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:

mindfuldef

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!

Safe-brain

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.

Happy-Brain

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 Calm.com 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!

strongbrain

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.

flyer

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!

20150721_085410

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.

20150721_093806-1

Dr. Darla Castelli

20150721_133128-1

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!

20150721_143300

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.

hasty

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

20150723_092908-1

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!

physical

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.

teacherslink

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.

selcsh

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!

cli2

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.

cli

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!

sciencevet

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.

breathe

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

Calm.com 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.

incredibox

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!)

Brain Break Wednesday: Sing a song!

Music is a great way to mix up the day and help students refocus.  Songs with movements are a double win!

Check out these camp songs that are great for the classroom.

One of my favorite songs is A Roosta Sha. It is simple and involves lots of silly movements.

A Roosta Sha

(Chorus)
A roosta sha, a roosta sha, a roosta sha sha-hey
A roosta sha, a roosta sha, a roosta sha sha-hey

The Chorus is repeated, adding a new action each time until you are doing all the actions at once.

  • Thumbs up
  • Knees Together
  • Elbows Back
  • Chin Up
  • Bottom out
  • Head to the side

*You can always add or subtract motions if you want.

Brain Break Wednesday: Ball Toss

Today’s Brain Break is adapted from a Responsive Classroom greeting idea. We used it as a brain break during our last SEL team meeting!

Ball Toss:

1. Have participants stand or sit in a circle.

2. Take a ball (or if you don’t have one, wad up a scratch piece of paper) and tell students you will say someone’s name and toss him/her the ball.

3.  Ask participants to remember who threw them the ball and who they threw the ball to. Toss the ball around the room until everyone has had a turn.

4. Repeat the toss in the exact same order as the first round and don’t say the person’s name before you throw the ball.

Added challenges and variations!

A. When you toss the ball, say something positive about the person you are throwing it to.

B. Repeat the toss in the same order and add a second ball going in the same order.

C. Repeat the toss going in reverse order (throw it to the last person first).

D. Repeat the toss, but say the person’s name backwards (Say “Xela” instead of “Alex”).

E. Start one ball in the original order and a second ball going around the circumference.

F. Start one ball in the original order and a second ball going in reverse order.

What other variations have you tried?

Brain Break Wednesday: Palming

Palming is a calming exercise that helps you refocus your mind. It is a wonderful technique to teach children as it is something they can easily do at their desks.

Start by rubbing your palms together as fast as you can for at least 15 seconds to build up friction and warmth. Now place your palms on your closed eyes and take a deep breath. Keep your palms on your eyes for as long as you like.  You can use this time to envision a calming place or a goal being achieved.

What do you do to help you stay calm and focus your mind?  When would palming be useful in your day?