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.
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.
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.
Young people experiencing anxiety, sorrow, depression, hurt feelings, social isolation – any emotional pain – are seriously handicapped in their ability to learn. Teachers can help these students, without ever analyzing the source of those students’ problems.
Get Kids Moving
All kids, to one degree or another, are kinesthetic learners. Engaging their bodies in whatever lessons we’re trying to teach makes life and learning easier for everyone!
Working movement into as many lessons as possible might seem like a tall order, but the rewards can be worth the extra effort. Try:
Role-playing right in the middle of story time.
Pantomime opposites during vocabulary lessons. (The teacher can say the word big, and the children can pantomime small.) Here’s link to a starter list of 38 opposites.
Get kids learning to rhythmic beats. Kids of all ages can learn just about anything (letters, numbers, multiplication tables) while moving to a rythmic beat.
Get Kids Laughing
Laughter has the power to fuel engagement and help students learn. It’s the best medicine … we all know it. And science confirms it: when we laugh, cortisol (the stress hormone) is reduced. Other benefits include:
Release of health-giving chemicals into the brain.
Express their own understanding in their own words, and discover their significance when peers and the teacher actually listen to them.
Learn that others feel and understand in ways to which they can relate, even if not the same ways. Thus, they discover the significance of others.
Grow in a sense of belonging, which is the opposite of pain causing isolation and loneliness.
How can that kind of a meaningful experience be consistently brought into the classroom? It’s relatively easy:
Find images of situations with which all the students are familiar and, to one degreee or another, are challenged by.
Before showing the picture to the kids, create a list of 10+ open-ended questions that respect, and age-appropriately challenge, the kids’ intelligence.
Ask the questions – then really, really listen to the kids’ answers. These discussions are not the time for lectures. When one question stops eliciting engaged discussion, ask another one, and be sure to get as many of the kids talking and sharing their ideas as you can.
Here’s a link to receive some specific ideas for helping bring kids into alignment with their own inner resources and strengths. We want to help kids learn, and sometimes we first have to help them be open to learning. Try any and all of the above 3 evidence-based approaches and then leave a comment with your results.
Empathy requires going beyond immediate self interest. Self-control is essentially empathy for one’s future self.
Empathy and self control are just two halves of the same coin, as are their opposites impulsivity and selfishness.
Neuroscientists have reached consistent agreement about the part of the brain where empathy activates responses. What’s fascinating is that current research is linking this same part of the brain with self control.
Can Empathy be Taught?
From the Kids’ Own Wisdom perspective: NO. And from the neuroscience perspective, I imagine the answer would be the same. So, what to do? Empathy is essential for humanity to remain humane.
Empathy can be drawn out. Empathy can be exercised. Several programs are succeeding at just that task. ROOTS OF EMPATHY is one time-tested program:
A growing number of educators and social entrepreneurs across the country are discovering that the secret to learning empathy, emotional literacy, self-awareness, cooperation, effective communication, and many of the other skills classified as “social and emotional learning,” lies in experience, not in workbooks and rote classroom exercises. Unleashing Empathy: How Teachers Transform Classrooms With Emotional Learning
Dogs in Classroom Help Children Learn Empathy
A South Carolina education program is proving that dogs themselves can do plenty of teaching: Healing Species, sponsored by the Pee Dee Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Assault, is a compassion education and violence prevention program being taught in two schools in Florence and Darlington Counties. There is high hope that these programs will expand to other schools.
The concept is pretty simple: bring kind rescue dogs into classrooms to help kids learn empathy and pique their interest in difficult subject matter. But the effects are profound.
“Even for my toughest kids, the most street savvy, it almost physically transforms them into a child with empathy. I’ve got guidance counselors giving me specific instances where students are applying what they learned and taking care of each other when that wasn’t there before.”
Kids’ Own Wisdom is another effective approach that does not attempt to teach empathy. Instead, peer group discussions are structured around SOARR-ing questions to evoke kids natural inclination to collaboratively solve problems. Kids willingly (enthusiastically, even) resolve their own challenges. They just need the right kinds of questions, under the right circumstances (peer group discussions) to ‘spark’ their innate creativity and perspective taking abilities.
Did you ever, in your wildest dreams, imagine that neuroscience would combine with babies and dogs to help us help our students create better lives for themselves? Fascinating times, to be sure.
