Mindful Month: March

March Madness Mindfulness?

We’ve all heard about it. We’ve heard the chimes, smelled the diffused essential oils, scrolled past smug social media posts, stumbled upon a scene of silent cross-legged serenity.  Maybe we’ve even sat ourselves down and tried hard to clear out our brain, quash our thoughts, and focus on our breath, determined to sit momentarily on an island of quiet in an ocean of stimulation. But the thoughts are still there, the mind wanders, the world is loud and fast and stressful, and we’re going – what even is this whole mindfulness thing anyway?


What Mindfulness Is…

Great question! Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “…paying attention, in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” No essential oils or crossed legs in sight. In fact, the idea of “clearing the mind” is not even a requirement to practice mindfulness – brains are not wired to be emptied!  Instead, mindfulness is the practice of observing our minds and our thoughts, often using our breath to anchor ourselves in what is happening right now, in this present moment.

Mindfulness becomes something that can happen standing in line at the grocery store, sitting in traffic, parenting through a toddler tantrum, or teaching a math class.  It’s a tool in our Social and Emotional Learning toolbox; a resource for adults and young people to reach for that bolsters self-efficacy, reduces stress, increases empathy, boosts student learning and employee productivity, and can even help reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. Indeed, recent brain research shows that even simple mindfulness practices can physically, positively affect crucial structures in our brain.


Sign us up!

Sounds good, right? Want to incorporate mindfulness practices into your lives and classrooms? We have myriad resources…

Paying Attention to Paying Attention

Are you ready to try out some mindfulness practices, and see how they affect your life in and out of school? Share your plans and ideas in the comments, and let us know how it’s going by using the hashtag #MindfulAISD!

Build Brains by Building Relationships This February!

Newsflash: Learning happens in the brain! And, brains need other brains to learn! Human brains do, at least, along with many other species, like fruit flies, elephants, and dolphins. In fact, every single person you’ll meet this February has a human brain that is seeking to learn and connect.



Practices Foster Connection and Learning

As Zaretta Hammond says, “relationships are the on-ramp to learning;” and, more and more research backs this up. For instance, oxytocin is a chemical in the brain that is associated with positive social relationships and feelings of trust and connectedness. Studies show that systems and practices that foster relationship-building within the classroom community increase oxytocin levels for all involved. Why is this important? Well, it’s because increased positive connections in educational environments result in deeper, more authentic learning.


Relationship-building practices that increase oxytocin aren’t just for the classroom, either. Adults who experience positive social connection among colleagues are better able to hear and act on constructive feedback, generally perform better in the workplace, and experience a host of beneficial physiological effects. We know this intuitively, and with new developments in the ability to study the living brain, scientists are able to produce more and more research to confirm how true it is.



Relationship Building Resources

Our February theme of relationship-building invites educational communities to establish and grow practices that foster trust, connection and learning.  How do we do it? Together, of course! Check out these resources for some great ideas:




How are you building relationships?

February traditionally is all about Valentine hearts; let’s raise the bar and launch a year-round campaign to increase heart-full, authentic, and connected learning communities in education. From a literal and physical perspective, February is American Heart Health Month – the one beating in your chest right now! Taking care of your heart means moving more, stressing less, and practicing intentional self-care and self-compassion.  One way to do all of those healthy heart things is to cultivate positive, supportive relationships professionally and personally. February is also Black History Month; instead of just one month, let’s commit to creating welcoming, culturally-responsive educational environments where all students are truly seen, heard and respected all year long. What are you doing out there in the world to build positive relationships, boost oxytocin and be culturally responsive? Let us know in the comments! Or, tweet @austinisdsel using #AISDgot♥!

Austin ISD Circles Up!


This image represents a harm-focused, reactive approach popularized by the Criminal Justice System. Austin ISD is taking a proactive, education-focused whole child, whole adult, whole community approach to Restorative Practices. #RPAustinISD

Austin ISD is planning for a Culturally Responsive Restorative Practices (RP) approach in its schools. The district recognizes  the need to address systemic inequities and improve campus climates and cultural proficiency. The faculty, staff and administrators in the Akins vertical team, for example, have received basic training in Culturally Responsive RP to begin their restorative journey. Other schools around the district are exploring community-building circles in classrooms and with faculty and staff to deepen connectedness and build campus culture.  So what exactly are Culturally Responsive Restorative Practices, and how do they fit into our district’s push to increase student voice, close achievement gaps, and address disciplinary action inequities?


In Austin ISD, Culturally Responsive RP are rooted in these Core Assumptions for the whole child and whole adult:


The core self may not be reflected in how people behave, but beneath the masks we adopt is a deeper, healthier self.


What we do to others, we are also doing to ourselves although we may not always be aware that this happening.


