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:

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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!

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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!

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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 Scholastic.com, and The Guardian teacher network offers some more detailed ideas to help with teacher work-life balance.

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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…

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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: www.calm.com

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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!

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Success, Failure, and Growth Mindset

We all want to be successful, right?  With the new school year right around the corner, success and failure may be starting to weigh on the minds of students, parents and teachers.  Society tends to tell us that failure is bad and success is good. But there is a critical difference between success and failure: success may have been achieved by any number of factors, both intrensic and external, while failure usually has a more narrow range of causes. This allows us to more easily identify the reason why we failed, and therefore be able to improve on it. According to Drs. Art Markman and Bob Duke of the KUT spot Two Guys on Your Head,  “By focusing people on the idea that mistakes are a bad thing, we’re actually focusing people away from the very piece of information that is going to help them succeed in the future.”

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Click here to hear the whole KUT spot!

“The role of society, the role of teachers, is to create an environment that gives us some scaffolding, that gives us training wheels, in order to allow us to do that set of things that’s currently just beyond our reach.  So that we fail in the process of doing that, but so that we don’t fail spectacularly.” The process of learning is often fail – improve – stretch – grow – succeed!  According to the Two Guys, our brains are wired such that failure is a key aspect of eventual success.  Yes, failure often results in negative feelings, and success often results in positive feelings.  Our reward-seeking brains naturally want the good feelings that come from success.  But the feelings that arise from failure aren’t designed to deter us from trying anything at all…they are “learning tools,” designed to inspire the desire to improve, so that we do eventually experience the positive rewards of success.  The biggest mistake, therefore, is not trying in the first place.  We are wired to learn and grow our whole lives!

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In Social and Emotional Learning, we talk a lot about growth mindset–the idea that our brains remain plastic our entire lives, and with practice and work, we can learn new skills and get smarter no matter how old we are. The Two Guys are talking about failure in terms of growth mindset–instead of seeing failure as a signal to give up, failure is the impetus to keep working toward our desired outcome.  Let’s start this school year off committed to nurturing our growth mindset during teaching and learning–our brains, ourselves, and the world will be better for it!

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And the First SEL-ie Award Goes To…

Social and Emotional Learning isn’t just gaining credibility and attention in the national education scene; with new compelling data and new, engaging ways to share it, SEL is popping up more and more in pop culture.  Inside Out, Pixar’s latest movie, is a delightful example of this national and global trend.

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Based in real neuroscience, Inside Out explores the evolving emotions of Riley, an 11-year-old girl who experiences some challenging life changes.  The story largely plays out inside the “control room” of Riley’s brain, in which her lead emotion, Joy, tries to effectively manage the other guiding emotions of Fear, Anger, Disgust, and Sadness.  With colorful imagery and  a solid scientific background, the film engages the viewer in a deep and intriguing new form of empathy–we are literally in Riley’s head, seeing through her eyes, experiencing her life events with her perspectives and filters.  Inside Out underscores the ways emotions color experiences and shape memories on a personal, sometimes visceral level.  It winds up being a movie experience that invites self-reflection and the exploration of the viewers’ own emotion-tinged memories.

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Pixar/Disney-Pixar via Associated Press

When I went to see it, I was excited by the Social and Emotional Learning aspects it promised to address.  I was surprised and touched by the film’s creativity, authenticity and emotional immediacy.  The over-arching story was simple enough to be relatable, and to allow depth and complexity to emerge organically from the interactions of the emotions in Riley’s brain.  It also left me with some intriguing questions:  What happens to the emotion characters after Riley enters adolescence, that  notorious rollercoaster of neurological pruning and emotional development? Why is the mom’s lead emotion Sadness, and the dad’s lead emotion Anger? Will they ever discover pizza other than the organic broccoli pizza place down the street?  I can’t wait for the sequel!

Lava

I should also mention the traditional Pixar short film that precedes the feature, called Lava.  It is also based in actual science, geology this time, and tells a musical love story between volcanoes(!) that takes place over a few million years. (That’s right, it’s a short that takes place over MILLENIA.) Lava had me first laughing, then sobbing(!), then mentally singing the ukulele ballad for days (DAYS!) afterward.  Luckily, Inside Out even made a quick reference to why songs get stuck in our head, so now I know why I’ve been singing bits of Lava ever since. Turns out there was a recent study using MRI technology that sheds even more light on the “earworm” phenomenon we are all so familiar with, but I digress.