Neuroscience Explains: The Empathy-Self Control Connection
An interesting experiment helped to demonstrate this connection: Volunteers saw a picture of a man standing in a room with red discs on the wall. The volunteers could see all the discs, but they had to try to estimate how many the man in the room could see. This required them to shift their perspective to the man’s, and they were less able to do this when the rTPJ, (the location of empathy in the brain, as identified by scientists), was disrupted. What’s even more fascinating, this experiment predicted both impulsivity and selfishness – the opposites of self control and empathy – as measured in different experiments.
Long term consequences
Impulsivity and selfishness are just two halves of the same coin, as are their opposites restraint and empathy. Perhaps this is why people who show dark traits like psychopathy and sadism score low on empathy but high on impulsivity.
Perhaps, also, it’s why impulsivity correlates with slips among recovering addicts, while empathy correlates with longer bouts of abstinence. These qualities represent our successes and failures at escaping our own egocentric bubbles, and understanding the lives of others—even when those others wear our own older faces.
Most teachers and parents understand that when we step in and solve children’s problems we’re not doing them any favors. Not really. Not in the long run. But when kids’ frustration builds and they get close to quitting, sometimes it just feels easier to get everyone (including us) past obstacles and into solution territory.
Rather than solving kids’ problems, if we’re truly committed to preparing them for a lifetime of challenges (problem-solving opportunities), we should commit to helping them build growth mindsets.
There are many ways to encourage growth mindset. Unfortunately, there are also many ways to discourage growth mindset.
To make sure we are doing all the right things to encourage perseverance in our students, our children, and even ourselves – let’s get clear on what growth mindset is. According to psychologist, Carol Dweck who popularized the term in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, people [of any and all ages] with growth mindset …
“… believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.”
How do we nurture kids’ perseverance? Well, we could follow Yoda’s approach by being really good examples – which, of course, is never a bad idea. Check out this video:
We should definitely avoid these common mistakes
Praising effort alone: “Great effort” has become the consolation prize for children who aren’t actually learning. In other words, “Great effort” translates to “ineffective effort,”which sends the totally wrong message.
“Try harder” is more empty feedback.
“You can do anything” does not magically make it so. Students need knowledge, skills, strategies, and resources to solve their problems.
So … what’s so magic about the word “YET” when seeking to nurture growth mindset?
It’s not just what we say … it’s how we say it.
“Yet,” when spoken with genuine respect for effort, can lighten the crushing effects of accumulated frustration. Acknowledgement of effort – when it’s REAL, rather than empty, consolation prize praise – helps to keep minds + attitudes open for learning new strategies.
Hard work is still ahead. “YET” provides a ray of hopeful sunshine to keep on keeping on.
Educators with behaviorally challenging students must double-down on cultivating relationships that those students feel they can trust. But, according to Dr. Ross Greene, “whether a child is behaviorally challenging or not…collaboration is the key to improved relationships, better communication, and solving problems.”
How can one teacher accomplish this with a room full of wildly diverse kids? One way is to provide regularly scheduled peer group discussions around topics and challenges important to all the kids in the class. Kids are naturally interested in what their peers think and care about, (whether or not they’d ever openly admit it) so they’re inclined to listen to each other’s answers IF the questions used to move the discussions along are neither leading nor overly simple.
Familiar challenges at ‘comfortable’ distances
When all the kids in the peer group discussion are listening to each other, you can be listening for clues about each child’s values and personal challenges. Surprisingly, when peer discussions are objective – in other words, focused on pictures that keep familiar and relevant challenges at ‘comfortable’ distances, kids are much, much more likely to reveal their honest thoughts, feelings and insights. Those are the times when you can learn so much that will help you gain deeper appreciation for all the kids, even (and sometimes, especially) the ones who create the most challenges.
Okay, so enough theory. How’s about a sample of an effective peer group discussion around PLAYING FAIR? Check out this link.
Just remember that for peer group discussions to succeed, the teacher does not so much ‘teach’ as ‘facilitate.’ Facilitating is all about keeping discussions moving forward by asking new questions whenever the current question has lost its ‘engagement factor.’ Facilitating, more importantly, is about listening, really listening.
Real listening happens with ‘full on’ attention
Our attention – when it’s open, accepting, interested, and sensitive to our students’ unspoken messages – is one of the most nurturing ways we can, with consistency and over time, develop a sense of safety for our students who are living with adversity. Get ready to do some powerful learning of your own. Learning that will help you create more safety and ‘belonging’ for all the kids in your class.