Do Some Radical Self-Care for the Holidays!


The end of the first semester has arrived, and the winter holidays are either in progress or fast approaching! This festive time of year can also be a rather “stress-tive” moment in our lives. There is a lot of professional and academic pressure at the end of the fall semester–grades to enter, finals, projects and papers due, data to analyze, goals to set for the spring.  There’s social pressure too…gifts to buy, meals to cook, events to juggle, parties to attend, family gatherings. Just those “regular” stressors are enough to often cause exhaustion and burn-out. And for some folks, additional factors like Seasonal Depressive Disorder, grief, anxiety, and loneliness can create a particularly strong cocktail of holiday-associated negative feelings and depression. Though we hope that feelings of love and happiness permeate the holiday season, it’s important to remember that all kinds of complex feelings brought up at this time of year are valid and real.

Therefore, it’s critically important that we take care of ourselves, regardless of our personal, social, academic, or professional status.  Ever seen this on an airplane safety card?


If the adult doesn’t put the oxygen mask on first, then they might pass out and be unable to help anyone else.  It’s a beautiful example of how taking care of ourselves is a crucial piece of being able to take care of others in our lives. Almost every relationship has an aspect of care-taking, even the ones outside the usual associated with direct care-taking, like teaching or parenting.  People in our lives often need us to show up in different ways, and if we don’t have enough self-care oxygen, it’s hard to do that. So put your own oxygen mask on!  Here are some ways to do it!


Take three deep, intentional, cleansing breaths. Take three more. Notice how the air moves through your nose and lungs. The breath is always there, and coming back to the breath is one of the most basic, essential self-care activities that is always available.


Notice feelings that are behind a stressed out, upset state of mind. Remember HALT–am I Hungry? Angry? Lonely? Tired? A combination? Take a moment to observe the feelings coloring the present experience. Where do I feel them in my body? How do I know I’m feeling __________? Even say them out loud: Wow, I’m really angry right now. I’m feeling sad and frustrated right now. As Dr. Dan Siegel says, name it to tame it! (Check out his website for LOTS of ideas for self-care!)

Stretch! When was the last time you moved your body? Stand up, reach for the sky, do some gentle forward bends, roll shoulders, massage out the neck.

Kristin Neff, that perpetual champion of self-compassion, suggests that we mammals are programmed to respond positively to nurturing touch. So clasp the hands together warmly, gently squeeze opposite upper arms, hug the knees to the chest sitting down or lying on the back. Get that mammalian comfort!



Take a walk, outside, no electronics. Notice all the sensory input–smells, sounds, physical sensations that come from being here now, outside. Keep breathing.

Take a warm shower!

Call someone who is a positive influence in your life, and express gratitude for them or for anything. Gratitude creates positive feelings.

Eat a mindful snack or meal. Do nothing but eat something delicious, slowly and intentionally. How does it smell? How does it look? What does it feel like in your mouth, between your teeth, on your tongue, as you swallow? How slowly can you eat each bite?


30-60 minutes and beyond…

Exercise! Yup. A brisk walk. A yoga class. A jog. A work-out video. Dancing. Moving the body in an intentional, nurturing, even vigorous (as possible and desired) way has been shown over and over to create and increase positive feelings in the brain.

Schedule something you’ve been meaning to do for your body–a massage, or a physical, or a dentist appointment.  Our brains are part of our physical body, and so taking care of our body is taking care of our brain.

Try out a new – or revisit a favorite – creative activity, especially one that engages the hands. Knitting or playing an instrument, working with clay or play doh, painting, drawing, coloring, writing by hand–all of these and many others can help integrate the physical self and the brain, and create positive feelings. Art Works! Creativity is for everybody!


There are many resources for self care out there, almost as many as reasons to find your favorite self-care activities and start doing them right away.  Take sweet care this holiday season, and keep your oxygen mask on…#SELfcare for the win! See you in 2017!





