Oren J. Sofer

The Key to Strengthening Mindfulness

“Simple, but not easy.” As anyone who’s ever practiced mindfulness knows, it’s simple to pay attention and feel our breath for a moment. Strengthening awareness into a more continuous habit is the true challenge.

Yet in this very process of getting lost, and connecting again with our present moment experience, the benefits of mindfulness take root. So if we’re interested in building our inner capacities, it’s essential that we understand how to practice patiently. There is a key to strengthening mindfulness that’s often overlooked: how to create a positive feedback loop in our practice.

When we first begin practicing mindfulness, we may have many expectations of what’s “supposed” to happen. After all, the instructions say to sit quietly and feel our breathing. We assume that this is the proper experience we should have. Yet as anyone who’s tried to follow their breath for more than a few moments knows, our minds have much more in store for us!

Often, it goes something like this. We sit down, settle ourselves, and begin feeling one breath. Within a matter of moments, our attention often gets captured by a thought about something we need to do, a conversation we’ve had, or anything other than simply feeling the breath. One thought leads to another, and the process of associative thinking continues for anywhere from a few seconds to many minutes.

At some point, we remember that we’re meditating. Mindfulness returns and we recognize that we’ve been lost in thought. This is the most important moment of mindfulness practice—and yet it is so easy to miss this moment’s value.

What’s your most common response in that moment of waking up from a daydream? If you’re like most folks, it’s some version of self-judgment, criticism, or frustration. It starts with, “Dang!” (or something slightly less benign…) and is often immediately followed by: “I can’t believe I…” or “I’ll never…” Sound familiar?

These kinds of habitual responses fail to take advantage of what’s just happened: mindfulness returned. In other words, the practice is working!

The first challenge we face here is the idea that we’re not supposed to have thoughts while meditating, much less to become preoccupied by or lost in them. The fact of the matter is that thinking is as natural to the mind as hearing is to our ears. What’s more, it’s normal for the attention to follow our thoughts, because that’s what the mind is used to doing. Mindfulness practice is about observing this process, and creating a new habit of awareness through patient re-application of attention.

A second common challenge is the sense that it’s somehow our fault that we have forgotten to be mindful; that it’s by choice our attention has wandered. Here again, we’re operating from a false assumption: that we have control over our minds. Mindfulness practice reveals how strongly the mind is conditioned by forces other than our own will. So, rather than taking the habit of a wandering mind personally (“it’s my fault”), we come to see it as just that: a habit, an ingrained program. It’s through seeing these habits of mind that we have the opportunity to slowly begin to lay down new programs.

The final, and most tragic pattern here is the belief that by reprimanding, chiding, blaming or punishing ourselves we will somehow improve at being mindful. Nothing could be further from the truth. If you had a cat or a dog, and every time she came home you shouted at her, you can imagine the negative impacts of this behavior. Yet this is precisely what we do to ourselves: we berate ourselves somehow believing that this will help us learn to be present.

Consider what the effect would be if instead you celebrated the moment of returning to the present. In welcoming the attention back, we create a positive feedback loop, where we’re encouraged to return and rest in the present moment.

For in that moment, the work of the practice is accomplished: you’re already back. We can try smiling softly and thinking, “Oh, good. The practice is working.” You may be surprised at how much more enjoyable mindfulness practice becomes, not to mention how much mindfulness starts to strengthen.

Betsy Hanger

Moving from Mindful Educator Essentials to the Year-Long Program

Want more training? If you’ve digested our Mindful Educators Essentials  (formerly Curriculum Training) and want more specific work on both your practice and the conditions for growing mindfulness with youth within your own environment, you may want more coaching from Mindful Schools. Learn about what happens if you take the next step in the video below.  The Year-Long Program is a way to commit to a year of retreats, weekly consultation, and much immediately specific practice advice, tailored to your environment. This vibrant, supportive cohort comes to feel like a community that builds together, with focus on your particular specifics. You’ll come away feeling more confident about building curriculum that reaches every student, and through deep and frequent interactions with the whole cohort, you’ll find a new level of enthusiasm and expertise.

