Graduate Interviews – Mindfulness in a Continuation High School

As a Clinical Social Worker in Los Angeles schools with a 40-year personal mindfulness practice, Helen knew that the students in the continuation high school she worked at would benefit from learning mindfulness. Luckily for Helen, the principal had already been introduced to the concept of mindfulness through a class offered through her Catholic church. So the principal agreed that the school could benefit from learning some techniques in focus, attention and especially stress-reduction for both students and teachers.

With the principal’s support, Helen spoke with one of the teachers at the school who felt like he needed all the support he could get in his classroom. The teacher agreed to have Helen teach a short mindfulness program in his class.

While she was a long time mindfulness practitioner, Helen wanted guidance on how to teach mindfulness and use a pre-established curriculum before going into the classroom.

After taking the in-person Mindful Schools Curriculum Training course, Helen was excited to start teaching mindfulness right away.
“For young people who’ve experienced trauma and disruption, I understand that

quieting their minds and bodies can be
a really uncomfortable experience.”

Sensitive to the teacher’s time constraints, Helen chose to stick with the light structure that Mindful Schools suggests: 15-minute lessons twice a week over 8 weeks.

The school’s demographic was mostly African American and Latino males from low-income backgrounds—some freshly out of imprisonment due to gang-related offenses. “My students did not have a reference for mindfulness,” Helen shared when speaking about how the program was initially received. “So when I first came in, there was a lot of rolling eyes and heads on the desks. I’ve seen Room to Breathe and there was a similar sort of lack of respect in the beginning.”

“The first 4 weeks, there was a real sort of discomfort with it. These are kids who have had a lot of disruption, violence and suffering in their lives. For young people who’ve experienced trauma and disruption, I understand that quieting their minds and bodies can be a really uncomfortable experience.”
However, after the 6-week mark, when the curriculum starts to delve into mindfulness of emotions, Helen noticed a shift in the room. “There seemed to be a progress of really moving towards that space where everyone was connected to the practice.”Helen’s trust in mindfulness (drawn from her own experience) allowed her to be patient with the students who continued to struggle. She accepted that some students just might not respond to mindfulness right away, or perhaps it would just take them some time to unlearn old thought patterns and habits.To Helen’s delight, she noticed mindfulness resonating powerfully with some of her students. “There was one young man who was 16 years old and a football player. At first, he just wasn’t going to have it. He kept getting up out of his chair and being disruptive. The teacher told him, ‘If this is uncomfortable to you, you can go into another room.’ Because it was ultimately the teacher’s room, I let that happen, but I wanted to check in with him personally. Since I am the school therapist, I did a one-on-one session with him. I just wanted to get to know him so he felt comfortable with me. After that, he stayed in the class and participated during the mindfulness lessons and then kept seeing me to talk thereafter. He really opened up to me and the mindfulness practice. He could finally see the benefit and make it real for himself.”

“He could finally see the benefit and make it real for himself.”
The teacher enjoyed the program and saw an emotional shift in his classroom, asking Helen to repeat the program with the same students because he didn’t want to lose the momentum gained. Helen shared, “the teacher is one of the best students in the class! He sits down and participates as a student. He’s getting a lot out of but recognized that he didn’t feel ready to teach it himself until he got more practice.”
“After teaching one full 8-week session and coming back in to teach more, I’ve gotten 100% positive response from the students!” Helen enthusiastically stated in closing. “The principal said that just me being there on campus helped the whole school environment in a positive way.” Helen will continue teaching at this school and hopes to bring the Mindful Schools Curriculum to the other schools she works with.
*In the interest of protecting the identity of her students, Helen is a pseudonym.

Chris McKenna: Reflections on Joining the Mindful Schools Team

Over the past few years, Megan, Randy, Vinny and I have all inquired as individuals into how we can best contribute to the Mindfulness & Education field as it continues its exponential growth around the U.S. and the world. What’s the best way to deploy our time and resources over the coming period? What matters most in the field right now? What is not being done? What lasting effects to we want to have?

All of us have spent a considerable amount of time on the ground, providing direct services to schools, organizations, and institutions. In this process, we’ve found it difficult to focus both on developing a robust direct service program and on meeting the demand for in-depth, comprehensive training from educators and youth service providers.