Mindful Brain First-Aid for Test Season

breathing1Well, we’ve made it to Spring Test Season ’16! Students, teachers, administrators and parents experience this part of the school year in many different ways, but most would agree that it can be a high-pressure moment in our educational lives.  We all know about getting enough sleep, eating a good breakfast, and having our lucky socks and pencils on those upcoming test days, but what are some other ways we can prepare our brains and bodies to set ourselves up for success?

Practicing a bit of mindfulness at different points before and during the testing sessions can help us feel more calm and grounded, both good states to be in when we’re asking our brain to perform at high levels. What is mindfulness? How about a definition from a leading expert on it, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn:


Notice the words “paying attention” and “non-judgementally” in particular.  The term ‘mindfulness’ is thrown around quite a bit these days, and often people think that it means working hard to make one’s brain completely empty and free of thoughts–if your brain isn’t perfectly clear and empty, you’re not doing it right!  This is simply not true, however; our brains are wired to think all the time.  Practicing mindfulness is learning to pay attention non-judgementally to all those thoughts, giving us some space and perspective to really notice and honor them.  Here’s an example of a simple mindfulness practice that can help us pay attention to our thoughts before or during a stressful testing situation…when we feel our bodies getting nervous and our brains buzzing with anxiety, try this strategy:

Describe 5 things you see in the room/area. (“The walls are light blue.” or “The trees outside the window are green and lush.”)

Name 4 things you can feel. (“My feet in my shoes, and my shoes on the floor.” or “The air in my nose.”)

Name 3 things you can hear. (“Traffic on the highway.” or “My own soft breathing.”)

Name 2 things you can smell. (“New pencil smell.” or “fabric softener.” Or remember 2 smells you really like.)

Name 1 good thing about yourself. (“I’m a thoughtful friend.” or “I’m feeling stressed, but I’m handling it.”)

Doing an exercise like this can help us take a step back from our buzzing brain, bring us back to the present moment, and allow us to gently observe and name our feelings. If we’re feeling a measure of panic or powerlessness due to test anxiety, being able to say “wow, I’m feeling pretty stressed! I can take a moment to remember where I am right now and give my brain a break” can help  us back into the thinking, logical, frontal part of our brains and out of our fear-feeling amygdala and mid-brain.  The strong feelings coming from our amygdala during stressful situations can help keep us safely out of physical and emotional danger, but it’s not the best place to stay when we’re trying to get our brains to work logically!


One of the best, simplest ways to come back to the present moment and pay attention non-judgementally to our thoughts is to intentionally notice our breathing.  Here is a basic breathing exercise adapted from Calm Classroom:

Sit up straight and comfortably in your chair.  Rest your hands on your desk or in your lap.  Close your eyes.  Feel your feet flat on the floor.  Relax your shoulders back and down.  Let your whole body be still.

Feel the air moving in and out of your nose.  [wait 10 seconds]

Remember, when you breathe in, you will fill your lungs completely.  Make each breath slow, smooth, and deep.

Now, breathe in for a count of 1….2….3….hold.  Breathe out for a count of 3…2…1…hold.

Breathe in for a count of 1….2….3….hold.  Breathe out for a count of 3…2…1…hold.

Breathe in for a count of 1….2….3….hold.  Breathe out for a count of 3…2…1…hold.

Breathe in for a count of 1….2….3….hold.  Breathe out for a count of 3…2…1…hold.

Now breathe normally and relax.  Feel the air moving in and out of your nose.  [wait 20 -30 seconds]

Now, take a deep breath in, hold and exhale slowly.

Notice how you feel. [wait 10 seconds]

Slowly open  your eyes.


The beauty of exercises like these is that they require no special preparation, space or equipment; they are tools at our disposal any time we need them, and they are highly effective at inviting our brains back into a calm, logical space.  For a special treat, however, definitely check out for some peaceful sounds and visuals anytime you have access to a mobile device or computer with the internet!

