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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December Homestretch!

We’re in the homestretch of the first semester!  These next few weeks before winter break are often full of excitement and celebration, but they can also be stressful and anxiety-provoking for all the members within a school community.  Luckily, there are plenty of resources out there to help our students and ourselves stay calm and mindful before the holidays.

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The Devereaux Foundation and its affiliated Devereaux Center for Resilient Children has these 7 Tips for Holiday Resilience, which are aimed at adult seasonal sanity, and also offers these ideas to foster social awareness in classrooms:

Holiday Tradition Quilt: Each student comes from a different culture and has his or her own customs. Use this time to allow students to share their holiday traditions with classmates. This can be done in multiple ways. One way is for each student to be given a square piece of construction paper as their “quilt” piece. On this they will draw or write a brief explanation of a custom or tradition that their family has over the holidays. When all pieces are completed, students can share aloud, if they choose, and discuss differences and similarities among themselves. This gives students a chance to reflect on their attitude towards others’ traditions in relation to their own. Another option is to partner or group students together. Each student will individually discuss one tradition that his or her family has (verbally or on paper). Then partners or groups will create one “quilt” piece together that reflects some combination of both or all traditions. This shows students how to listen to other ideas, and compromise on final solutions.

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Help an Outside Organization: This can be a classroom or whole school effort. The holidays are a time that many people donate extra supplies, or time, to people or organizations in need. Classrooms can discuss why it is important to provide this care to people in need, and how they might feel over the holidays. Some sort of donation effort could be made by the students such as a canned food drive, collecting pet supplies for an animal shelter, or sending holiday cards to a local hospital or nursing home. This will give students a sense of doing good for others during this time.

Random Acts of Kindness Poster: Create a Random Acts of Kindness Poster for your classroom. Explain to students that a random act of kindness refers to a positive action done for them or to them unexpectedly. If students experience a positive interaction with a classmate they can add it to the poster. Younger students can draw a picture and explain it to the class. At the end of each week read over the poster with the class and recognize these positive interactions between students!

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Team-Based Games: When reviewing for a test, or practicing a new skill, turn questions into a game format. Students can be put in teams and instructed to work together in order to come up with an answer to the question or problem. Before beginning the game, explain to students that they will need to cooperate in order to figure out the final answer. You can also add a bonus point for the team that works together best on each question. This will ensure those positive interactions are being recognized as well as the academic content of the game. Award a team winner based on correct answers, as well as the team who has the most points for working effectively as a team. This is a great way for students to experience authentic relationship skill building.

Speaking of team-based games and community-building opportunities, the Digital Activity Center from PeaceFirst is one of the most comprehensive, searchable resources for finding relevant connection experiences for students.  This time of year is perfect to restore and revitalize classroom culture ahead of the academic pressures of the spring semester.

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Finally, amazing educators from around Austin ISD share their advice and encouragement for these December weeks:

“Every year, at this time of year, when my students come in for class they are relieved to come into a consistent routine.  They know exactly what is expected of them and what they need to accomplish via their agenda and objectives for the day, and the routine remains the same, as do the expectations.  And while I might supplement a lesson with a sponge activity (regarding the season,) we mostly remain on track.” –Middle School Choir Director

“This is the time of year where I go through old notes students have written me to remind me why I do what I do. What we need to remember is that these students who give us a “run for our money” during the year are the students who, on the last day of school, are always the ones that surprise us with their appreciation. This can rejuvenate our passion as educators to keep on fighting the good fight.”–Middle School Assistant Principal

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“Introduce something completely new and utterly engaging. For example, this week, we are doing a modified version of Dungeons and Dragons to illustrate the way the Battle of Yorktown could have turned out.  Hey, I know I am going to have fun with it! And, when I have fun, my students tend to have fun!”–Learning Support Services Teacher

“1. Be kind, patient, and welcoming to other students and staff. EVERYBODY is stressed and people will GREATLY appreciate your calm demeanor and positive vibes.

2. SMILE as much as you can. Remember the reason you’re at work everyday, and keep that in mind when things get frustrating, complicating, and stressful.

3. Love your kiddos! Ask them about their holidays (or to be extra sensitive, ask how their break was or what they’re planning to do during their break!) They’ll love you for asking, and they’ll love to share. If this doesn’t work or apply to your situation, remind them of how much YOU love them and care about them. That’ll generate some warm, fuzzy feelings in their hearts.

