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!


Get Your Gratitude On!

Last year around this time, everyone’s favorite AISD Social and Emotional Learning blog offered up this Ode to Gratitude, a short (and slightly silly) rhythmic rhymer with links to compelling research on the benefits of bringing more gratitude into daily life. More and more studies, even just within the past year, show how an intentional gratitude practice can increase positive feelings, improve physical and mental health, generate heightened awareness (mindfulness), and lots of other concrete good things (Better sleep! Deeper relationships! Better sleep!). “Great!” you say, ” It’s Thanksgiving, and I’m ready to sleep better! How do I start a gratitude practice?”


In answer to that question, the students, faculty and staff at the Austin ISD Liberal Arts and Science Academy (LASA) have taken on a Gratitude Challenge this season. Inspired by Austin Mindfulness Center’s recent post on gratitude, Wellness Counselors Marissa Rivera and Meagan Butler invited grownups and students at LASA to use a smartphone app (iTunes: GetGratitude, Google Play: Attitudes of Gratitude Journal)  or paper journal with prompts to keep a daily log of gratitude experiences.  Members of the school community are running with it–one English teacher has made it a daily part of her class; another educator plans to share her gratitude observations with family on Thanksgiving Day. And dozens of students have been participating, posting their experiences on the two gratitude trees now growing up the walls of the school.


“After the first 2-3 days of the Gratitude Challenge, the students actually took a lot of initiative with getting each other involved,” says Ms. Rivera. “As counselors, it’s been a great daily activity to share with our students. In addition to challenging everyone in our community to pause each day and reflect on positive aspects of life, there have been times we’ve witnessed people just stopping for a few moments to read what others had posted to either of the gratitude trees and smiling. Even small moments like that can help foster a more thoughtful community.”


The responses to the LASA gratitude challenge posted on the trees have demonstrated the wide diversity of gratitude experiences among the staff and students. “Responses have ranged from the expected (family, friends, etc.) to some really touching, personal anecdotes. In between those two ends of the spectrum, there were lots of teacher/counselor shoutouts, some very LASA specific tributes (Robotics, Bruce Wayne the therapy dog, etc.) and some silly ones that brought the laughs (e.g., no more dinosaurs, and Drake’s dancing).”


Students and teachers at LASA are really walking the gratitude talk.  With this kind of intentional practice, gratitude can physically re-wire the brain to experience more positive feelings and adopt a more hopeful outlook.  LASA is building a more connected, empathetic school culture with their gratitude challenge.  With or without Drake’s dancing, a focus on gratitude can increase personal feelings of happiness and therefore help foster deeper connection within groups of people.


So give it a shot! Since it’s called Thanksgiving, let’s all come up with one way we can bring awareness to our gratitude.  Thanks for the inspiration, LASA!  And thanks to you, Dear Reader, for your precious time and attention given here…have a relaxing holiday!






SPOTLIGHT: Mr. James Butler and Gullett Pre-K Namaste

Screen Shot 2015-10-19 at 12.04.53 PMEarly on a weekday morning, we step into a group meditation session.  The space is silent except for the soft whisper of breath flowing in and out of 16 four-year-olds seated on the floor all around, each deep within his or her own experience. After allowing enough time for this morning quietude to fully engulf the collective consciousness, the instructor gently invites the group of children to transition from stillness into a series of yoga poses–connecting the internal to the external, raising the energy of the space, preparing minds and bodies for today’s learning.


Where were we just then? In a remote monastery, high in the Himalayas?  Wait a second…this is the Austin ISD Social and Emotional Learning blog!  We were in Mr. James Butler’s Pre-Kindergarten classroom at Gullett Elementary, right here in the ATX!

This story does wind up here in Austin ISD classrooms, it’s true–Mr. Butler came to Gullett Elementary after teaching Kindergarten at T.A. Brown Elementary, where he started integrating mindful breathing and movement into his daily teaching practice.  However, the roots of his mindfulness pilot curriculum were planted during his year teaching English and Math to high school students in Namibia.  In that tumultuous environment, he found that trying out breathing and stretching activities with his students brought a deeply-needed sense of calm and safety to his classroom. As a result, more teaching and learning occurred. At that point, there wasn’t a curriculum or particular plan–it was just a way for him and his students to connect within themselves, with each other, and with learning.


He brought that teaching experience back with him stateside when his time in Namibia was up–and found that re-entering loud, high-tech, consumerist American society from a Namibian hut with no electricity was a jarring and difficult transition. By deepening his own mindfulness practice, he was able to regain vision and purpose, leading him to start teaching again here in Austin. With his experience in Namiba and strong personal commitment to mindfulness, Mr. Butler started to turn it into a lesson plan, building it in right around academics.  His subsequent success garnered the attention of his fellow teachers, his administrators, and ultimately the AISD superintendent.  In 2014, he was named AISD Teacher of the Year.


James Butler now helms a pilot program of Pre-K mindfulness, with 45 participating classrooms in 15 elementary schools. He creates and distributes a curriculum each week, providing age-appropriate activities and lessons to raise self-awareness, build mindfulness, and increase confidence.  The curriculum’s activities come from various resources, with modifications to create relevance for all students from Pre-K through 3rd grade. He presents to schools and trains teachers in the curriculum, encouraging each teacher participant to build their own mindfulness along with their classes, and adapt curricular experiences to their own personality, class needs, and school structures.  Mr. Butler’s mindfulness curriculum includes breathing and stretching activities designed for multiple times during the day, and recommends 1-3 minutes of mindful breathing and 1-3 minutes of mindful stretching at the very beginning of the class.  All the activities in the curriculum are 1-3 minutes long, and can be used together or one at a time, depending on time considerations and class structures.


Mr. Butler and the teachers who are testing out the mindfulness curriculum report significant positive outcomes, even if mindfulness activities comprise just 2-5 minutes out of the school day. Because students learn how to check in with themselves and observe how their bodies and minds feel, they are better able to manage strong emotions and address academic challenges.  Instead of tattling, Butler’s students give him “Teamwork Reports” of problems solved and lessons learned during group work and social situations.  It’s not unusual to see a pre-kindergartener using belly breathing techniques to calm herself down on the playground.  And teachers using the program have told stories of students using mindfulness practices at home, when stressful situations with parents or siblings arise.  Indeed, these students often become the teachers for their families, modelling and describing mindfulness activities that benefit everyone!


James Butler is grateful for the opportunity to work on mindfulness with the youngest students in our district, because the benefits, even from mere minutes a day, can teach valuable life-long skills. He says that beginning his own mindfulness practice as an adult has helped him work though years of issues that beset him as a young person.  He truly believes that learning these skills earlier can profoundly increase quality of life and reduce the negative effects of trauma and adversity. They also improve focus and resilience for academic learning, and create a classroom culture of safety and connectedness.  Mindfulness for the win!

Speaking of the win: it should be noted that Mr. Butler’s class voted to collectively self-identify as the Bubbles, which narrowly edged out the Squishy Crystals in the process of class-name choosing.  Congratulations, Butler’s Bubbles–y’all are leading the district on the quest for mindful classrooms!  Namaste!


Photo Credit: Stephanie Friedman