Questions? Ask Christina Costelo: Christina@mindfulschools.org

Betsy Hanger

The Double Rainbow of Restorative Justice and Mindfulness

Christine Klaassen-St. Pierre is enjoying her 27th year as an educator and 13th as a Vice-Principal in a school of seven hundred students in Canada’s Yukon Territory. Her school has been using restorative justice practices for four years; it’s a trilingual program with high First Nation (Native American), New Canadian and French Immersion populations. The indigenous school population is significantly impacted by the residential school system, for which the Canadian Prime Minister officially apologized in 2008. 

Christine Klaassen St. Pierre finishes a joyful snowshoe race on top of a snowy Canadian mountain. It is 9am, the final bell has rung 20 minutes ago and I am cruising the halls, making sure everyone is where they are supposed to be. I see a student out of class. Three years ago, before beginning my own mindfulness practice I would have asked in a scolding tone: Why aren’t you in class?

Now, I find myself being less judgmental and more curious. My new mantra is: Is everything OK?  We have minimal daylight at this time of year and cold temperatures are sending a chill into even the most well resourced, well-heated homes. Adding to that, there are lots of intergenerational effects of residential schools among our First Nations (Native American) population. It is highly possible that everything is not OK. Here is my chance to find out and help. Conversely, if everything is OK and the student is just late or resisting going to class, I can send the message that something is out of the ordinary, we should be in class now, but this time, with a tone of caring. This also aligns with our work in restorative practices where staff aim to create connection instead of separation with our language and tone.

It turns out, he has been asked to go to the office because he swore at and pushed another student. We turn around and head to my office for more privacy. As we walk, I begin to ask questions. What happened? What were you thinking then? How do you feel about it now? Who did your actions impact? What might you do to repair the harm? Before integrating mindfulness and restorative practices, I would have been annoyed at this behavior, relied on some consequence like a time out, and moved on to dealing with the next incident.

Funny, how when a student gets a math problem wrong we sit down beside them and help them see how to get it right. But when a student misbehaves, loses their temper, and lashes out, we punish and often separate them from ourselves and our community. In the restorative approach, when things go sideways with a student’s social emotional learning, we sit down beside them and help them get it right—just like in Math.

So we talked about what went sideways in class.

“He flicked water at me, and I failed to see the spark before the fire. I didn’t take a mindful breath and ended up being physically and verbally violent.”

Who may it have impacted?

“Cory, the rest of the class, the teacher, and my parents when they find out.”

What can we do to clean up the mess?

“I can apologize to Cory and the class, bring my art teacher her favorite banana chocolate chip muffin from the cafeteria, and tell my parents what I can do differently next time.”

My new approach can take more time, but it will pay off in the long run because relationships have been restored and this student now has some tools to deal with his anger the next time he meets up with it.

When his mother and father arrive to talk about the incident, they bring Grandma in too. She was a residential school survivor, so I can appreciate the courage it takes to step back into this institution called School. She really wants to support her grandson in being a successful learner. I notice all of their shoulders relax as they see the circle of chairs in my office, around a small peace table in the middle holding some talking pieces. Restorative practices stem from their traditional First Nations’ justice system. We are not doing a formal restorative conference today, but when I facilitate this type of circle, I am grateful for my personal mindfulness practice. It helps me be present and grounded during a process needing neutrality and equanimity. What a pleasure it has been to experience the double rainbow of social emotional learning that can be had when mindfulness meets restorative practices.

Christine is a Mindful Schools’ Certified Instructor who graduated from the Year-Long Certification Program in 2014. She can be contacted at christine.klaassenstpierre@gov.yk.ca.

Betsy Hanger

Why Do I Need To Take Mindfulness Fundamentals?

The Mindful Schools Year-Long Certification program asks even seasoned meditators to begin by taking our online Mindfulness Fundamentals. This video by Program Director Chris McKenna clarifies how being in the Year-Long program preps you to contribute to our network of mindful educators and practitioners, and deepens your ability to take a leadership role in your own community and the broader mindfulness in education movement. Integrating mindfulness into education needs all kinds of leaders and program developers, and this course gives each Year-Long community member a shared language to begin their deep dive into practice, teaching, and learning.