Recently, we made a choice. We decided that, while we would all keep teaching youth individually, the majority of our attention and resources as an organization should go to training, mentorship and the larger effort to replicate mindfulness programs in geographically diverse environments. The effort to create a completely online version of the Mindful Schools Curriculum Training, as well as the soon-to-be-announced Mindful Schools Certification Program, are early efforts in this realm. There will be many more, including (we hope) publications, online resources and a complete catalogue of trainings that provide a well-rounded, in-depth, real-world sense of how mindfulness can be integrated into one’s work with children & adolescents in a variety of environments.

At its base, mindfulness & education is a fundamentally grassroots movement that is expanding because human beings are realizing (in increasing numbers it seems) that the quality of our attention and our presence is as least as important as the so-called “content” we are trying to teach children. With this intention, we look forward to continuing this journey with all of you.

Sincerely,
Chris McKenna

Why I’m Here: An Open Letter from Vinny Ferraro

I wanted to take this opportunity to let folks know what I’m up to these days. And as I began writing this it was hard to figure out where to begin. So in an attempt to keep this short & interesting, we’ll pick up the saga when I was 20 years old.

A week off of crack, 110 lbs, ready to die, it was 1987. I find myself talking in front of a room of junkies, about my life… and something happened. I’m not sure what to call it, but as I walked out of that room, a thought crossed my mind that maybe I had something to offer, that maybe I could still do something good with this life. This was the first moment I felt value as a human being.

They told me it was called service, so I did groups inside jails and prisons, schools, rehabs, hospice—wherever they would let somebody like me talk to people.

I was a Union Drywall foreman by day, and a volunteer by night. I think my motivation was just to feel human, to feel connected, to listen.

Jump to 1999 and I came into contact with Challenge Day, a phenomenal group of people that were going into schools and blowing the minds of a hundred teenagers every day. I learned so much from them that my debt of gratitude continues to this day.

After 10 years with them, the last 8 as their Training Director, I decided it was time to return to the incarcerated population. I have a personal connection to these folks, not only because I’d spent some time on the inside, but because my father had done a lot of time, so I knew firsthand how deeply that effects everyone involved.

Some friends of mine had started the Mind Body Awareness Project and had been going inside. They hired me as their Training Director, and I loved what we were doing. The courage of incarcerated youth is nothing short of revolutionary. The experiences I had there in the last few years fundamentally changed my view of what I thought was possible.

I have a deep desire to feel like I am making a difference. As I offered what I can, in whatever ways I could, my view began to broaden. As I surveyed the landscape of the various systems in which these offerings were made, it became clear to me that to really have an impact on the system, I’d have to water the roots… Ironically, I was literally taking what I had learned from the youth, and helping the people that actually worked in those systems.

This was a difficult realization, because I love the direct service side of being with the youth. But a lot like leaving Challenge Day I knew the work of the Mind Body Awareness Project would continue and prosper with people in those organizations that are following their own deepest knowing.

As for me, I found my next step. It came in the form of 2 people, my former Executive Director at MBA, Chris McKenna and a dear friend from Mindful Schools, Megan Cowan. Together with the rest of the Mindful Schools team, we share a vision of creating an offering for the guardians of our children: the Teachers, Corrections Officers, Parents, Social Workers, etc., anyone that is in constant contact with youth. We know the toxic levels of stress and burnout can be overwhelming.

We believe mindfulness and social-emotional learning could transform the face of education, incarceration, and what it means to really be with the youth. So with this vision we are helping to expand the training offerings of Mindful Schools to reach adolescents as well as children.

If you’re interested, check us out at http://www.mindfulschools.org

If not, thanks for your time and attention. They are precious gifts and I hope I haven’t wasted them.

In Service,
Vinny Ferraro

The Role of Stillness in Mindfulness

Below is a Q&A with one of our Curriculum Graduates about stillness.

Hi Megan-

I know in the first lesson, stillness is taught to be a trait of a mindful body.
In one of my most recent classes of teaching mindfulness, we really focused on the aspect of stillness during mindful breathing. I could not believe the difference in the room, even with second graders. Have you ever considered creating a lesson specifically around stillness?
The potential really excites me.