Even though testing time can be a stressful time in school, practicing a little mindfulness can help us all get through it with a little more awareness and self-compassion. Take good care of those brains and bodies, Austin ISD SEL fans!


Keeping October Optimized

october1Here in Texas, October is a special month.  The number on the thermometer starts to sink south of the triple digits…and is that even an autumnal breeze we feel some mornings?  There are important, well-known holidays like World Octopus Day on 10/8 and Teaching Tolerance‘s Mix-It-Up Lunch Day on 10/27. (Am I forgetting one?) It’s also a transitional month, both weather-wise (maybe freezing or maybe still 90 degrees by the 31st, you never know) and culturally: we move from summer mode to winter mode, with the holidays ahead and most of the year already in the past.

This transitional month has traditionally proven to be a bit of a challenging time in education. The freshness of the beginning of the school year gives way to the serious meat of core curricula, with testing and grade pressures starting to mount. Sometimes the pressure can cause morale and enthusiasm to flag a bit for teachers, students, and administrators alike.  That makes October a great time to remember brain-breaks and community-building in class, and good self-care practices as well!


Luckily, Austin ISD’s Physical Education and Health Department has got Brain Breaks covered for every subject.  Want to review some vocabulary?  Get everyone standing up and tapping opposite elbows or knees while taking turns discussing definitions! Need a new way to facilitate a class discussion? Ask a polarizing question, and have students move to designated “agree” or “disagree” sides of the room to represent their opinion.  Then invite individual students to explain their position, and allow students to change sides of the room to show that they’ve changed their minds! Love to freshen up some partner talk? Have students find a “Hi-Five,” “Lo-Five,” and “Fist Bump” partner before beginning the activity, then invite them to re-visit those partners to discuss each question.  Oh yeah, need to establish or re-establish an attention signal so you can get them back after all these engaging movement activities? Find some tips here! Also, search the archives of this very blog for Brain Break Wednesday ideas like this one, this one and this one!


While brain breaks and movement activities can be good energizers and refreshers for the classroom, as educators it’s also important to practice and model self-care and stress relief techniques.  Teachers and administrators benefit from remembering to take care of themselves, and students benefit from learning critical self-care and stress-reduction skills.  Here are 15 stress-busting tips from, and The Guardian teacher network offers some more detailed ideas to help with teacher work-life balance.


One simple idea to try is to put one little sticker on each area at home or in the classroom which might inspire some stressful feelings.  Put one on the bathroom mirror, the car steering wheel, the innovation station, the gradebook, the laptop, the phone.  Every time you see one of the stickers, pause and take three deep, slow, relaxing belly breaths.  In through the nose, out through the mouth, long inhale, longer exhale. Hand out stickers to your students and invite them to do the same–and notice when they actually do it!  Then do it as a whole class!  Sometimes, three deep belly breaths can be just the healing thing to get through a tough moment.  Or day. Or week. Or…


October is a great opportunity to try state-changing brain breaks and movement strategies in class, and to practice self-care and stress-reduction techniques.  Here’s another post full of calming-down ideas for the end of the school year, a similar time of transition.  And finally, here’s my all-time favorite, most aptly-named website for an instant infusion of peace and calm at any moment, anywhere with a screen, for one person, a classroom full of people, or even a cafeteria or auditorium:


Enjoy your October, with the falling leaves, cooler weather, and nifty gourds.  It’s a great time in Texas, and a great time to be energized, calm, and #AISDProud!


SEL Summer Work In Pictures


SEL curriculum writers linking it up at Curriculum Writers Cadre 2015


Brain breaks on the brain at CWC 2015


Considering classroom community culture at CWC 2015


Our delightful doorsign at McCallum for CWC 2015


Dr. Darla Castelli at Whole Child, Every Child Summer Institute 2015


Dr. Teri Wood at WCEC Summer Institute 2015


Feeling Speedometer from WCEC Summer Institute 2015


Dr. Paul Cruz reads The Jolly Postman at WCEC Summer Institute 2015


Learning is…

Dr. Raphael Travis

Dr. Raphael Travis at WCEC Institute 2015


Practicing intentional SEL academic integration at the Anderson SEL Vertical Team Training


There ARR always opportunities to Anticipate-Reinforce-Reflect SEL skills and concepts!