Betsy Hanger

My Homecoming

Meet Cheen Tan, whose journey from juggling too many demands to finding health and balance in his work and home life led him directly to a mindfulness practice.

I come from a family of teachers: my parents, younger brother and sister-in-law are all teachers. I was the odd one out, spending the last twenty years in the IT industry. When I decided to become a mindfulness teacher, it felt like coming home, returning to my family.

Cheen Tan teaches a group of teens in Singapore.I came to teach mindfulness rather serendipitously, through a chain of events: my father passed away; I was trying to juggle multiple business and personal demands; I was on an emotional roller coaster, with an unending list of things to do. Overwhelmed, within two weeks after my father’s death, I suffered a mental breakdown.

My doctor kept insisting that I learn meditation to cope with the many things on my mind. I finally attended a ten day meditation course, curious about how focussing on my breath could help me manage my stormy thoughts. It turned out to be hard work, as I battled to attain moments of focus. The retreat also offered something unexpected: my arthritic-like food allergies disappeared! I am pain-free now.

A doctor friend explained that my autonomic nervous system (ANS) had been stabilized. The open, safe retreat environment encouraged my immune system to resume its healing functions. As soon as I returned, I offered to teach my immediate family what I’d just learnt, wanting to share this gift that I benefitted from. While my wife picked it up easily, my three children were super-bored from my instructions to sit still and focus on the breath. However, as a caring parent, I was determined that my kids learn this restorative life skill.

I realized I wanted to go deeper and learn how to teach mindfulness to youth. When I searched online for “teaching mindfulness to children,” there was Mindful Schools. I received my Mindful Schools Certified Instructor accreditation in 2015. Besides the science and techniques of mindfulness, I have also gained many practical class management skills to guide the bored and hyperactive kids during instructions. The one-year certification course has also highlighted the need to have empathy for our children during lessons.

Besides my own children, I have been blessed with the opportunity to teach mindfulness to youth across a range of backgrounds, from students at elite schools in Singapore to kids from underserved communities. Branching out beyond my Mindful Schools training, I have conducted several adult classes and corporate seminars. Every time I lead a class, the same feelings of groundedness and contentment swell within me, hinting that I am getting closer and closer to home.

Cheen Tan still works in the IT industry in Singapore, and is certified to teach mindfulness to youth as well. He graduated from our Year-Long Certification Program in 2015. You can read more about his work on his website and  Facebook page.

Betsy Hanger

At Home Where You Stand: Mindfulness in International Schools

Bora Rancic has worked as a teacher and administrator in both international and national schools around the world including in the UK, Barbados, Solomon Islands, Bahrain, Brunei, Thailand and Malawi. He currently works with grades 11 and 12 students and their teachers as the IB Diploma Coordinator at Luanda International School, Angola—an IB World School.

Bora teaches a group of high school studentsIn a recent TED talk called Where is home?, world traveler and author Pico Iyer reminds us that “it is only by stopping movement that we can see where to go, and that movement only has a meaning if we have a home to return to.” As an administrator at Luanda International School in Angola, I observe that many of us—both students and staff—always seem to be on the move. We’re a diverse and dynamic school populated by “global nomads” from fifty-three nations as well as students from Angola, our host nation. Our students have to get used to school friends coming and going with the unresolved grief that this brings. School staff and parents are under pressure as well: the scarcity of hard currency, diminishing job security in an oil-dependent national economy and a labyrinthine visa and work permit system can take their toll.

As an administrator, I wonder how to influence not only my specific context but also our ever more global, interdependent world. How can we learn to track these changes and stay calm? The average human attention span continues to decrease (in a recent study reduced from 26 seconds to 16 seconds) while we continue to have more than 50,000 thoughts a day! School-wide conversations on the tools we need to live well inspire my work in bringing mindfulness to our campus. And I’m not alone—I am supported by colleagues within the school, by the International Baccalaureate’s emphasis on student well-being as well as on academic achievement, and by colleagues in other member schools of the Association of International Schools in Africa (AISA).