Thanks,

Kristin
Michigan

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Dear Kristin,

Stillness is included in the first lesson as one aspect of a “Mindful Body.” The purpose of this is multi-fold.

Scaffolding
The whole curriculum is designed for each lesson to build on the previous and for each skill to be applied in subsequent lessons. The first lesson is critical to this scaffolding. If mindful bodies and the mindful environment are set up well, students can be quickly directed to those qualities each day. The stillness achieved in that first lesson should be encouraged in every lesson.

Still Body, Still Mind?
For most people, a still body affects our mind. This doesn’t mean our minds will automatically get still. Often when we get still and go inward the chaos of our mind can be more pronounced. However, continued stillness allows a settling to occur. This happens because we are not reacting to every impulse and habit in our mind and body. This is a fantastic skill to develop. When we can recognize our physical impulses and decide whether to act on them, we can begin to do the same with our mental impulses. I actually see this most evidently with students who have attention problems!

Team Work
When a room of people are collectively not reacting to every mental and physical impulse, the calm and stillness in the room can be palpable. The gained calm and stillness of the room can further support the calm and stillness in the individual. They may still have an active mind, or even a restless body, but they are simply noticing and “being” with it rather than reacting to it. Pointing out how they are helping each other with their stillness can be helpful.

Kids Are Supposed To Move
Correct! Kids are active animals. They often learn best through engaged learning and movement. Their bodies need to move to expend and release energy. Many schools have cut recess and movement minutes to get more academic time. So it might seem counter-intuitive for us to be training kids in stillness. The truth is kids are not being still in the classroom or on the playground. So, they’re not getting enough play time, AND they’re not learning how to self-regulate and have composure when it’s appropriate. The stillness in mindfulness for K5 is in very short increments. The purpose is to support focus, self-awareness, and impulse control. When young people (or us adults for that matter) deliberately sit in stillness and don’t respond to every urge to move, they are actually building a critical skill: bodily regulation, and choice around when to act and when not to.

Keep Trying
Even if the class becomes quite still on day-one or subsequent days, they will likely need regular reminders or encouragement about stillness and its value. Sometimes they don’t even know they are moving. Games are good for this. “Please put your mindful bodies on… and take them off… and put them on,” etc. Often I will say, “Please notice if your toes are moving, or your fingers, or your leg.” Suddenly, all those small, restless movements stop… they just brought their attention to their body, noticed it was moving, and then either naturally stopped or made the choice to stop. As the teacher, you can always take your time establishing the guidelines before moving on to more lessons. If stillness was hard one day, you can either simply point it out (“wow, you all had a lot of energy today and stillness was hard”), and move on, or happily start over and try again.

Don’t be too Rigid
Keep in mind, stillness and all other instructions are just tools. Mindfulness is available whether we are moving, still, talking, eyes open, eyes closed, etc. If you have some movers and shakers, sometimes you can just let it be (as long as they are not disrupting the whole class). And then be mindful of that ☺.

Seeing and Being Seen

Here is one of the many insightful anecdotes we receive from our teachers:

“Carlos could not sit still. When teaching mindfulness in his classroom, I’d get his attention for one moment and then literally within seconds he was turning around to talk to the person behind him. This happened continuously. I work with up to 300 kids at a school in a day. By this point, I’ve realized there’s no way I’m going to remember all of the students’ names. Yet somehow, I always seem to learn the names of the “challenging” students like Carlos right away. “Carlos, please don’t …..”. You get the picture.

Children long for attention, even if it’s “negative attention”. The Mindful Schools staff helped me become aware that “being seen” was what was at play, so why not give him attention when he was being “good” or for simply being Carlos. The next day as I walked into his class, instead of walking to the middle of the room and giving the mindfulness instructions like I always did, I first walked up to Carlos. I looked him straight in the eyes and with a big smile on my face I quietly said to him, “It’s so good to see you Carlos!” With rapt attention his eyes were on me and for the remainder of the class. I did this each day I came to his class, and Carlos became my most attentive student. I saw Carlos and Carlos felt seen.