All people want to love and be loved and all people want to be connected.


All gifts are indispensable to the well-being of the whole.


There are rich reservoirs of talent and wisdom within our communities waiting to be accessed.


There is a connection between the mind, body, and spirit in all that we do.


We need practices which help us connect to our core self so we can live in alignment with our values and build healthy relationships in families and communities.

Adapted from: “Heart of Hope Resource Guide” Suffolk University, Center for Restorative Justice Carolyn Boyes-Watson and Kay Pranis 2009


Because the very nature of Culturally Responsive Restorative Practices is doing it with, rather than to, an individual or community, schools exploring RP are introducing it authentically in ways that best serve that campus. Community circles are generally done with a centerpiece, to focus thoughts and words, and a passed-around talking piece, to hold space for equity of voice. However, circles can look lots of different ways!  Here are some pictures of how Restorative Practices look around our district right now.


Ms. Polk facilitates a circle with 7th graders in her classroom at Martin Middle School.


Secondary and elementary staff from the Discipline Alternative Learning Placement campuses debrief a professional development activity in community circles.


Staff from the Akins Vertical Team model a community circle during an RP training (for the whole vertical team!)


Ms. DeLaTorre at Walnut Creek Elementary facilitates a circle with her 5th graders.

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Though these pictures are from all around our district, every one of them shows people talking to each other in circles. The circle is the hallmark of Culturally Responsive Restorative Practices, which is rooted in the ancient indigenous tradition of forming circles to communicate effectively in community. Austin ISD is exploring a whole school, whole child, whole adult Culturally Responsive Approach to Restorative Practices. Although circles are the most visible piece of the process, restorative practices is #MoreThanCircles. Restorative practices provides a framework that helps us create a school culture and climate that is safe, welcoming and inclusive. The AISD Social and Emotional Learning team supports Culturally Responsive RP community-building circles. We are excited about the deep Restorative Practice work beginning in Austin ISD, and look forward to seeing it serve the social and emotional needs of all our students and staff! We are #AISDProud that we are continuously working on #AISDEquity!

Check out this Restorative Practices Twitter chat from December 2016 to experience part of the larger, real conversation that is helping to move our Culturally Responsive RP journey forward. For more information about Austin ISD Culturally Responsive Restorative Practices, contact Angela Ward (cultural.proficiency@austinisd.org), who collaborated on this blog post!


Post-Election Resources

American election season has always been a highly charged time, and this particular election has brought up a lot of feelings for a lot of people. School communities can feel this very deeply. Students may have many questions and big worries, and school leaders may wonder how to support them and ensure that their campus remains a safe, welcoming and inclusive learning environment.  Students have the right to feel safe at their schools, and it’s the job of the adults on campus to create and maintain that culture of safety.


This article from Teaching Tolerance discusses how teachers can help students process their feelings and concerns regarding the outcome of the election, while maintaining a safe, welcoming and inclusive classroom environment.

Here is Austin ISD’s district anti-harassment and discrimination policy, and our anti-bullying policy. School leaders can use these as a basis to ensure that any kind of hateful acts or language are met with swift and unequivocal administrative action.

Here is a lesson designed with middle school students in mind that can be adapted to class time constraints and needs.  Learning intentions include helping students understand how the three branches of the United States government check and balance each other, and inviting students to share their views, concerns, and voices for the next president in respectful, powerful ways.


Young people on campuses may be worried about issues surrounding immigration and deportation. Resources that schools might share with students and families include:

American Gateways, which “provides free and low-cost legal services and education to promote justice for immigrants and refugees in Central Texas.”

The Immigrant Legal Resource Center, which also distributes these Red Cards so that families can know their legal rights under the US Constitution, which apply to everyone currently in the United States regardless of immigration status.

The Immigrant Defense Project, which works to protect and expand the rights of all immigrants.

Catholic Charities of Central Texas and Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid also provide free and low-cost legal aid to immigrant families.


When educators, school leaders and communities pull together for safe educational environments, our children thrive and learn.  Thank you for being safeguards of learning and powerful allies to AISD students and families. We are #AISDProud of all our students, and #AllMeansAll, all the time!


T.A. Brown Elementary School is a Resilient Education Family!

When our district discovered that T.A. Brown Elementary School’s building was not structurally safe, our leaders had to move quickly to ensure that teaching and learning could continue with as little disruption as possible. Reilly Elementary opened their arms and school to T.A. Brown’s Pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten students and staff unreservedly,  and Allan Elementary gladly made space for 1st-5th grades, just like it did for the Palm Elementary community last year. However, change is rarely easy, and big change involving physically moving all the stuff and people away from a beloved building for the rest of the year can cause lots of big feelings!


