We must consistently encourage children’s natural born curiosity to question everything and everyone, because at one point in their lives it will be critically important that they question politicians’ and marketers’ motivations and promises.
It is our responsibility not so much to lecture as help to switch on kids’ own awareness about the dangerous assumptions that skew perception – everyone’s: yours, mine and theirs. Trickiest of all, today’s youth needs to be able to recognize the difference between charisma and substance – as well as the unique impact of each.
Ask the kinds of questions that get kids’ minds stretching in directions that go beyond the obvious. Sharing insights and values with kids is a big part of our responsibility to them … but, for their true ownership of the values that will best serve them throughout their lives, we need to be repeatedly sparking their intelligence with the right kinds of questions that invite meaningful discussions and open the way to expression of their own personal insights and wisdom. (It’s never too early to start with this approach.)
Everyone is born with instincts and innate skill sets that, when honored, engaged and cultivated in the early years of life, have major influence on developing and anchoring self-trust.
Think about it: every baby knows when she’s hungry and tired. Every toddler knows what he likes to eat and with whom he wants to socialize. Children start out knowing and honoring their own rhythms, specific tastes and personal preferences.
And then “big people” start managing the details of children’s lives, because they know better. That message is resisted for awhile, and then it progressively dominates, resulting in diminishment of intrinsic self-trust.
There are various responses to this progression, from resistance and rebellion to increased reliance on guidance and approval from ‘authorities,’ resulting in the opposite of self trust: self-doubt.
Outward manifestations of diminished self trust include:
Need for approval
Desire for external validation
Fear of failure
Manipulative marketers and politicians accomplish their self-serving goals more easily when their audience is populated by people with diminished self trust … by people whose dominant orientation is: “Others know better than I do.”
HOW DOES THIS RELATE TO THE KIDS’ OWN WISDOM® APPROACH? When students receive consistent opportunities to participate in, and constructively contribute to, peer group discussions based upon *Stretching, *Open-ended, *Age-appropriately challenging, *Relevant, and *Respectful questions (SOARR-ing questions), they experience their own validity, and their self-trust is the ultimate beneficiary.
The most obvious benefit is recognizing and stopping the stifling mindset that is manifested unintentionally when we feel we know.
It’s the ‘this is how I or we’ve always done it’ syndrome. The ability to rid yourself of old ideas that are no longer relevant will be the key as to succeeding in, and staying relevant in, the future.
“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”
Young children, even by age 4, generally have strong reactions to always being told what to do … especially when it comes to their feelings and their interactions with others. Their strong reactions often show up as challenging behavior, but it doesn’t have to be that way. It really doesn’t.
From Challenging to Cooperating
The key to successfully creating more cooperation in early childhood environments is to provide young learners with multiple opportunities to discover how much they have in common with peers. This very practical approach is NOT achieved with lectures, books or videos … at least not nearly as effectively as it is achieved with peer group discussions.
We were never blank slates!
When children are treated as blank slates, most of them automatically resist. It’s almost as if they’re wired to resist … but is that such a terrible thing? Well, sure, it can be, when resistance turns into challenging behavior. But resistance can be interpreted as a signal that children have a solid sense of who they are and how “things” should be. Rather than treating children like blank slates who need to be taught everything, especially when it comes to their behavior, wise educators use relevant peer group discussions as one powerful key to successful turnarounds in their students’ behavior.
Five easy keys to designing successful peer group discussions
Make sure discussions never, ever isolate or point to specific individuals.
Use visual examples of the topic around which you want your students to discover solutions, (Google IMAGES is a great resource for pictures of: pushing, not sharing, pulling cat’s tail, street safety issues, whispering in front of others etc., etc.) but …
… do NOT start discussions about specific behaviors – even though you’re showing a picture of that behavior. Instead, start discussion with broad where, what, who or how’s the kids will easily succeed at identifying and describing. (Neutral successes are important at this point.)
After a few of those kinds of questions, then everyone is ready to “unpack” what’s going on in the picture you’ve shown them… just be sure the questions are open-ended and non-leading! If ever the questions you ask are not open-ended, then be quick to follow with, “Why is that your answer?” or “Will you tell us why you think that?”
Paraphrase kids’ answers. Of course, that doesn’t mean ‘parrot’ their answers. It means saying, in your own words, what you think each child said for the purpose of making sure you really understood. (Other benefits of this 5th key: √Fully acknowledges each student’s contribution to the discussion. √Keeps you really, reeeeeally listening. √Because they’ll be especially interested in how you paraphrase their thoughts, when you add vocabulary-enriching synonyms for their most commonly used words they’ll be paying LOTS of attention.)
We all want to belong, and – actually – we all pretty much do… we just need to discover that fact together.
When you get right down to it, we all have a lot more in common than we have differences that separate us. For instance, none of us likes to be interrupted or pushed. None of us really likes to fight or interact with people who don’t consider fairness a value to live by… but …
… trying to reasonably and logically explain that to young kids, who function mostly out of the emotional part of their brains, is rarely – if ever – productive.
The good news is: getting groups of kids engaged in discussions around subjects that really matter to them, with questions that communicate respect for their intelligence and collaborative problem solving abilities …. well, that’s a horse of a different color !!!