On my last day at that same school, when I arrived at one of the other classrooms, I noticed that Christopher’s chair was upside down on his desk and he wasn’t there. Christopher was another “challenging student”, and I quickly found out that he’d been sent to “detention” during school that day. Since this was my last day at the school, I wanted to have some closure with him. As I was passing through the hallway during the break, there he was in the office. It was obvious he was going through a hard time. I walked in the office and said, “Christopher, I’ve been looking all over for you.” His response was, “You have? Why?” ” I wanted to say good bye to you, today is my last day.” For 20 minutes I talked to him about what I did in his class, he couldn’t take his eyes off of me. When I got up to leave and went to my next class, there he was quietly following me like a sweet puppy dog. I saw Christopher, Christopher felt seen.

Mindfulness is about being present. When I am caught in expectations of how I want children to behave, it is difficult to be present and to stay with my highest intention and with what is actually going on in the moment. This can easily lead to frustration. Nothing works or feels right when I teach out of a frustrated state of mind. Mindfulness gives me the space to not take the situation personally and to see what is actually taking place and what is needed in that moment, instead of being frustrated and reactive. By being mindful myself as a teacher, I find students learn best; by example.

Michael Katz
Storyteller
http://www.storytellermichael.com

Using Mindfulness to Change Habits

These days we frequently see wonderful and inspiring quotes, like:

“Holding a grudge is letting someone live rent-free in your head.”

“One day your life will flash before your eyes. Make sure it’s worth watching.”

For a few moments, we enjoy the wisdom, but soon we are naturally whisked back to our busy lives… and often enough, the next time we should have applied the wisdom, we find ourselves in old reactionary patterns. And it’s not just us — children in school face a similar challenge of trying to apply what they’ve been told in the heat of the moment.

So how do we take wise quotes and actually begin to incorporate their wisdom into our lives, since they always seem to be easier said than done? Fundamentally, it’s a question of how we change habits. And we all know how hard that can be!

Fortunately, mindfulness is a perfect tool to help us change habits. Each time we practice mindfulness, we improve our ability to notice what is going on in our thoughts, our emotions, and our senses. We don’t need to start by changing anything — we simply need to notice what we are doing.

As we begin trying to change a habit, we may find that it takes hours or even days to realize that we were acting, speaking, or thinking in a way we would prefer to change. Gradually, we’ll find that the time between the incidents and our recognition of them reduces. Eventually, that time becomes so small that we catch ourselves just after the incident. The habit still hasn’t changed, but from there, we will soon find that we can actually catch ourselves before we act, speak, or think in an unwholesome way.

We may find that we are able to change the habit in certain circumstances, but not in others. That too will change — over time, we can continue to be mindful even in more stressful situations.

It’s important to realize that it’s a gradual process, which helps us to be patient and realistic. But what you will find is that as your mindfulness practice strengthens, changing habits becomes easier. The more time you spend building up your capacity for mindfulness, the easier it will be to apply it when you need it most.

Mindful Eating

Life continually presents us with opportunities to apply mindfulness to our many activities. One particularly fun activity to apply mindfulness to is eating. It’s something you can easily try by yourself at your next meal, and even with friends or family. If you have kids, it’s a great one to try with them.

One way to think of mindful eating is to imagine that you are a scientist examining your food for the first time. Give your full attention to the whole experience, from observing the appearance and presentation of food to eating it carefully to fully experience its various flavors. If you do this, you may find that a common meal becomes a richer experience.

Here’s how to try the exercise. You can use a raisin, a piece of chocolate, or even an entire meal as your object for mindful eating.

  • Start by looking at what you are planning to eat. What do you notice visually?
  • Now, smell the food carefully.  What do you notice?
  • If applicable, do you notice any sounds?  If you’re eating something like a raisin, try holding it close to your ear as you squeeze it gently. Or if you’re unwrapping a chocolate, listen to the crinkles of the wrapper as you unfold it.
  • What do you feel with your fingers? Is the food warm or cold? Is it smooth, rough, or sticky?
  • Now, put the piece of food on your tongue, but don’t chew on it yet. Just leave it on your tongue and notice how it feels in your mouth. Do you taste anything yet? What activity do you notice in your mouth?
  • Start chewing it, very slowly, just one bite at a time. Notice how the tastes change as you chew.
  • Try to notice when you swallow, and see how far you can feel the food into your body.