The practice and discipline of mindfulness has changed my life. Daily early morning mindfulness practice is an event I look forward to. I am developing resilience, starting to understand that although my life may seem to be a catastrophic story at times, the reality is much more liveable than the story. As mindfulness grows in the school, I feel more hopeful.

Monday to Friday, I start my school day with a one-minute practice with grade 11, one of our focus groups for this year. On Wednesdays, I’m joined by Nicola Warwick, my friend and fellow Year-Long colleague, for Mindful Schools curriculum work during the students’ Wellbeing block. Each lunchtime finds me back for a 10 minute practice with a small group of teachers and grade 11 students who opt in, a great boost for the afternoon ahead. While twenty percent of the faculty has taken the Mindfulness Fundamentals, embedding mindfulness in the school goes slowly. This is a process I’m learning, and being patient with the process IS the curriculum. All I need to do is to make room for it.

In his talk, Pico Iyer concludes that home is not where you sleep but where you stand. Before, I don’t think I would have been able to absorb that idea. Now, though, as an itinerant educator, my mindfulness practice is slowly letting me build a home within.

Bora is currently enrolled in our Year-Long Certification Program. You can reach Bora to ask more about mindfulness at Luanda International School and/or within AISA, at brancic@lisluanda.com, and tweets @borarancic. 

Matthew Brensilver

Mindfulness, Academic Performance & Test Anxiety

Mindfulness benefits people in several notable ways, including decreasing distress, enhancing positive emotions and improving certain attentional skills. Although research in education settings is just beginning, preliminary evidence suggests that mindfulness supports the well-being of youth in several ways.

One of the important questions about the role of mindfulness in schools regards academic performance. An intervention that might enhance emotion regulation and improve academic performance would be highly desirable. Mindfulness has generally not been studied as a method of improving academic performance. Teachers and researchers of mindfulness have primarily been concerned with supporting the socio-emotional well-being of youth. Improved academic performance has not been the central goal of mindfulness interventions.

Nevertheless, there is some reason to think that mindfulness might enhance academic performance indirectly. In 2013, researchers at the University of California Santa Barbara found that mindfulness training reduced mind-wandering, which in turn improved scores on the reading comprehension portion of the Graduate Record Examination (GRE).

More recently, Bellinger and colleagues examined the hypothesis that higher levels of trait mindfulness might be associated with diminished test anxiety, which in turn might improve math performance. Excessive anxiety and negative ruminative thought contributes to poorer test performance. The researchers reasoned that those who are higher in mindfulness might suffer from less test anxiety, thereby allowing them to dedicate their cognitive resources more fully to the math problems rather than being entangled in worry. In two studies—one in the laboratory and the other in the undergraduate classroom—the findings supported this hypothesis. Those higher in mindfulness experienced less anxiety associated with high-pressure math tests, and this in turn was linked with improved performance.

Future studies will need to examine if mindfulness confers academic benefits through rigorous randomized controlled intervention studies. Although the emotional benefits of mindfulness would be enough to justify teaching the practice, strong evidence for academic improvement would significantly impact the ongoing dialogues about integrating mindfulness in schools.

 


Further Reading:

Bellinger, D. B., DeCaro, M. S., & Ralston, P. A. (2015). Mindfulness, anxiety, and high-stakes mathematics performance in the laboratory and classroom. Consciousness and cognition, 37, 123-132. [Link]

Mrazek M. D., Franklin M. S., Phillips D. T., Baird B., Schooler J. W. (2013). Mindfulness training improves working memory capacity and GRE performance while reducing mind wandering. Psychological Science, 24, 776–781. [Link]

Zenner, C., Herrnleben-Kurz, S., & Walach, H. (2014). Mindfulness-based interventions in schools—a systematic review and meta-analysis. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 1-20. [Link]

Betsy Hanger

Trust

Erica Marcus, yoga and mindfulness teacher, painter, blogger and former English teacher in a Washington DC public middle school, currently makes her home in Portland, Maine. This post originated as part of her ongoing series of reflections on her work with youth.