Practicing self reflection


Double-Double-This-This brain break


What Self-Management looks like/sounds like for students and adults at Anderson VT SEL training


Lanier Vertical Team SEL training at Padron Elementary!


Implementation next steps


Illustrating hope


Collaboration and contemplation at Lanier VT SEL traning 2015!


such brainstorming!


Aleza Berube at Summer Science Institute 2015, blowin’ our minds with growin’ our minds


SumSci15 participants learning the ropes of Growth Mindset!

Whole Child, Every Child Summer Learning Institute

Last week, the Social and Emotional Learning team presented the first-ever AISD Whole Child, Every Child (WCEC) Summer Learning Institute in collaboration with the Creative Learning Initiative, Coordinated School Health, and Cultural Proficiency and Inclusiveness.  With the current district-wide focus on the integration of whole-child classroom practices, this institute engaged some of the most innovative educators and community members in three days of powerful collaborative learning.


Dr. Paul Cruz, AISD Superintendent, gave the opening keynote address.  He spoke of the essential role that Whole Child, Every Child practices play in re-inventing the urban public school experience, and challenged AISD educators to take full responsibility for educating each unique individual that makes up the district’s 85,000 student base. He thanked the Institute’s dedicated attendees for leading the way!


Dr. Paul Cruz, AISD Superintendent

The rest of the first day was devoted to learning the importance of physical movement and mental state in the classroom, and how deepening our understanding of the student brain can help improve attention, increase retention, and maintain or bring on engagement.  Dr. Darla Castelli of the University of Texas shared her expertise on the neuroscience of student movement in a dynamic keynote presentation, which underscored new research supporting how important physical activity is to mental health and quality learning.


Dr. Darla Castelli


Dr. Teri Wood

After lunch, Dr. Teri Wood (also from UT and AISD) gave an emotionally compelling presentation on creating trauma-informed classroom practices.  After demonstrating how traumatic experiences compromise learning and can negatively affect student success, she shared concrete strategies for improving classroom climate with trauma-informed teaching.  And to wrap up a day of intense learning, the ever-engaging Michele Rusnak and Sherrie Raven duo presented on the physical, psychological and social/emotional benefits of taking brain breaks during classroom learning.  We broke a sweat learning more concrete strategies!


Michele Ruznak (l) and Sherrie Raven

The second day of the WCEC Summer Learning Institute was dedicated to the Creative Learning Initiative.  Dr. Brent Hasty of MindPop gave the opening keynote, emphasizing the critical importance of using experiential creativity in the classroom to create safety, build community, and increase learning.


CLI presenters Yesenia Herrington and Ruthie Fisher facilitated drama- and movement – based activities designed to increase engagement and retention for concepts in all four core subjects.  Participants actively practiced strategies like Statues, Build-A-Phrase, and Town Hall Meeting for use in teaching and coaching.  Much learning and laughing was had by all!

Yesenia Herrington facilitating the building of a Friendship Machine

Yesenia Herrington facilitating the building of a Friendship Machine


Dr. Anthony Brown

On the morning of the final day, we turned our attention to Cultural Proficiency and Inclusiveness.   Dr. Anthony Brown of UT gave an historical rundown of the different narratives told about Black men in the United States, and how they have shaped the policy and design of the education system.  Healing the inequity that has resulted from racist historical narratives is a large, complex and critical challenge–Dr. Brown invited us to ask the right questions in education and change the discourse on a local, state and national level.  His enlightening talk was followed by Dr. Raphael Travis of Texas State University, who guided our thinking about the critical nature of building classroom community.  He spoke about how learning flourishes in classrooms and schools where belonging, connectedness and safety have been intentionally established.  When students feel that their experiences, backgrounds and voices are heard and valued, and that they are seen, known and trusted, strong relationships and rigorous learning take root and grow vigorously. Lunchtime arrived with participants feeling a renewed sense of mission and vision.

