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.”
As educators, it is our profound responsibility to activate and exercise students’ thinking skills every day. Peer group discussions, based on open-ended questions, can get kids engaged with current events, especially if we don’t start out with lectures.
Making Politics RELEVANT for the Purpose of Activating and Exercising Middle Schoolers’ Thinking Skills
The GOP’s recent use of the Nuclear Option, in order to blast through the Democrats’ attempt to filibuster the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, offers plenty of potential to increase kids’ awareness and involvement with the world they’re growing into – if we open the subject by establishing relevance. (Actually, when it comes to successfully educating today’s youth, nothing – NOTHING – is a more essential responsibility of teachers than establishing relevance.)
Suggestions for Open-Ended Questions to Activate and Exercise Thinking Skills for Relevant Peer Group Discussions
(Start broadly in order to create relevance through known associations.)
Have you ever been playing a game with some kids, and out of no where one (or more of them) announced different rules? Who has a story about a time like that?
How did you react? If other kids were involved, how did they react to the sudden rule changes?
WHY do you think that person (or people) made that sudden rule change? HOW did they justify their new rule to you (and to the other players)?
Did their justifications (reasons) make sense to you? Why or why not?
What happened next?
Name some of your favorite sports and favorite teams. What is it that you like most about those sports / those teams / those players? Share some specifics with the rest of our group.
Is there anything you don’t like about those sports / those teams / those players? Share some specifics with the rest of our group.
What does the term “Nuclear Option” mean? (Encourage students to say the first thing that comes to their mind when they hear that term. Be open to all their contributions. Explain that you’re all exploring new ideas together – so “mistakes” demonstrate effort, and nothing negative.)
Does anyone know what it means when it’s associated with interactions and decision-making in the U.S. Senate? (Very brief explanation: The nuclear option is a parliamentary procedure that allows the U.S. Senate to override / change a rule … with a simple majority of 51 votes, instead of with a supermajority of 60 votes … effectively ending a 60-vote requirement for confirmation of a Supreme Court nominee or the passage of legislation.)
The role of judges is to interpret laws objectively. Is anyone ever completely objective? Why do you think that? What examples can you give of people being completely objective? What about examples of people (coaches, referees, parents, teachers, police, friends, teammates, etc.) being partially objective?
Educators’ Critical Responsibility: Activate and Exercise Students’ Thinking Skills – Their Futures Depend On It.
“In our evolving world, the ability to think is fast becoming more desirable than any fixed set of skills or knowledge. We need problem solvers, decision makers and innovators. We need to prepare our children for their future, not for our past.” – Mike Fleetham