Erica Marcus sits on top of a snowy hill

The room of high school students practicing that day seemed particularly squirrelly. Though most students were silent, one boy gently poked himself in the cheek, two girls repressed giggles as they looked towards one another, and a third flipped over her cell phone and surreptitiously checked her mail. When I called out one of the giggling ladies, she responded, “Well, I couldn’t help it. When I opened my eyes and looked around, everyone was doing something totally insane.” She was right. If you asked me as I walked out of that classroom if mindfulness classes were working, I would probably have sounded discouraged. On that day, I didn’t see anything that suggested the majority of students were interested or engaged in the practice.

Indeed, if I judged my practice by my “bad” days, or even my “bad” months, the same could be said for me. I check the timer incessantly. I fidget and wiggle. Sometimes I even cut my formal sit off short with a desperate need to accomplish something RIGHT NOW. I don’t always want to sit, to pay attention, to put everything aside to make time for it.

But I keep coming back, to my own practice and to the students. I know that I experience my life differently when I make space for sitting with an anchor, whether it be my breath, my body, or the sounds around me. A formal sitting practice creates space around my struggles with myself and the world. It helps me catch the moments I’d otherwise miss and see bad choices before I make them.

I keep coming back to the students because Dina has stayed and participated a number of times during the mindfulness period, even though she often leaves. I keep coming back because Dylan admitted in private that he uses the anchoring practices at night when he has trouble sleeping, even though he needs a reminder to remove his earbuds when we practice in class. I keep coming back because I believe that students are connecting to and using mindfulness in ways that may not be obvious to us.

For me, doing the work of mindfulness requires trust: trust that continuing my practice, even when it’s hard, ultimately provides clarity in my life, and trust that my students will find what they need from the practice I provide, even if it doesn’t always seem that way.

Erica offers mindfulness at schools throughout New England, and is a Certified Instructor from our Year-Long Certification Program. Learn more about her work on her blog

Betsy Hanger

Harnessing the Storm

Meet Debbie Rice, a specialist in autistic education in the Cambrian School District, San Jose, CA. A master teacher, Debbie believes that her students are “talented unique thinkers who can and will contribute to our world and anyone who knows them in positive ways.”

In a funny way, panic attacks saved me and my career.

I have always been an energized person, even driven. But I never really felt like the driver. Until my panic attacks started, I certainly wouldn’t have labeled myself with general anxiety disorder. Always busy, seldom quiet, I pushed through my adult life. That was my normal.

Debbie Rice thumbs up autocorrectedBeing a special ed teacher is infamously demanding which added to my stress levels. I knew special ed teachers left education because of burnout, more than any other sector of educators. As my anxiety became more severe, I was prescribed medications—a lot of them. They helped me find some relief, so I was able to continue teaching but I didn’t want to be dependent on medications.

You may have heard someone say that teachers are “the weather in the class.” My efforts to heal started a wonderful rainstorm of change in my classroom. Experimenting for myself with a hand-held biofeedback device called “Emwaves,” I realized my anxious students with autism could benefit as well.

The tool displays color and light that are associated with students’ physical states. The visual stimulation holds the children’s attention and provides real time information about their ability to self-regulate by soothing themselves. They can see and hear their efforts, noticing how “calm” feels. We learn to communicate about feelings and sensations as I point to the color and light created by their biofeedback. The “Emwaves” become their anchors, enabling them to practice self-awareness. The classroom climate changes as we practice daily.

I was down to only four medications when I began meditating alone on a regular basis, following my breath and my instincts. After hearing an inspiring speech by Megan Cowan, Co-Founder and Program Director of Mindful Schools, I enrolled immediately in Mindfulness Fundamentals and Mindful Educator Essentials.