Dr. Raphael Travis

Dr. Raphael Travis

The afternoon of day three saw breakout sessions with Social and Emotional Learning coaches presenting sessions on Effective Teacher Language, Growth Mindset, and SEL Curricular Integration, and a teacher team from Covington Middle School shared their expertise in a session on service learning. Participants from different levels and with different interests chose the sessions that were most relevant to them as educators, and everyone had the chance to discuss new ideas and try out new practices that had been offered over the course of the Institute.  Door prizes were awarded, applause was enthusiastic, and we parted ways looking forward to the fast-approaching school year. Thanks so much to our collaborators, to the SEL Professional Development Committee, and all our participants for making such an engaging and enlightening Whole Child, Every child Summer Learning Institute!


Writing Curriculum for the Whole Child, Every Child

School’s out for summer, right? Vacation time, umbrellas by the pool, studies and lessons far-flung from student cwcseland teacher consciousness, right? NOPE! Quite the opposite, actually, at AISD’s annual Curriculum Writers Cadre! Teachers, instructional coaches, and curriculum specialists gather annually to develop and vet curricula, exemplar lessons and assessments for the nearly 85,000 students served by the Austin Independent School District. Developing curriculum is a complex process–there are many factors to consider when crafting quality learning experiences for each of our students.  To ensure that curriculum writers have access to the best and most current resources, organizers of the Curriculum Writers Cadre have created four on-site professional development/advocacy strands to continuously inform curricular creation: Assessment, Differentiation, Instructional Strategies and Whole Child, Every Child.  Specialists from each strand present to groups of curriculum writers, who then use that lens while writing and vetting new lessons and assessments.


The AISD Social and Emotional Learning team is privileged to partner with Cultural Proficiency and Inclusiveness, Coordinated School Health, and the Creative Learning Initiative to create the Whole Child, Every Child strand. The theory: Students learn best when all facets of each young person–mind and body, culture and creativity, intelligence and emotions–are equally engaged in academic environments.  The goal: To ensure that every single student in the Austin Independent School District receives high-quality academic instruction presented in relevant, active, culturally-sensitive and emotionally healthy ways.


SEL made an engaging presentation with Coordinated School Health, emphasizing the value of movement-based “Brain Breaks” to get the blood flowing while practicing academic vocabulary and concepts.  For the SEL aspect, we incorporated the Committee for Children‘s ARR strategy (Anticipate-Reinforce-Reflect) to take advantage of any moment during an academic class, Brain Break or otherwise, to reinforce and practice social and emotional skills like turn-taking, active listening, and empathy.  CWC writers found standing partners and touched opposite elbows and knees while sharing the answers to questions, engaging both halves of the brain while practicing concept recall.  They played modified rock-paper-scissor type games involving quick mental math to exercise the logical frontal cortex, all while managing emotions that arise from learning new skills and winning or losing.  The more brain we can engage in our students, the more our students will engage with learning!

cpi2 cpi1cpi

The Cultural Proficiency and Inclusiveness presentation modeled activities designed to give every student academic choice and opportunities to share their perspective on a topic, either aloud or written.  CWC participants read different passages from the book Teaching with Vision: Culturally Responsive Teaching in Standards-Based Classrooms (Christine E. Sleeter and Catherine Cornbleth) and “jigsawed” their impressions and reactions on a piece of paper divided into four sections, so that each reader received information and brain power from others in their group.  We then did an interactive gallery walk, where thoughtful questions on posters prompted group members to discuss their answers and share them on post-it notes left on the poster for the next group.  Such strategies encourage equal participation from all members of a class, and invite each student to share their unique perspective based on their own life experiences, cultural background, multiple identities and learning style.  Ensuring that every single student learns in a safe, inclusive, respectful, and culturally-aware environment is the ultimate goal of Cultural Proficiency and Inclusion!