The beautiful thing is that by applying this idea of eating mindfully, you can learn to be more present while you eat. In this way, we become more aware of our reactions to food and eating, as well as our habits around meal time. Also, eating mindfully doesn’t have to mean eating slowly. As you know what to pay attention to, you can eat at any speed.

You may end up enjoying food that you like even more while becoming more tolerant of food that you may not like as much. In some cases, you may learn to appreciate flavors you previously discounted. In other cases, you might identify new flavors that you enjoy. And, you may also find that by adding a little more space between stimulus and response, you can decrease the emotional intensity of eating food you dislike.

Mindfulness is More Than Just Breathing

It’s easy to mistake mindfulness for breathing; often we attempt to remain focused on the breath for extended periods; instructors are continually redirecting us to our breath; in short instructions it is suggested to simply stay with your breathing; breathing often makes us feel calm. At first glance we might say, “mindfulness is about breathing.”

However, there is much more to mindfulness. Ultimately, we can learn to be mindful of anything we are experiencing – seeing, hearing, walking, eating, emotions, thoughts, etc. The purpose of utilizing our breath is to anchor the mind/attention in order to 1. build concentration and 2. know where our mind is.

Staying focused on any one thing strengthens concentration allowing us to be mindful of all our experience with more clarity and strength of mind. Staying focused on something also lets you know when your mind has wandered. If you are attempting to stay focused on your breath and suddenly you realize you have been thinking for some time, you know you have lost mindfulness. Having one thing to return to creates a good “home-base” or anchor for your attention.

With focus and awareness of where your mind is, you can remain mindful of breathing or you can choose to be mindful of any other experience. Being mindful of your range of experience can reveal underlying thoughts and habits of mind that are negative or don’t serve you. Noticing these thoughts and habits is the first step in changing them. Therefore, it’s important to expand your mindfulness beyond your breathing. Try listening to our guided audio instructions to start learning how to do this.

Why Mindfulness is Worth Practicing

Mindfulness is a skill that requires cultivation, in the same way that academics, our vocation, sports, or music do. Because mindfulness involves the mind, most people tend not to think of it in these terms. But in reality, there are a number of useful parallels we can make, particularly to our hobbies. Understanding these parallels can motivate us to improve our mindfulness skills, as well as to explain mindfulness to people in our lives who are curious about it.

1. Learning a new skill is a mix of theory and practice. Developing a new skill starts with someone explaining the basics of it to us — how to move our fingers to play the piano, or how to swing a tennis racket. But of course, just knowing the theory isn’t enough — we also have to practice by doing exercises. Mindfulness is the same way. Our in-class program provides exercises for children, and our training courses provide exercises for adults. By repeating these exercises, Mindful Schools helps children and adults cultivate the skill of mindfulness.

2. Every day is different. In whatever we do, we have good days and bad days. Some days at work, our mind just isn’t as sharp as others. If we play the piano, our fingers just may not move the way we want, or our timing may be off when we play our favorite sport. Other days everything comes very easily. We have all experienced these ups and downs, which are part of life. We need to accept them without holding onto ideal versions of ourselves from our best days. Again, mindfulness is the same way. Depending on what’s going on in our life, our mind may be more distracted on some days, and clearer on others.

3. Practice brings improvement over time. Even though we have ups and downs, as we practice a skill over time, we’ll find that our down days aren’t as bad. For example, a “bad day” for someone who’s been playing tennis for a week will be quite different from a “bad day” for someone who’s been playing tennis for years. In fact, the beginner will probably look at the more experienced player’s bad day and wish for that on any day! The benefits of mindfulness are not as externally obvious, but the same trends apply. As we develop our mindfulness, we can increase the space between stimulus and our reactions, giving us the ability to respond skillfully and to access peace more easily, and often. (A diagram explaining this is on our web site.)