4. Teach what you can in the best way that you can. The holidays are approaching and it is inevitable that students know and feel it (whether they want to or not). Do the best you can, trust me, they will appreciate you for it!” –High School Social Studies Teacher

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Here’s a post from October with even more resources for staying calm and connected, as that is a similar time of transition and stress.  And if all else fails, stay with your breath! You are doing a great job!

Happy December!

 

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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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.

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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!)

Dawson Elementary Super Science Spectacular Day: SEL Integration At Its Finest

One of the highest goals of Social and Emotional Learning is to integrate concepts and behavior practice into regular classroom curriculum.  Thus, when two SEL specialists were invited to present at Dawson Elementary’s Super Science Spectacular Day, we jumped for joy!  We immediately drew a huge brain…

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…and made a bunch of fuzzy amygdala models…

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…and prepared to present the science of calming strategies to first and second graders.  The goal was to have each student learn about the amygdala and its role in generating big feelings, and to learn how the frontal lobe manages the feelings from the amygdala and helps us make good choices when we are calm.  We talked about how sometimes feelings are so big that the amygdala takes over and the frontal lobe can’t help us think!  The students learned how to use their hand to create a model of the frontal lobe and the amygdala, and show how we “flip our lid” when the amygdala takes over and the frontal lobe is disengaged.

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Hand-Brain Model step 1

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Hand-Brain Model step 2

We then discussed calming-down strategies that re-engage the frontal lobe so that we can make good behavior choices even when our feelings are big.  Each student then created a take-home personal portable peace box. The boxes included items to help re-engage the frontal lobe by activating the five senses, like a maze for quiet focus, pipe cleaners for fiddling, a pencil to write or draw, a mandala for coloring, some cards showing calm-down strategies, and of course a cuddly amygdala model!  Students were encouraged to add their own personal calming objects at home.  Check out the science-y, SEL-y fun we had!

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Adding items to the peace box

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Choosing calming strategy reminders

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Practicing deep breathing

Self-Care for a Stress-Free April!

Exercise more, eat healthy snacks, get a good night’s sleep… We hear these mantras daily in the media suggesting the newest remedy to combat stress. Campuses are also coming up with creative ways to relieve stress.

Find out below what is working in our Austin schools as well as quick mood enhancers that are proven easy and effective. Travis Heights classroom climate - student snack sign up classroom community building and self-care

At Travis Heights, students sign up for healthy snacks to share with the class. 

How to promote self-care if you have 2 minutes:
  • Let someone know you’re thinking of them
  • Give kudos to someone
  • Send some possible dates to get together with someone
  • Smile
  • Stretch
  • Take a few deep breaths
  • Thank someone

Oak Springs April Fool Skit

Nothing beats a laugh to start off your day! The PALS at Oak Springs showcased their comedic talents at their morning seminar to alleviate some testing anxiety and take advantage of April Fools’ Day.

How to promote self-care if you have 5 minutes:
  • Send people in your life a brief personal update
  • Write a thank you card
  • Reflect on what you need relationally in your life right now, and can ask for
  • Respond to an email that’s been nagging you
  • Sit quietly
  • Have a brief conversation with someone you don’t normally interact with
  • Take a short walk

Travis Heights culture - lunch bunch movie watch

In another class at Travis Heights, students enjoy a movie during their lunch bunch. 

How to promote self-care if you have 30 minutes:
  • Play a game with a child or adult
  • Cook with someone
  • Go for a walk with a friend or family member
  • Eat lunch with a colleague
  • Have a “walking meeting” with someone rather than sitting in the office
  • Rearrange or spruce up your work area

Lee STARR Secrets

Lee Elementary students shared their testing tips by writing acrostic poems with their names
How to promote self-care ideas at school:
  • Start faculty, grade level, and department meetings with shout outs
  • Acknowledge the challenges we face, and how colleagues are overcoming them successfully
  • Acknowledge the hard work of our colleagues
  • Ask staff what would lower their stress levels and help them take care of themselves, then do that
  • Make sure all students and staff know how and when they will take breaks and eat during testing days and during any abnormal schedules
  • Hire a substitute for a day to give each teacher a short (~10 minute) break, and let them know in advance so they can plan for something productive for students to do while they are gone (maybe during a test)
  • Bring your own family members/loved ones to work functions and encourage others to do the same
  • Make sure school schedules, expectations, and procedures are crystal clear for staff and students
  • Have a regular, structured communication strategy (some combination of brief faculty meetings and staff bulletins)
  • Bring healthy snacks to school to give to staff with a message of appreciation for their hard work

STARR Secret Poem

Ben’s tip for the N in his name is an important reminder to us all!