T.A. Brown students and staff pulled together as a resilient education family to weather the storm of changing locales, and community partners and district resources rushed to help take care of them. Social and Emotional Learning Specialists partnered with elementary counselors from across the district to lead a special lesson on the first day in all the T.A. Brown classes at Reilly and Allan, working with students and teachers to process feelings, share hopes, and reinforce the strong education family ties that keep the T.A. Brown community together through thick and thin.

leadersThis slideshow features photos from the first day of T.A. Brown at Allan and Reilly. Community partners and district employees enthusiastically helped teachers move their classrooms into the new spaces and provided lunch for them. Students and teachers participated in community circles and created paper name chains of support and connection to decorate their new classrooms. School leaders and collaborators greeted students and teachers at the door with balloons and welcoming signs.  We are so #AISDProud of the T.A. Brown resilient community of learners!

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#AISDProud of #AISDPride

Last week (Oct. 10th-14th), Austin ISD celebrated its annual AISD Pride Week, timed to coincide with National Coming Out Day on October 11th. Once again, schools from all over our city showed up to celebrate and honor the LBGTQ+ faculty, staff, students and families that are members of our vibrant education community!

The Akins High School Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA-formerly Gay Straight Alliance) started mass producing ally stickers and buttons for distribution across the entire campus!

Reagan High School teachers and students filled the #AISDPride photobooth in the library.

Consuelo Mendez Middle School students created a pledge committing to help generate a safe, respectful, and welcoming environment for all, and got as many of their peers to sign it as possible–resulting in hundreds of signatures collected and courtyard lunch privileges! 8th Grader Corey collected 74 signatures just by himself.

Cowan Elementary made a welcoming billboard full of love for the school community…


And Patton Elementary had their own bilingual display of love and welcome!

These four schools are just a few glowing examples of how AISD showed our pride!  Twitter blew up with all kinds of celebrations of AISD Pride Week:

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We are #AISDProud of our school district working to serve and celebrate our whole community in all its beautiful diversity…#AllMeansAll!

News! …and the Return of the Blog!

Hello again, Austin ISD SEL fans!  Happy October! We’ve been hard at work on SEL 2.0, with new team members, new opportunities, and a refreshed commitment to helping build a district where truly #ALLMEANSALL!


This summer on June 16th, McCallum High School hosted the first-ever SEL Summer Symposium, with presenters and participants from all over our district and city.  With over 40 break-out sessions and a dedicated leadership strand, 325 members of our AISD community learned and shared together about the most cutting-edge topics in Social and Emotional Learning.  Sessions topics ranged from “Frank Lloyd Wright and Restorative Classroom Management” to “The Neuroscience of Mindfulness;” “Color Blind or Color Brave?” to “SEL in Children’s Literature.” The sheer number of folks who showed up for the inaugural SEL Summer Symposium demonstrates how deeply Austin ISD educators believe in Social and Emotional Learning.

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(Photos by Eli Roberts)

Another significant first for the SEL Team was presenting at the Leadership Institute for about 400 administrators before school started.  With the focus on the overarching SEL theme “All Means All,” SEL Specialists presented a workshop on creating trauma-sensitive schools. The level of commitment from district leadership for Social and Emotional Learning work is the highest it has ever been!



(L-R) James, Angela, Lynne and Darla presented at the Leadership Institute.

In fact, SEL was the topic of the 10/7 “News from Dr. Cruz.”  Our superintendent had this to say about SEL 2.0:

Resiliency, positivity, grit and determination—these are just some of the skills that are foundational to Social and Emotional Learning. Now that AISD has implemented SEL at all of our schools, we’re moving on to SEL 2.0. This next iteration includes new practices that are integral to ensuring student success.

Mindfulness activities like breathing exercises help kids focus. Restorative practices counter old discipline techniques that don’t work and replace them with a relationship-based approach. Moreover, trauma-informed care is helping staff support students who are suffering from intense negative experiences.

Students need to learn about the five SEL competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationships skills and responsible decision making. They have been described as soft skills, but I see them as essential skills.

Transitioning from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset is a major tenant of SEL 2.0 and one we need to embrace. A fixed mindset is the approach that individuals have “fixed” skills—that their capabilities are limited and finite. A growth mindset takes into account that the brain is constantly evolving, and that individuals can develop all kinds of new talents. This approach helps us reframe a student’s potential.

I’m proud of the positive, resilient people on our team who are preparing our students to excel. Thank you for the amazing work you’re doing now and for your exceptional commitment to our students.

Finally, our team is happy to welcome our new members, each of whom bring their unique experiences and gifts to support Social and Emotional Learning all over our district:


Theresa Garcia


Elena Rodriguez


Alonzo Blankenship II


Emily Hoaldridge-Dopkins


James Butler

Stay tuned…our blog is BACK!  See you soon with more Austin ISD SEL news!