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In conclusion: because Social and Emotional Learning is gaining traction in the pop culture scene, and because Inside Out so beautifully exemplifies this trend, I would like to name Inside Out as the first recipient of the SEL Media Award for Excellence in Bringing Social and Emotional Learning to the Forefront of Popular Consciousness, or SEL-ie Award (for brevity’s sake).  Keep your eyes out and suggestions coming in for future SEL-ie Awards, dear Readers!  Happy emotional exploration!

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!)

Food Affects Your Mood, Dude!

Hey there, SEL fans!  With the beginning of a new year, lots of us consider our eating habits and think about changing them in one way or another.  People usually do this in the name of weight loss or gain, physical health issues, or ethical concerns.  All of those and many more are great reasons to carefully consider the food we put into our bodies.  Another reason gaining more and more scientific traction is this: research shows that the food we eat affects our brain chemistry, and our brain chemistry affects–you guessed it–our social and emotional well-being!

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It’s easy to think of the mind and body as separate entities; after all, being angry feels different than having a headache, and feeling excited about something seems to be a different experience from enjoying a warm shower.  Messages from society reinforce the idea that our social/emotional and physical selves are distinct as well.  The fact is, however, that emotional events and physical sensations are all governed by hormones and other chemicals affecting the brain.  It follows that the foods we eat, and the chemicals released during digestion, have a profound effect on what’s going on in our heads.  Let’s look at how some foods may affect brain chemistry!

[DISCLAIMER: This is not medical advice!  I am not a doctor or nutritionist!  I am interested in this topic, and I have collected information from different sources, serving them up with a side of grains of salt for other interested parties to consume as they see fit!  I hope you enjoy and thanks for reading.]

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BANANAS: Have cartoon monkeys been on to something this whole time?  Bananas can contain up to 10 milligrams of dopamine, an important brain chemical associated with feelings of pleasure and reward.

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BERRIES:  We hear a lot about how berries contain healthy antioxidants, which can help strengthen our immune systems and fight toxins in our bodies. But a particular antioxidant, anthocyanin, is not just an immune-booster–it also can be a mood-lifting stress reducer!  It’s also the purple pigment that produces the rich hues of blackberries, raspberries and blueberries.  Becoming a purple eater may be brain beneficial!

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FISH: Consuming both lean protein and omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to boost mood and reduce feelings of stress.  Fish has both!  Fatty fish like sardines, salmon and anchovies have a high dose of the omega-3 fatty acid DHA, as do flax seeds, avocados, and walnuts.  Since our brains are 60% fat, and omega-3 fatty acids look very much like our brain fat, it makes sense to feed them to our brains! [You’re welcome for that image.]

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WHOLE GRAINS: Complex carbohydrates allow our brains to generate seratonin, another important feel-good brain chemical like dopamine.  No complex carbs, no (well, less) seratonin!  So go get some steel-cut oatmeal, or a whole-grain english muffin, or some quinoa, and get that seratonin pumping good feelings into your brain.

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LEGUMES: Beans, beans, the magical fruit.  The more you eat, the more you….provide your brain with selenium, which can reduce feelings of stress and have a positive mood effect.  Nuts and seeds also have lots of selenium, especially Brazil nuts (those big huge ones in the mixed nuts can).  Legumes also are an excellent source of protein, zinc, and B-vitamins, all of which are good for emotional health and well-being.

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LEAFY GREENS:  Kale yes!  Leafy vegetables like chard, kale, and spinach contain all kinds of beneficial nutrients, and have a high content of B-vitamins, iron, protein and fiber.  Since swings in blood sugar and insulin levels directly affect mood swings, leafy greens (and legumes, and whole grains, and fish) can help regulate sugar absorption, keeping us on a more even keel.  They also contain a lot of magnesium, a mineral which can help lift and stabilize moods.