4. As our skill level increases, we can recover more easily after breaks. When we are beginning to learn something, every day of practice matters a great deal, and we tend to forget quickly. But as we gain experience, our skill becomes more robust and we are able to bring our level up more quickly even after a long break. Someone who played music rigorously as a child can channel that experience even decades later. A similar example from the realm of mindfulness is the ability to concentrate mindfully for longer periods of time, or to apply mindfulness more readily in challenging real-world situations. It’s worth practicing more when we can, because we will be able to recover our skill more easily when the inevitable lapses in practice time come our way.

5. Improvement takes effort. In our first attempt, we wouldn’t expect to play the piano like a concert pianist, nor to play tennis like a seasoned pro. This is so obvious to us that we spend many hours each week, often for years, to increase our skill level at our hobbies. What if we took the same approach to developing our mental strength, setting aside similar lengths of time to practice and cultivate mindfulness? We would be far better equipped to handle stress, to increase our own well bring, and to improve our resilience by growing our sense of gratitude. Clearly, mindfulness is a hobby that worth adding to our list!

Teaching Mindfulness Indirectly and Directly

Here’s a question we’ve heard several times:
The principal at my school would like me to let the other faculty members know
about what I learned at the Mindfulness conference. I remember one of the speakers
saying teachers really shouldn’t be leading students in mindfulness unless they have
a mindfulness practice of their own. Should I discourage teachers from introducing
mindfulness into their classrooms? Could you let me know how I should answer teachers’
questions if they are interested in teaching mindfulness in their classrooms?

Answer:
This is an important, ongoing conversation in the mindfulness in education movement.
Following are some thoughts from Mindful Schools.

A teacher who has a mindfulness practice brings a certain presence with them into the
classroom. They are indirectly teaching students what it’s like to use mindfulness, or to
be mindful in various situations.

If they use their mindfulness in times of stress or difficulty, they are demonstrating
healthy, skillful responses without even mentioning mindfulness. When they are able
to be fully present with a student or class, the students learn what good listening and
kindness is through observation. When a teacher can remain calm amidst chaos, students
witness that as a possibility for themselves.

Teachers with mindful qualities teach mindfulness through their actions; they might be
less reactive and more patient, they might have gentler or kinder speech, students might
feel more comfortable and safer in their classroom. Mindful qualities can be inherent
in a teacher who has never learned mindfulness, or they can be cultivated through a
mindfulness practice.

When these teachers decide to teach their students mindfulness directly through
mindfulness techniques and lessons, you can be confident that the impact will be positive.

The question that is arising in the mindfulness in education movement is whether
teachers without training in mindfulness can effectively deliver mindfulness lessons to
students.

The biggest concern is probably that mindfulness could be misunderstood, misused or
misrepresented. If a teacher uses mindfulness as a punishment or disciplinary tool, they
have misused mindfulness. If a teacher tells students to use mindful breathing when they
are upset but the teacher him/herself cannot access the same tool, students are getting
conflicting information. Mindfulness invites a certain quality of stillness, acceptance,
and patience. If students’ minds calm down during mindfulness, it would be deeply
unfortunate for a teacher to behave in a contradictory way.

Also, students will often have questions about mindfulness. Only an experienced
practitioner will be able to answer all questions appropriately. This is particularly true as
students get older.

On the other hand, many of the mindfulness instructions are quite simple and could
potentially be incorporated for a couple minutes each day. The key is having teachers
who are at least interested in mindfulness and who are confident that their students
would benefit from the lessons. Inevitably, the more training classroom teachers have
in mindfulness for themselves, the more they will be able to demonstrate its indirect
application throughout the day. Also, the more training classroom teachers have in how
to deliver mindfulness instructions to students, the more likely mindfulness will find its
way into the school day directly.

The good news is that teachers will know right away if mindfulness is proving easy to
implement or whether they need more training.

Mindful Schools requires all teachers who use our curriculum to receive at least 12 hours
of training in mindfulness (through our Mindfulness Fundamentals class or equivalent
experience). We also provide a detailed Curriculum Training. Please see our training page or email info@mindfulschools.org for more information.

Warmly,
Megan and the Mindful Schools Team