The Creative Learning Initiative ties it all together, bringing visual art, music, movement- and drama-based strategies to reinforce learning and provide multiple ways of practicing, sharing and applying academic concepts.  For example, activities such as “Machine” and “Build a Phrase” lend themselves to teaching about cycles and systems. In “Machine,” students choose and physically act out different components of a system, like a business, body system, or actual machine.  They then must act out how the different parts would go together, and brainstorm what would happen if parts malfunctioned, disappeared, or changed speed!  In “Build a Phrase,” students create and agree upon movements that represent different parts of a cycle, and then perform the result. Our group represented the water cycle, and the modern dance that emerged thrilled us all!  These and other creative learning strategies (Hot Seat!  Town Hall!) help CWC writers include unique and exciting activities that reinforce academic goals.


The “old school” idea of public education–students sitting in desk-rows, listening to the teacher lecture for 45 minutes–is changing quickly as more and more research shows that students learn best when their bodies, intellects, emotions and experiences are engaged in the classroom.  The Whole Child, Every Child strand at AISD’s Curriculum Writers Cadre has provided myriad whole-child options to incorporate into the district’s curricula, keeping AISD on the leading edge of education design.  It may be summer vacation, but we are #AISDproud and #SELsmart, year-’round!


Keep It Cool as Summer Heats Up!

The last weeks of school before summer break are often emotionally charged for everyone!  Students, teachers, and parents alike are processing the growth and challenges of the whole school year, as well as mentally preparing for the great shift into summer mode.  For many, it’s a mix of complex feelings–excitement about upcoming plans, dread of isolation or boredom, gratitude for friends, sadness around goodbyes, uncertainty about the immediate future, pride of accomplishment, and myriad more.  For some, who appreciate and need the structure and security of school, the idea of impending summertime can create a lot of anxiety.  All of us can benefit from having some calming-down strategies in mind to manage all these big emotions!

Here you will find a few resources dedicated to calming down and changing brain states, to inspire further exploration into personal peace-bringing.


Check out Stop, Breathe and Think for some practice with mindfulness.  The website and mobile app (android/iOS) invite the participant to do a guided self check-in.  The site suggests some curated meditations based on the answers to the check-in, or offers a meditation timer for self-guided practice.  The site is easy to use and…well, not at all stressful!

calm is perhaps the most aptly named website ever encountered by this writer.  It continuously displays beautiful audio/video images of the calmest, most soothing scenes and sounds most people can dream up.  Visitors can choose to simply watch and browse different images, or participate in a guided or open timed meditation.  There are also android and iOS apps for it.  Lovely, really.


For a brain break/state change, head over to Incredibox.  The web-based app invites participants to create layered beatbox audio loops by pointing, clicking and dragging different voices and effects into place.  It is mesmerizing, surprisingly complex, and fun–the perfect way to help restore balance between left and right brains, especially when the left has been in overdrive.

peacefirstSometimes a whole group or class can benefit from a state change–a chance to move, interact, and switch up the emotional state.  Well-chosen and debriefed team-building activities can serve to release tension and foster connectedness.  peacefirst, a national non-profit dedicated to helping young people grow into peaceful leaders, offers a beautifully searchable Digital Activity Center.  Populated with hundreds of different activities, the Digital Activity Center allows a search to be tailored to the age of the group, the desired theme, the type of activity, and/or the skill focus.  Each activity includes materials lists, handouts and excellent debrief questions.

Of course, if you’re not near a computer or don’t have your smartphone handy, there is the old tried-and-true belly breathing–no technology required.  Here is a 2.5 minute reminder about the simple de-monstering merits of belly breathing with Common and Colbie Caillat…also Elmo.

Hang in there for this last week, amazing AISD teachers and students…we are #AISDproud of all of you!

(Thanks to the SEL team for contributing resources and ideas for this post!)