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EGGS: What a great food is the egg!  Eggs have lots of thiamine, which can help increase well-being and sociability, as well as B-vitamins, iron, and protein.  Worried about cholesterol?  Eggs actually have been shown that they don’t raise cholesterol in the blood significantly, and that their health benefits out-weigh the cholesterol factor in most people.  Don’t like eggs?  Thiamine can be found in whole grains like brown rice and oats, yeast, and cauliflower!

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DARK CHOCOLATE:  Yup, it’s true.  Cocoa polyphenols are found in dark chocolate, and these chemicals have been shown to produce feelings of happy calmness in the brains of human test subjects.  (How do I get to be a chocolate test subject?) Dark chocolate in moderation has even shown promising evidence that it improves brain function!  Let’s have dessert!

In conclusion, one can’t help but notice that the foods we know we’re supposed to be eating for good health anyway–lean proteins, whole grains, fruits and vegetables–are the very foods that studies are now touting as really good for our mental health and well-being.  Not that surprising, really, considering our brains are an organ in our bodies as much as our heart or liver is.  Have fun eating these delicious healthy foods, and know your brain will thank you with awesome feel-good chemistry!  And then you will thank your brain.

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FURTHER READING (and sites that helped out a lot):

US News Health: Food and Mood: 6 Ways Your Diet Affects How You Feel

Healthline: Mood Food: Can What You Eat Affect Your Happiness?

Best Health Magazine: How Food Affects Your Mood

Empathy–I Feel You! (A Learning Cybersift)

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The word gets thrown about often, but what exactly is empathy?  How is it different from sympathy?  Let’s ask the internet!

The Miriam-Webster online dictionary offers these definitions: Empathy – the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions : the ability to share someone else’s feelings. Sympathy – the feeling that you care about and are sorry about someone else’s trouble, grief, misfortune, etc.

Grammarist offers this comparison:

Empathy vs. sympathy

When you understand and feel another’s feelings for yourself, you have empathy. It’s often spoken of as a character attribute that people have to varying degrees. For example, if hearing a tragic news story makes you feel almost as if the story concerns you personally, you have the ability to empathize.

When you sympathize with someone, you have compassion for that person, but you don’t necessarily feel her feelings. For instance, if your feelings toward someone who is experiencing hardship are limited to sympathy, then you might have a sense of regret for that person’s difficulty but are not feeling her feelings as if they’re your own. Meanwhile, sympathy has broader applications that don’t necessarily have to do with one person’s feelings for another. You can sympathize with a cause, for instance, or with a point of view that resonates with you.

The United Kingdom’s RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of the Arts, Manufacture and Commerce!) offers this video illustration of the contrast:

So empathy seems to be about connecting deeply and personally with someone else’s feelings. Sympathy, in contrast, is caring about and feeling sorry that someone else is having a hard time, but not truly connecting with them on a deeper emotional level.  When I have empathy for someone, I am experiencing them as an extension of myself.

We might imagine, then, that empathy is a higher-level brain function reserved for creatures with fancy pre-frontal cortices–we human beings.  After all, having empathy for others sounds like a big part of morality and justice, and humans are the only animals able to process these complex concepts, right?  Not so!  Various studies have shown that apes, monkeys, elephants, and dogs, among other animals, have showed persuasive evidence of empathetic behavior.

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even chickens!

Recently, an interesting study showed that a rat would work hard to free a trapped roommate, even if there were distracting and delicious chocolate chips to be had in another part of the test area!  In fact, even if the free rat sampled a chocolate chip or two before releasing the trapped rat, she would save some chocolate for her buddy.  How’s that for non-human empathy!

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The fact that other animals of different species seem to display empathetic behaviors suggests that there is a deep, ancient biological basis to empathy.  For some reason or another, empathetic behavior contributed to the survival of our species and others. Considering how social we are, this makes some amount of intuitive sense–indeed, all the animals mentioned in this post live in social groups and/or close physical proximity to one another.

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There are many more studies and resources around the internet regarding empathy, and the sheer amount of information available speaks to the important role empathy plays in daily human life.  Austin ISD social and emotional learning involves explicit instruction designed to help students develop their natural empathy, and supports the integration and reinforcement of empathetic behavior throughout the daily routine at school and at home.  We would love to know your favorite empathy resources, from parenting to neuroscience (to the neuroscience of parenting)!  Leave us a comment!

Thanks for reading, SEL fans, and have a spectacular weekend.

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