The prospect of taking the Year-Long Certification Program, with two retreats, terrified me, but I was determined to apply. The program was rich with learning, and slowly, a calmer space grew within me. I learned to sense what hooked me and threw me into anxiety. My anxiety continued to whirl on top of painful beliefs and anxious thoughts, but now, in a bigger “space,” I could sense the edges of my anxiety rather than be completely consumed by it. I could be with the chaos but not react to it. With the help of the teachers, I sat through storms of pain, cultivating the new skill of kindness towards myself.

Debbie Rice group autocorrectedPracticing mindfulness translated slowly, organically into my classroom. I was noticing, responding, and teaching while being taught. Leaving behind my anxious beliefs, holding space for the children, slowing down and letting go—these practices were interwoven. Everything was connected. This year, I was not “crawling to the last day” as I had for so many years before.

Today I am off more medications—down to just one. The support of the Year-Long teaching team and my amazing cohort of peers inspires me to keep sitting day after day. The students and their parents notice how much has changed as well. We are grateful for one another. And I am anything but burnt out.

Debbie graduated from the Year-Long Certification Program in 2015. Read how she introduces mindfulness lessons to the parent community on her class website.

Betsy Hanger

Sanctuary

Brian Cooper is the Assistant Principal at Life Academy for Health and Bioscience in Oakland Unified School District. The school serves a large immigrant population with more than 95% receiving free or reduced lunch.

Sitting on a cushion in my living room, I practice. Some mornings my mind roams free-range, grazing on chance memories and future possibilities. I can’t corral this grazing, aimless mind. Other mornings, my mind feels effortlessly focused. Grounded by gravity, I sense my body vibrantly awaken with a gentle awareness of breath. Regardless of which type of mindfulness experience may arise this morning, I welcome and accept it.

My morning practice is a life buoy—thirty minutes to unify my mind and body for the day’s good battles and to prepare an accessible sanctuary. Soon my two school-age sons will awaken and I want to be ready to greet them kindly before shifting gears to be an assistant principal in East Oakland. Later I’ll return home to my beautiful life-partner who will be waiting for me with expectations and loving companionship. I need to be present and available for all of these experiences.

Brian Cooper stands in a school hallway and allows a student to ring his mindfulness bowl.
(Photo by Rodrigo Sandoval-Perez) 

At school I practice with four classes weekly, two sixth grade and two tenth grade. Some students slip easily into moments of mindfulness and express gratitude for the opportunity. Others make weird noises and giggle. Kids have named that they use the practice to resolve sibling conflict, to keep focus on the soccer field, to help fall asleep. One girl says her mom downloaded a mindfulness audio recording and they listen to it together.

Recently I stood in a room of tenth graders to talk about the practice of mindfulness. “Yes,” I say. “I want you all to graduate from Life Academy prepared for college. I want you to live with dignity and be able to provide for yourself and your loved ones. Maybe these mindful minutes will help with that and also make it easier to show up for math during the last period of the day. I’m here because, based on my personal experience, practicing mindfulness helps with being alive this moment. It helps balance our stress and emotion, helps manage the high expectations placed on us, helps us meet the needs of friends and family.”

The work of social justice in Oakland public schools is challenging. Too many of these children have experienced the social inequities of poverty and the trauma of violence. Their faces and stories keep me working with humility, love and purpose. One beautiful girl didn’t say goodbye to her father before he was removed by customs enforcement, but wrote an exceptional 16-page research paper. A quiet boy was so embarrassed about a bad haircut that I bought him a Raider’s hat. His parents work multiple minimum wage jobs and he doesn’t see them much. Another boy makes me laugh every time we talk, but I know there’s another side to him still grieving for a brother lost to gun violence.

Due in part to my mindfulness practice, I’m able to engage in the work wholly and with equanimity. The movement of mindfulness in education invigorates me, strengthening my belief that within us all, individually and collectively, is the potential to live peaceful, fulfilling and meaningful lives.

Brian is currently in our 2015-2016 Year-Long Certification Program .  PBS News Hour did an excellent feature on Life Academy in 2015.